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***Chapter One***
Word Count: 6,417

July 2003

"You're such an asshole, Bryce."

'Claire,' he said.

"You are! You're supposed to have them for six weeks. It hasn't been six, not even close."

'She wants to go home!'

"Deal with it. You're the parent. The adult. Figure it out. That's what I have to do when she's with me and wants to do something she can't."

'You want me to force her to be where she doesn't want to be?'

"I want you to figure out some way to make it so she wants to stay. Be a grown up and a father. Not only that but you have help! Use Bryce if you have to."

'I'm not pitting him against his sister, Claire. That's mean.'

"Not in that way! Get him to give you some ideas. They're buddies. She worships him and he knows it. She's three. Of course she misses her house."

'And Bryce at thirteen is so much better?'

Well, of course he wasn't, but Bryce's issues and Betsy's issues were night and day difference. Betsy was a little girl, Bryce was a teenaged boy. "Well, obviously he must be. You're calling me to pick her up not him."

'You're the one who wanted her. I was just fine with only one.'

"Right. I remember perfectly when you and Shaun Hankings were talking about the US Senator's race that you're running in next Election Day. Do you remember? Another child would look good. It would show we have a strong marriage after all of these years. You didn't have any complaints about it until now. So don't give me that shit that I wanted her and you didn't."

He sighed. She knew that sigh well, too. Neither of them had seen things turning out this way. She wasn't even sure when it had happened.

"Shit," she said when someone suddenly ran out onto the road practically in front of her car. She slammed on her brakes.

'Quit swearing at me, Claire. This isn't my fault.'

"Believe it or not that one wasn't directed at you," she said, watching as the guy just stood there. He wasn't looking at her, though. He was looking off to the side of the road where he'd run out from, but she couldn't see what he was looking at.

'Oh, will wonders never cease.'

"Shut up, okay! Believe it or not, I miss them. I'm not telling you to make it work because I don't want them back, but they're yours, too. Giving into her on this will only prove that she can get away with telling us what she wants. That's not right. She's three years old."

'I know.'

"Oh my God," Claire said, watching in disbelief as the guy standing in the middle of the road was holding a gun. He was looking towards the woods, still didn't even seem to pay Claire any attention. He had to have heard her slam her brakes on, too. Certainly he'd see her headlights. There was a dog off to the side of the road, looking as if he was ready to attack.

'Bryce, I have to go,' she said when it was clear the guy was on the verge of shooting the dog. She couldn't sit here and let that happen.

"Claire…" She didn't give him the chance to say anything else. She disconnected the call as she pulled over to the side of the road. She'd been stopped to that point, just hadn't moved out of the way of traffic.

Her cell phone rang as soon as she started to dial the police. Too late anyway, the guy shot at the dog. She heard it yelp in pain even from where she sat. The guy ran off then. She ignored the ringing phone and opened the door, heading in the direction of the dog. Bryce had ignored enough of her calls over the years he'd live through her blowing one of his off.

"It's okay," she whispered as she reached for the dog to see if she could ascertain how badly he was hurt. She should have grabbed her bag from the trunk, but hadn't thought of it. "I just want to look at you."

"Put your hands up," someone from behind her said.

"What?" she asked.

"Put your hands up and get away from him."

She heard the cocking of a gun and swallowed hard. Really? This was how she was going to die? Out here on the road less than a mile from her house after arguing with her ex about whether he was required to keep their kids for the full six weeks he was legally entitled to? Because there was no way she could ever just step aside and let someone essentially assassinate a defenseless dog.

She put her hands up.

"Stand up now. Keep your hands up."

She was so stupid. She'd assumed the guy had run off. Evidently not. She also had to be really freaked out because for a reason she couldn't explain the guy sounded a lot like someone she hadn't seen in years.

She stood then, turning to face the man breathing a little easier when she saw it wasn't the guy she'd seen shoot the dog at all. It was a policeman. So, she wasn't going to die out here. At least not by his gun. It would have been sort of fitting in a twisted bit of irony if it had been John instead of the policeman.

"I didn't hurt him. I was trying to see how badly he was hurt."

"I can do that just fine. Step away from him."

"I'm a veterinarian," she said, glancing at her hand, seeing blood on it. She'd only touched him for a second.

He eyed her suspiciously. "You're a veterinarian?"

He thought she was lying? That was the craziest thing she'd ever heard. Who would say they were a veterinarian who wasn't?

"Yes," she replied cautiously. "He's yours?"

"Yes. I'm his handler. He's my partner," he said, holstering his gun. He must have believed she was a vet then at least. That was a good sign.

"Can I please finish looking at his leg? That seems to be where he was shot and I didn't get a chance to see how bad it was. My hand looks like this just from touching him for a minute if that," she said, holding it out for him to see.

He pulled his radio off his belt, talking into it. She heard him say some codes, which she realized would mean something to whoever he was talking to on the other end. She heard 'officer down' distinctly enough and imagined there'd be more cops here shortly to investigate.

There were no other cars around but hers so she wondered if he'd come out of the wooded area she'd seen the first guy running from. They must have been pursuing him. She wondered what he'd done, but it wasn't any of her business really.

"He only shot once?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied. "The guy you were following went across the street," she said, wondering if he shouldn't be going after the guy.

"He's long gone by now."

"Oh," she said. "Well, my office is just down the road if you want to carry him to my car I could take him back there and look at him."

"I can do that. I have to call in that I'm leaving the scene," he said, regarding her curiously. "If you tell me where you're going I can go back around to get my car and meet you there."

"It's only a mile or so up the road," she said. "Can I put my hands down now?" she asked, feeling ridiculous standing there with them up.

"Yes," he said. "Your practice is all the way out here?"

"It is," she said. She wasn't going to explain herself to him.

"All right," he said.

He moved toward the dog. She watched as he ran his hand along his body from head to toe. Did he think she hadn't been honest about him only getting shot the once? Or was he just reassuring himself? She had no idea, but she felt as if she was intruding on a very personal moment between the man and his partner. She knew people. She knew people who owned animals. There were some who didn't give a shit whether their pet had enough water to survive the day. There were some who spoiled their pets worse than any child. Then there were people like this police officer who clearly had a relationship with his animal that many people would be envious of, animal or not. He picked it up with ease she noticed, but also with a great amount of care. She was glad to see that.

She ran to her car and opened her trunk, grabbing a sheet she had in there for just this reason. She spread it out over her backseat before he set the dog on it.

"If you want to ride back there with him I can bring you to your car when I'm done. It would be helpful if you did actually, to keep pressure on the wound. It didn't seem deep, but you didn't give me much of a chance to really look. I'm going to give him a sedative. I should have before you picked him up I wasn't thinking clearly."

"Yeah, sure, thanks," he said, climbing into the backseat then.

She heard him on his radio again, reporting he was leaving the scene with his partner. Would he get in trouble for doing that? The animal needed medical attention, surely he couldn't be punished for seeing to the well-being of his partner. Could he? She hoped not, but had to assume he knew what he would and wouldn't get in trouble for.

She felt his eyes on her even as she overheard him saying soft words of encouragement to the dog. She couldn't help but smile a little at that. A glance in the rearview mirror told her that he was applying pressure on the leg as she showed him to do. It didn't seem to be bleeding profusely, but she figured it was better to be safe than sorry. She'd never thought about the type of relationship a police officer would have with his K9 partner but she supposed it'd be no different than anyone else who owned a pet.

"This is your office?" he asked when she pulled onto the clearing on her property. She lived off the highway on a private road. The land had been in Bryce's family forever. He hated living here, though, so he hadn't balked at her wanting to stay here. Plus her business was here.

"That's my home," she said, pointing to the gated entryway across the road from her office. "That's my office," she said, steering her car to the building she used as her practice. It was a now defunct farm so there had been plenty of buildings for her to choose from when she decided to start her own practice. Bryce had been supportive of her doing it, so he'd spent an obscene amount of money ensuring she had the state of the art equipment for her animal hospital in the middle of nowhere for most people.

"Oh, I was going to say," he said. The gate leading to their property was Bryce's idea. An animal hospital had medications and stuff in it. He didn't want people breaking into their house thinking they'd find stuff there, too. So a gate had been built. Well, the brick wall-like fence had been there but needed to be repaired in many spots due to age as it had been years since the property had been used. The gate was new. There'd been one there, but it would've cost more to update it to work with the security system than a new one had cost. She hated it, but she supposed tonight knowing there was someone the police had been chasing running around she'd feel safer.

She opened his door for him before going to unlock the building. She flipped the lights on while holding the door open for him.

"I'll get it," she said, seeing him struggle to close the back door of the car.

Obviously thinking about John earlier had her imagining things because she couldn't help but think for a moment, under the reflection of the security light she'd parked under she thought it might be him. Impossible because John would never be a cop. He was probably wanted by the cops. That was assuming he was still alive and not already in prison.

"Thanks," he said. His eyes met hers again and she wasn't sure what he was looking for. Assurance his dog was going to be okay? She hadn't had the chance to examine him thoroughly enough on the road to say for sure, but it seemed as though the shooter didn't have very good aim. She saw no reason why he shouldn't have been shot straight between the eyes.

"Sure. Pick any of the exam rooms," she said, gesturing to that side of the office. "I'll shut the door and be right in."

"Thanks," he said again.

"Sure," she said. Realizing they'd both just repeated themselves. He had to be scared and shocked. What was her excuse?

Not surprisingly her phone was ringing when she got to her car again. She grabbed the phone, answering it. If she didn't Bryce would just call back repeatedly not realizing she was busy.

'Really? You hang up on me and don't answer again? Is this a joke to you?'

"No! I just saw a dog get shot. I'm doing my job!"

'Oh,' he said, sounding genuinely apologetic. Of course, he could sound genuinely anything when he wanted to. She'd learned that too late, though. Like fifteen years too late. 'Are you okay?'

"I'm fine," she said.


"Bryce, I have to go. All right? Just deal with the situation as best you can. Give it another few days and we'll see what happens from there."

'All right,' he said.

"Thank you. You won't regret it. I promise."

'It's not a matter of regretting it.'

"Good night, Bryce."

'Yeah, good night. I hope the dog is all right.'

"Me, too," she said, hanging up the call.

"Sorry," she said, joining them in the exam room.

"It's all right."

"What's his name?" she asked.


"His name. What is it?"

"Oh, sorry. I call him Randy."

"That's not his name?"

"Uh, no. He's pedigreed or whatever it's called. He's got some long name that begins with Dolphus. It was given to him before the precinct got him so we had to go with what we were given there."

"So you call him Randy?"

He shrugged. "It works for us. Dolph comes from Randolph. I don't know if Dolphus does, too, but I wanted something I wasn't going to be struggling over at a stressful moment."

"I can see that," she said.

She grew quiet then, examining Randy. The policeman seemed to be doing the same to her. She tried not to feel uncomfortable, but it was difficult to do.

"What did the guy do?"


"The guy you were chasing?"

"Oh, drug dealer."

"Oh," she said.

"We'll catch up with him again."

"Does he work out here?"

"No, he was meeting one of our narcs at the boat launch."

"Oh," she said. "That's a relief," she said.

He snorted softly at that and she glanced at him sharply at that. He was laughing at her for being relieved drug dealers weren't operating practically on her doorstep? She lived out here for a reason!

Her cell phone rang again and she ignored it. It stopped ringing but about two minutes later started again.

"You can answer it if you need to," he said.

"No, it's fine."

"No, go ahead. I can keep him calm while you take it. You're doing me a favor."

"Okay," she said, sighing when she saw it was Bryce's number. What could he possibly want now? "Just keep applying pressure, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," he said. She had no doubt he'd do exactly that, too. She could tell that he was very concerned about his partner's well-being. She was glad to see that, too.

"Hello," she said, stepping out of the exam room into the back. She'd use the time to get some supplies so it worked out well she supposed.


"Hi, sweetheart. Aren't you about ready for bed?"

'Yes,' she said and she smiled a little at that.

"Well, I'm glad you called me to say good night then. Are you being good for Daddy?"

'Uh huh,' she said.


'I want to go home.'

"I know you do, sweetheart, and you will soon. You have fun with Daddy."

She sniffled and it tore at Claire's heart to hear that.

"Can you put Daddy on the phone, please?"

She returned to the exam room, covering the mouthpiece of her phone with her hand.

"Just another minute. Okay? Sorry."

"Yeah, sure."

She honestly doubted he'd even really noticed she was gone he was just that focused on Randy. Between talking to him and applying the pressure he needed to his leg he was very serious about what he was doing. It was nice to see. Really. As someone who had never had occasion to think about a police officer in this type of situation it made her feel good to know he took the care of Randy to heart.


'That is totally and completely not fair!'

'It's not my fault you're not equipped to handle her. How dare you have her call me when I told you that I was taking care of a dog who's been shot and try to guilt me into coming to get her.'

'And I told you to give it a couple of days. Not twenty minutes. Now I'm working…'

John sat there looking around the exam room, trying very hard not to listen to the conversation. Being the only one in here, though, it was hard not to because it was pretty quiet in here. Even Randy was quiet. She'd given him a sedative in the car before driving here so he imagined that was why he was just lying there. John had his hand on his back, felt his heart beating so he knew he was okay. He was feeling pretty helpless because there just wasn't anything he could really do. Apply pressure. Outstanding. He'd been lucky to this point, he supposed. He'd never had to deal with Randy, or his dog before him, getting hurt like this. He supposed it was how parents felt when their kids got hurt. Randy was the closest John had to that type of relationship to know. It was certainly the first time he'd felt this helpless before.

Was it possible she didn't recognize him? She certainly wasn't acting as if she knew him. He'd recognized her as soon as she turned around and the thought that it could have been her shot instead of Randy had given him pause. Talk about the wrong place at the wrong time.

'Bryce, you help your father with Betsy okay?'

'Thank you. You go to bed soon, too. Yes, I know you're too old to go to bed at the same time as she does. I love you.'

He was going to guess based on the fact she said her house was on the other side of the road and the conversation that he was overhearing that she was divorced. He'd heard she'd gotten married, of course. She'd married a politician John thought he remembered hearing through the grapevine. They'd been married for quite a while, like right out of college a while. He recalled now seeing her picture in the papers a couple of times. They had a couple of kids he thought, a nice-looking family that photographed well for all of his political dealings. He hadn't heard about a divorce, but then he didn't pay much attention to news or politicians.

"I'm so sorry."

"It's all right. You're off the clock."

"I couldn't just leave him out there."

"I appreciate that because carrying him back to my car would've been a pain in the ass."

"Hopefully I can get my work done now. I don't think the bullet is lodged very deep, so hopefully there won't be any permanent damage."


"Do you have to call in where you are or anything?"

"I did when you were shutting the car door."

"Oh, okay. Good. I'd hate to see you getting in trouble because I happened to be there."

"No, we're good. I'll have to file a report later."

"Is he always this calm? I was surprised he let me approach him honestly."

"He's very good and perhaps he sensed you were one of the good guys."

"I saw that guy staring at him like that I thought for sure he was going to kill him."

"I think that was more than he wanted to deal with, killing a police dog doesn't carry a death penalty or anything but it'd be a pretty ridiculous thing to go to jail for."

"And drugs aren't?"

"Harming animals isn't a popular thing in jail for some reason. Who knew prisoners have standards."

"Oh," she said. "Well, I'm glad because I didn't know what to do!"

"You did exactly what you should have done, stayed put."

"I'm going to have to put him under. If you have somewhere to be I could put him in a kennel and get you back to your car."

"I'm not leaving him," he said. No way in hell would he leave him here to wake up not knowing where he was or without a familiar face.

"All right. I just wanted to offer. He's going to be here the night at least."

"I understand."

She was quiet as she worked at removing the bullet, which as she said wasn't lodged very deep. He watched with interest as she gave him the stitches he'd need and wrap his leg. No ring on her finger, he noticed, which went with the tone of the phone call he'd overheard earlier. He could see the lines still there. So a recent thing?

"Kids with their dad?" he asked.

"Uh huh," she said.

He sighed softly. This was fucking crazy as shit. He was talking to her as if he had no clue who she was. He tried not to be insulted she didn't recognize him, but holy shit it hurt a little bit. Wasn't the saying you never forgot your first? Evidently that didn't apply to her.

"So, you don't remember me then, I assume?"

He'd waited until after she was done and was cleaning up.

"Remember you?" she asked, peeling her gloves away and regarding him then. "Am I supposed to? I'm sorry. I'd remember Randy if you brought him in before now, so I don't know how I would. If you contributed to my husband's campaign or something…"

He scoffed at that. "No. We went to high school together…"

"We did?" she asked. She looked at him a lot more intensely now.

"Wow, really? You don't remember?" Was she faking it? He couldn't tell. He supposed it was possible, but holy shit even he remembered having sex with someone on school property. "I realize I was pretty average and everything, but we, uh. Well, you know had a moment together."



"Wow. I'm so sorry. It's been one of those days and a very long time. I haven't seen you since that day of detention."

"Yeah, I know," he said.

He remembered that very well. He'd assumed he'd see her again or at least hear from her. He'd expected. Well, he'd expected her to get all clingy and demand he be her boyfriend and shit. He'd rehearsed his lines on what he'd say to her when she said her thing. Except she hadn't. She hadn't said one word to him after that day. She hadn't walked past his locker. She hadn't called his house. She had done nothing to indicate that what they'd done was anything special to her at all.

It was the oddest thing for him, because he found himself as a day turned into a week … Well, he found himself pissed as hell she'd just blow him off. He didn't call her or anything. He could take a hint. He didn't need to be beat over the head with a stick to get the message she didn't want him.

It'd still hurt, though.

"I didn't even recognize you. You must think I'm a complete idiot because if you hadn't said something I wouldn't have had a clue."

"And you haven't changed a bit."

"I have, too, but thank you for saying so."

"No, you haven't, Claire. I knew it was you as soon as you turned around."

"You're being nice."

"How did you end up out here?" he asked.

"It's my ex's property. It's been in their family going back to the eighteen hundreds. His grandparents were the last to live here, though. It had been vacant for years when we got married. He thought I was crazy for wanting to live here at the beginning with as much work as we had to put into it. It's worth every splinter, bruise, and cut I got though."

"I remember it. Lots of people used to drive onto the road back in high school. There were lots of stories."

"I remember that, too. I never came out here, it wasn't my thing. I remember the stories, though."

"No ghosts keeping you awake nights?"

"Uh no," she said with a soft laugh. "Anyway, we got married and his dad gave it to us. The house is new, but everything else is pretty old. The original house is right behind ours, still standing and everything. I've used it for storage over the years. We keep it up so it's safe to go in there and everything."

"Huh. Do you like it?"


"Even though you're not married anymore?"

"He never liked living here so he didn't fight with me about keeping the house. Besides, it was his idea to build the practice out here."

"Do you actually make a living being this far away from everything else?"

She wasn't an hour's drive from town or anything, but it was a few miles from here to the heart of Shermer.

"I do. There are some farms out this way, too. So I make a lot of house calls."

"Oh, well, then that's good."


"You on the lake?" He wasn't exactly sure where he was in relation to the boat landing. He suspected the lake wasn't far at any rate.

"Yes," she said.


"It has its moments."

"Thank you," he said.

She shrugged. "You're welcome. He'll be fine. I'll give him some antibiotics. We should test for tetanus just to be sure. Otherwise, he'll be fine, John. How old is he?"

"Not quite three."

"He's been with you all along?"

"Since about four months old, yeah. I had one before him who died about, well, three years ago now."

"I'm sorry," she said.


"Did something happen?"

"No, actually. Just old age. Some arthritis. You know, same as people, I guess."

"How did you become a cop?"

He snorted. "Yeah, ironic, right? Me a cop? Turns out," he shrugged. "Chaos and anarchy didn't appeal to me once I graduated. Randy and I, Cooper and I before him. We work the schools a lot. You know, a warm, fuzzy, furry face to put with the phrase 'Just Say No'."

And that worried her for some reason. She didn't say so, but he could see it in her eyes. He mulled over what he'd just said. He hadn't said anything bad or wrong, simply telling her about his job. She'd asked how he'd become a cop. Maybe she hadn't really wanted to know and was just being polite, but he didn't think so.

"Does it work?" she asked finally.

He shrugged. "Sometimes. Thing is because of my past and upbringing. I'm pretty good at my job."

"I bet you are."

"I could have gone elsewhere. They've asked me. They asked me after Cooper died if I wanted to think about moving up the ladder. Better pay and hours would be great, but I like the work."

"That's good. Are the hours that bad?"

"We're the only K9 team in Shermer. So any crime that he's needed for we're called out to. Drug busts and murders don't punch a time clock sadly."

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah. It has its drawbacks."

"I suppose it does."

"Well, listen, I'm going to set him up for the night," she said after a couple of minutes quiet between them. Clearly she didn't know what else to say. He didn't either really.

"I really shouldn't leave him…"

"I know. I have a cot here that I've used for just this reason. Or similar ones anyway. If you give me a few minutes I'll have it set up for you."

"Thanks," he said.

"Sure. I'll be right back."

He watched her leave the room, wondering what the odds were of their paths crossing now. How strange. He'd been in Shermer, she'd been in Shermer. It was a big enough town their paths wouldn't cross and clearly she'd led a charmed enough life she hadn't needed to call SPD to her house for anything.

He opened the door she'd gone through a minute later.

"Claire?" he called.

"Yeah," she replied.

"I can get the cot. You shouldn't have to do that."

"Okay. It's back here. I haven't used it in a while so it's sort of buried under some things."

"Sure," he said, glancing back to Randy who was showing no signs of waking up.

He helped her dig the cot out of the closet. It was actually not a bad cot. He was expecting some cheap thing, but then he should've known better with her.

"Normally, I'd put him in a kennel for the night, but I'll just put some towels down for him next to you. Okay?"

"Yeah, that's fine."

"I'll set some water out for him, but he shouldn't eat right away so I'm not going to put food out for him."

"All right."

Together they carefully carried Randy back to the area she'd set up for them.

"He'll wake up soon," she said, evidently sensing his apprehension at seeing his dog so quiet for this long.

"I know," he said.

"I'll grab you a pillow and a blanket, one for him, too. I don't want him to get cold."

"It's July!"

"And if he gets an infection or something he won't care."

"I suppose," he said.

"I'll be right back."

"Debating about leaving me in here?"

She laughed softly. "Well, no, but I do have to lock you in."

"Yeah, I get that."

"Let me show you where the bathroom is and stuff."

"All right," he said, following her as she showed her where the bathroom was and a kitchen.

"I'm not hungry."

"Well, there's stuff here if you want anything. Help yourself. You weren't expecting to spend hours here tonight."

He reached for her then, touching her cheek. She was so … nervous around him. Why? He almost liked her better before she realized who he was. He leaned in then, kissing her.

He meant for it to be a brief kiss. A show of his gratitude. She'd gone above and beyond. If he were anyone else, cop or no, he wouldn't be sleeping on a cot in her practice tonight. He knew that. She trusted him despite the fact it'd been close to nineteen years since they'd seen one another. He wasn't trying to hit on her or anything.

She kissed him back, though. The urgency behind her response surprised the hell out of him, but he certainly didn't push her away. He wasn't a moron. Maybe despite his thinking he wasn't hitting on her he was. He had no idea. He sure couldn't deny being curious what kissing her now would be like versus then.

He groaned as she touched him, sliding her hands under his shirt and pushing them (and his shirt as a result) up so she could touch his chest. She broke the kiss long enough to slide his shirt the rest of the way off. He had to help lift it over his head and everything so she had to be pretty clued in to the fact he wasn't upset about this turn of events.

He was proud of his body. He worked hard to keep himself in shape. Walking with Randy and Cooper wasn't the extent of his workouts, but rain or shine, summer or winter he walked and ran with them ten miles every day. (Okay, some days during the winter they skipped a time or two. He was human.)

He wasn't a hugely conceited guy, but enough to love how impressed she currently seemed to be with how he felt to touch. Taking his cue from her he worked the buttons on her blouse and then the clasp of her bra. His wasn't the only body that had changed over the years. He loved the feel of her breast in his hand as he cupped her.

He loved the sounds she made as he touched her. He hadn't had long with her that day at school. Long enough, but not as long as he would've liked. He'd felt kind of guilty afterward, which was what he initially attributed his feelings to. Then, well, then pride reared its ugly head and made him wonder if he hadn't done it for her. He'd gotten her off, at least he thought he had. Women faked those things, he knew, but he hadn't thought she had. Her not talking to him after that day, though, made him wonder if she hadn't had as good of a time as he had.

She worked his trousers open and it was his turn to make some sounds betraying his arousal as she reached to touch him. She certainly was better at that now, not that he'd left that closet complaining in the least. He'd just had to do a lot of … showing. Not the case today. She knew exactly what she wanted apparently and how to get it.

She stopped touching his hard-on for a minute and he groaned in protest until he realized she was working the zipper of her skirt. He reached between her legs then as she returned her attention to him. His finger slid inside of her easily she was so wet for him.

Shifting them so her back was against the wall behind her he lifted her so she could wrap her legs around him, allowing him to slide his length inside of her. She didn't show any sign she wanted to stop kissing him. He was fine with that as he thrust inside of her with her arching into him as best she could. The sound she made when he pressed his hard-on as far inside of her as he could just about brought him off by itself.

"Do I need to pull out?" he asked after she'd finished and he knew he wasn't going to be too much longer in getting to that point either.

"God, no," she whispered. "Don't you dare."

He chuckled softly, but did as she said and stayed inside of her long after he'd come.

Still they kissed, her hands continued their exploration of his chest and shoulders. Lower along his stomach, too, and along his arms. He pulled out of her after a bit, drawing away and making sure she had her feet under her before letting go of her.

What the fuck was he even supposed to say after that? He hadn't kissed her for that to happen. He hadn't even known she'd want for that to happen.

She followed him back to the cot she'd set up for him after she grabbed her skirt and he grabbed his shirt. He was more than surprised when she sat on the cot, drawing him to her. Her hands got busy exploring again around parts that told him very clearly she maybe wasn't done yet. He was just fine with that thought process. He worked her blouse and bra over her shoulders and off as she worked his trousers lower. He had to sit to take his work boots off, removing the trousers afterward.

"I love double headers," he whispered as he moved on top of her. He wasn't ready to go again right this second, but something told him with her naked under him it wouldn't take him long to be there again. Especially with the way she was touching him.

She laughed softly. "I think I just might, too."


"Uh huh," she said.

He moved down a bit so he could focus his attention on her breasts for a while. They'd been nice in high school. He thought they were pretty fucking fantastic now, though, and he hoped he let her know that by his very thorough exploration of every inch of both of them with his mouth and tongue. He absolutely loved the noises she made when he focused on her nipples.

He reached between her legs, dipping a fingertip inside of her and groaning softly at the feel of her wet from him having been inside of her. He circled her nub with the fingertip, more than ready to go now but he wanted to bring her off this way.

The cot was by no means big enough for both of them, but they moved so she was on top of him once they'd finished.

"Sorry," he whispered after a little while, knowing he was dozing off. She, on the other hand, didn't seem tired. She was tracing indiscernible patterns along his chest with her fingers. Fingers he noticed watching her work on Randy were topped off with nails painted very nicely in a bright red that seemed to match her lipstick.

"For what?"

"Falling asleep. Not talking much. Take your pick. It's been a long day."

"And you're worried about Randy. It's fine, John."

"Thanks," he murmured.

He thought he heard her laugh at him, but he was too far gone to care or be upset about it.

Return to Top

***Part Two***
Word Count: 5,647

He woke and she was gone. That wasn't completely surprising because he was pretty sure neither of them would've slept well if she'd tried to sleep with him on the cot. Not that he kicked her out or would've complained if she'd wanted to try.

He glanced over to the spot on the floor she'd made up for Randy to sleep on only to notice that Randy was gone, too. That wasn't good. He was a good dog, but he was still a dog. There was lots of stuff he could get into in a vet's office he imagined. Some of those things could probably kill him.

He got up, pulling his pants on, and grabbing his shirt to go off in search of him. He probably should have had her put him in a kennel because who knew what he could get into wandering around by himself like he was currently.

Except he was nowhere in the office that he could find. The front door to her office was locked, so he made his way to the back door he'd spotted last night while she was showing him around the place.

"I know you don't like that, but you have to wear it," he heard Claire say as he opened the door. "You can't look at me like that and think I'm going to change my mind. I do this for a living."

How soundly had he been sleeping that he missed her taking Randy out of the room as she'd apparently done to get him fitted for the cone he currently had around his head.

"He doesn't really need to wear that, does he?" John asked.

"He does until the area is healed, yes. It's better for it to have air and licking it could lead to infection. So, yes."

"All right," he said. Randy had moved beside him as soon as he saw him. John petted him, scratching his ears.

"I gave him a little bit of food. I'd recommend a little less than normal tonight as well just to be sure he doesn't have a reaction to being put under."

"Yeah, sure."

"Watch the wound. Any signs of infection you call his vet to have it looked at."

"Right," he said. Of course he knew that. He took better care of Randy, and Cooper before him, then he did himself really.

"I presume I can submit a bill to the SPD?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," he said, more than a little confused by her cool attitude. Had he dreamt them having sex last night? He didn't think so.

"Okay then," she said. "I'll send you home with some gauze just in case you need it, but really you shouldn't. It looked fine when I looked at it."

"You obviously do good work then."

"I do my best."

"Whose horses?" he asked.

He hadn't expected her to have so much land out here. He'd come out here a time or two as a teenager. There'd been all sorts of rumors as to why the road was private. No one lived out here back then, the buildings were abandoned and empty which only served to inspire more curiosity. He'd never gotten curious about what was beyond the road as others they'd gone to school with had. Rumor was there was a small cemetery at the end of the road. John supposed it belonged to her in-laws if this was their land.

"Ours. I mean, mine and my kids. Well, not all of them. I have some people who pay to rent space in my stable. It's not to capacity or anything, but they come out riding whenever."

"Nice," he said.

"It is. Well, listen I have some things I need to do this morning that I didn't get to last night."

"Yeah, sure, sorry."

"Don't apologize. Randy was obviously a priority."

She'd taken the time to shower and get dressed he noticed because she wasn't wearing what she had been last night. Her hair was still slightly damp he could tell, too, and her makeup looked fresh. She hadn't looked at him at all, though, since he'd come out here. She'd pretty much avoided looking directly at him entirely.

"I can take you to your car and everything since I have to go out anyway."

"All right," he said.

He took Randy with him while he went inside to get his boots on. She took the time to shut things down it seemed. He followed her out. Randy walked next to him, John was careful to adjust his stride so that he didn't have to feel as though he had to play catchup.

She knew where his car was since there was only one boat launch out this way. She'd gone over some things with him in the car. Not too much exertion or exercise. All stuff he knew, of course. He had a fenced in yard, but he supposed he'd have to keep Randy on a leash even when going out for bathroom purposes for the next few days.

She helped him get Randy out of her car and into his, but obviously when he got back to his place he wasn't going to have someone to help him. It was still appreciated. The cone was going to be one of those things that John was going to have to force himself to leave on him. He knew it was best, but holy shit did it look fucking ridiculous.

She left then. Not a good bye. Not a here's my phone number. Nothing. He had no idea what to fucking make of it. She didn't even really give him the chance to say anything about what had happened.

"All right, Randy. Let's get you home," he said once she'd driven away from the boat landing. He was tempted for about two seconds to follow her and see where she had to go that was so pressing. She did turn the opposite way from heading back to her office and house so he had to assume she'd told the truth and had things to do.


"Jesus, again Claire. What is it about him for you?" Brian said.

She shrugged. "I have no idea!"

"So, nineteen years later and he still does it for you."

"Brian! That wasn't it at all."

"Really? Because you've been separated for almost two years and that was before the divorce became final and I'd have heard about it if you'd dated."

"What makes you say that?"

"You weren't sitting here for more than ten minutes and told me about this. You don't think you'd tell me if you'd had a date in the past two years?"

"Well, I was still married!"

"Details. You know it and I know it. You were too nice as far as I'm concerned."

"Of course I was, that was the reason I got the house and everything without a fight, Brian."

"I know. That doesn't mean you still weren't too nice."

Claire shrugged. Bryce might have turned out to be a jerk who went against his word, but Claire wasn't out to ruin his career. They'd been separated for a couple of years before deciding to actually get a divorce. It was time they took to see if they really wanted a divorce or to keep things up as they had been for years. They'd changed so much since college and it was clear their original agreement wasn't working for either of them anymore. There were people whispering in Bryce's ear that he should run for governor. He hadn't done anything with those whispers yet, but she suspected one day he would. His eyes were focused on the US Senator's seat first. It was why she'd been so careful. Just because she didn't love him didn't mean he wasn't good at his job. He cared about the people he represented immensely. Sometimes too much. The gate around their house wasn't just to keep potential criminals out it was also to keep people from thinking he was available all day and night.

Until three months ago he'd lived in a guest house they had on their property so the kids saw him every day. He even ate dinner with them every night. The divorce was a very quiet one. It was, for the most part, amicable, so they were able to work things out pretty decently. There were a couple of times she wanted to strangle him, but the same was probably true for him in return. He forgot sometimes that even though they weren't going to be married any longer the relationship he had with his kids was important, especially for the image he wanted to continue to present despite a failed marriage under his belt.

"I didn't want to be dragged through the mud any more than he did. He doesn't drink in front of anyone else so I'm the only the one he got nasty with the past few years."

The drinking was just a symptom of the real problem. Bryce not being able to be himself. She knew that and understood it, tried to shelter the kids from it as best she could. It wasn't their fault. Betsy was too young to really notice, though she probably noticed more than Claire gave her credit for. Bryce, though. Well, he noticed and probably suffered in ways she didn't understand because of it. When his dad was in town he never had friends over. She hadn't really noticed that until the past few months when Bryce, Sr. wasn't living on the property anymore. Suddenly, Bryce wanted to have friends over.

"I know," Brian said.

"Oh, hi Claire," Brian's wife, Connie said.

"Hi Connie. How are you?"

"I'm well. Thanks. How are the kids?"

"They're okay. Well, if you asked Betsy last night she'd tell you she was miserable. Bryce probably wasn't much better having to listen to her cry about wanting to come home."

"Oh, that's so rough. I'm sorry," she said.

"Bryce had her call me on the verge of tears, telling me she wanted to come home."

"And you still said no?"

"I had to! I didn't want to. It broke my heart to hear her cry, knowing I could fix it and didn't. I couldn't do that, though. He needs to be a parent, too!"

"I'm so sorry," she said.

"Thanks," Claire said.

Of course Connie was one of the people who wondered what Claire and Bryce were doing having another baby three years ago when they got separated shortly after her first birthday. No one ever asked such a question, of course, but she could see the look in people's eyes when they did the math and realized they got separated so soon after Betsy had been born. Connie and Brian were two of the very few who knew Bryce hadn't lived in the house for as long as he did before he moved out.

"Well, I'll let you two talk," she said, seeming to sense that they hadn't really been talking about Bryce or the kids when she came in. Of course, Brian was the only one in the world who knew things about Bryce Claire did. She was lucky he wasn't out to make a million dollars the easy way or she'd have been screwed a long time ago.

"You are so lucky," Claire said.


Claire shrugged. "The way she looks at you and you guys have been married ten years."

"Eleven, but who's counting. And I agree, I'm very lucky. I'm sorry you didn't have that. You deserve it, Claire. It's not too late, you know."

Claire shrugged. "My own fault I guess. You know how I was." She could admit that. She and Bryce had more of a business arrangement than a marriage. She'd agreed to it, though, knowing what the facts beforehand. She hadn't ever wanted to get married, but his offer was too tempting to resist. She would get the benefits of being a wife, the money and access that came with a name like the Mercer's without having to really do anything for it. It was a dream come true for someone like her at the age of twenty.

He chuckled. "I know how you were before that day and after that day. I also know you behaved incredibly out of character on that day."

"Oh my God, why are we back to that?"

"Because you had sex with him again, Claire."

"Yes, and the chance I'll see him again are next to none so I'm not worried about it."

"Maybe you should see him again."

"Brian. I came to you…"

"To tell the one person you can admit that to without thinking you're nuts. I know," Brian said. "That doesn't mean I'm going to just let you move onto another topic."

"It doesn't matter, Brian. I don't know how to get a hold of him."

"Really? That's your excuse?"

"Well, it's true."

"He works for SPD, Claire. It can't be that difficult to find him."

"It doesn't matter! He kissed me and I just needed so badly. It'd been so unbelievably long. Bryce had been arguing with me about the kids. Betsy was in tears. He caught me at a bad time. Any other time…"

"Except the past would say any other time you'd do it again."

"I didn't see him after that day!"

"Your choice. You know it as well as I do."

"Yes, because just what I wanted to do, be one of the girls who thought sex with him meant more than it did. I knew that it meant nothing to him so I saved myself a bunch of heartache. Besides who on earth would have believed he'd become a cop instead of getting arrested by one and landing in jail for the rest of his life."

"That may be, but you know as well as I do you've had chances the past few months. I even told you about my friend who asked about you."

"I don't want to date anyone!"

"A part of you must want something if you had sex, Claire."

She knew that. Deep down she was aware that sex wasn't the need she really had. It was just the base act that had soothed her need for now. She wasn't really meant to be alone. She loved her kids, but once Bryce started drinking more and keeping to himself she'd gotten depressed herself. Despite their agreement they'd always been friends. She'd liked him, he'd liked her. It was why they'd gotten married to begin with. Had she felt depressed enough to need anything beyond run of the mill therapy? No, but she'd come to realize the past couple of years that she really had been meant to be with someone.

"Well, it doesn't matter. He didn't ask me for my number or anything either."

Brian shrugged.

Their friendship was the second most unexpected thing to come out of that day of detention. Initially she'd started talking to him because she wanted to be nice, to be sure he wouldn't really try to kill himself. She was doing it to be selfish in a way because she didn't want it on her conscious that she knew that he possibly needed help and she'd done nothing.

Things changed over the summer. She'd had to talk to someone and he was the only one who would understand and talk to her logically about decisions she had to make.

They'd both gone to U of I for totally different majors, but they'd run into one another at a football game early in their freshman year and talked in a way they never had those last couple of months of high school. Connie had actually lived in Claire's dorm so in a way Claire was responsible for them even meeting at all.

"I'm so glad Connie understands our friendship," she said, realizing how odd it might seem to some that she and Brian were friends. That she shared information with him few, if any, others had. He kept secrets for her.

Brian chuckled softly at that. "We are fortunate I guess she knows that we never liked one another."

"She thought we did at first."

"Oh, I know. She told me that after the first few conversations we had."

"I'll never forget the day she found out I didn't like you. That we hadn't been together at all. I didn't have your number, though, only your dorm so all I could do was tell her I'd tell you about her the next time I saw you."

"And then you wrote me a letter at my parents' house, giving me her number. Pretty underhanded of you."

"Well, I wasn't sure you'd be interested."

"Obviously I was."

"I know! I'm so glad she said something to me because I sure didn't pick up on her liking you."

"So, did I make you feel any better?" Brian asked.

"Not really," she admitted.

"I don't know what you want me to say. Not really. I think you like him. I think you did nineteen years ago. I understand why you wouldn't have thought to pursue that attraction then, but there's nothing stopping you now."

"Bryce would freak! The ink is barely dry on our divorce papers."

"Bryce is not your responsibility anymore."

"I know," she said.

She ran her thumb over her ring finger and the spot her ring used to be. She'd taken it off about a month ago. She'd worn it, or one he'd given her before they were married, for years and it was second nature to her. She hadn't even realized she was still wearing it until one of her techs at work asked why she was still wearing it. Habit. Habits were so hard to break.

"You're thinking about other things, too, aren't you?"

"Yes," she admitted.

"Maybe it's time for the truth to come out, Claire."

"No! You know he works the schools with his dog."


"So he could have…"

"God, no. He'd know, wouldn't he?"

"I don't know. Do you think he'd see what you and I see not knowing?"

"I don't know."

It was too much to think about and giving her a headache. She left shortly after that. There wasn't a whole lot more to say, really. She'd just needed to tell someone what had happened. Somewhere down the line she was going to owe Brian a huge favor, more than merely introducing him to his wife as she had years ago.

She went grocery shopping after leaving Brian's house. Their conversation hadn't really helped at all. She had no idea what she was hoping it'd do. Brian was the only person who knew for sure what had happened between Claire and John that day. She'd never admitted it to Andy too afraid he'd tell other people. She wasn't embarrassed, but she also didn't want to be lumped in as someone who John screwed and blew off when she hadn't given him the chance to do that.

She sighed softly when she saw a motorcycle waiting outside the gate that led to her house. She didn't know anyone who rode a motorcycle, but she didn't have to guess who it belonged to anyway. He was leaning against the gate, smoking a cigarette. He obviously wasn't concerned about being seen by anyone. She had no neighbors and he was the police.

He followed her onto the property when she opened the gate. She wasn't going to sit out here and talk to him and she suspected he'd just come back if she blew him off. Plus, the thought that something was wrong with Randy entered her mind, but she doubted he'd be leisurely standing outside her gate if that was the case.

"Is Randy okay?" she asked, just in case that was why he was here. It was Saturday afternoon. She imagined he had a regular vet he took Randy to, he'd have to, but she knew lots of vets closed early on Saturday.

"He's fine. Yeah. He was sleeping in a makeshift bed when I left."

"Oh, good. I thought maybe he'd done something to the stitches already."

"No, I left the cone on. He looks fucking ridiculous, but I can appreciate he needs it to prevent infection. Obviously I want him back on his feet as quickly as he can be."

"Will you still be able to work?"

"Yeah. I have plenty to do for the next week."

"Good," she said. She opened her trunk then, reaching for some of the bags. The kids weren't due home for a few weeks, but she had stocked up on many of the items she knew they'd eat and use with quite a bit of time remaining before Bryce went back to school. Betsy didn't eat that much yet, but she swore she was going to go broke having to feed Bryce.

"I can do that," she said when he reached to grab a couple of the bags she couldn't grab in one trip.

"It's fine," he said.

"Well, I can really get them."

"I'm sure you can. I'm offering. It's fine."


"Sure," he said.

She tried to be insulted that he was focusing on her house more than he was on her as they walked toward the front door. She was planning on going out again in a couple of hours so she hadn't parked in the garage. She had to admit it was an impressive house. Bryce wouldn't have settled for anything less. She wouldn't have settled for less either, truthfully. They'd done a lot of entertaining at the house over the years because they had the space to do it comfortably and Bryce liked to show off not just his family but how well he did for himself.

He seemed surprised she had dogs of her own who were very excited when she let them inside at the prospect of company. They missed the kids terribly.

"Wow. Horses. Dogs. Anything else?"

"Uh, a cat who's probably hiding in my bedroom about now."


"Oh, she would've been down here to greet me. She usually is, but as soon as she realized I wasn't alone she'd run for the hills."

"Scared, huh?"

"Yeah. She's not exactly a people person. She's happiest right now with the kids gone and it's just the two of us."

"The dogs don't bother her?"

"The dogs realize she's the boss and leave her be."

He chuckled at that, setting the bags he'd grabbed on the kitchen table to pet the dogs.

"That's Rosencrantz," she said. "And the other is Guildenstern."

"Your names?"

"Yes," she said.

He rolled his eyes, but continued petting them.

"If everything's all right with Randy…"

"Well, I figured I'd come find out if I did something wrong last night."

"Why ever would you think that?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. The ol' brush off this morning made me wonder."

"I had things to do!"

"Don't give me that. You wouldn't even fucking look at me this morning."

He looked as if he was thinking about something as he scratched Rosencrantz's ear.

"You are divorced, right?"

"What," she asked indigently.

"Well, I just realized I never actually asked. You could be separated or the husband and kids could be spending some quality time together or whatever."

"I'd never do that!"

"Then what's the problem?"

Oh God.

"John, there is no problem."

"What's the cat's name?"

"What?" she asked. He couldn't possibly be asking her that now.

"The cat. Just wondering what her name is."

"Oh. Gertrude," she said.

He nodded simply. Guildenstern butted in to get some of the attention he'd been giving Rosencrantz.

"They always this friendly?"

"For the most part."

"You and the kids living out this far from everything you should really have…"

"I have a gate and walls! I think we're fine."

"I suppose."

"Besides, they're friendly. That doesn't mean they wouldn't do something to someone trying to break in here or hurt one of us."


He stood then, patting Guildenstern one last time before making his way to her. Good timing, or bad she supposed. She just finished putting away the groceries that had to go in the fridge or freezer so her hands were empty. Bad because it meant he could reach for he and she didn't have any legitimate reason to stop him. Like her hands being full of groceries that would melt or go bad.

He drew her to him and kissed her a lot better than the first kiss he'd given her last night. She hated herself for responding to something as basic as a kiss as she had. She'd been surprised he'd kissed her as long as he had last night. That was one huge difference from that day at school. He'd kissed her, but not for very long and she'd gotten the distinct impression he hadn't wanted to at all once things moved past kissing in that closet.

He broke the kiss, nipping at her jaw before finding her neck. She groaned softly as he worked the buttons on her blouse so he could move his mouth lower.

"That was a yes to the being divorced, right?" he asked before finding the top of a breast.

"Uh huh," she murmured and he chuckled softly.

"Just making sure. Once I might not have felt so guilty about, but twice…"

She slid her hands to his shoulders, completely intent on pushing him away. Stopping this. She absolutely had to. This was so completely wrong and bad on so many levels. She didn't want to, though. She really, really didn't. He was making her feel so good and so wanted. That was something she couldn't really remember ever feeling with anyone but her kids.

"I think poor Gertrude doesn't like me," John said much later from the side of her bed he was laying on.

"I think you're probably right."

Of course Gertrude wasn't used to Claire sharing her bed with anyone but her. Occasionally one of the dogs would sleep in here, but they didn't usually last the whole night long. Most mornings she found them in Bryce or Betsy's rooms.

"Your bed is much better than that cot was."

"I'd love to say you're wrong, but I'd be lying."

"Not that I'm complaining," he added.

She laughed softly. "I'll try not to be insulted."

"All right," he said, sliding a fingertip along her hip. "You left your car outside earlier."

"Yes," she said cautiously.


"I was going to go see my brother for a while."

"Oh? Chris, right? He still lives in town? I guess I didn't realize that."

"He does."

"Married still?"

"Yup," she said.

"Kids?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "Three. Two boys and a girl."

"Nice," he said. "I don't know him. I remember that day at school, though, you talked about him and sounded like you loved him. I assume by that he was decent."

"He is," she said. More than John would ever know.

"So, do you have to leave?"

"No," she said. "I was just going to drop by and see my nephew. Well, both of them and my niece."

"Missing your kids?"

"Yes," she said.

"Can I distract you from that?"

She laughed softly, turning to face him. She ran a fingertip along his jaw lightly. "I don't know. Can you?"

"I'm willing to try."

"That's probably best. I'd get accused of being the crazy aunt for coming over again today."


"I was just there this past Thursday."

"Oh," he said.

"I try to get over there once or twice a month. With the kids gone like this, away from me for the first time really, sometimes I go more than that."

"That's good that your kids are close with his."

"Yes. Did you have cousins?"

"Yeah. I was never close with them. I suppose when we were little."

"Do you see any of them now?"

"Some. Yeah. We got older, I got out of my parents' house. I hated them all for a while, but eventually I realized it wasn't their fault how I grew up any more than it was mine. Now my aunts and uncles, no, I have nothing to do with them. They could've spoken up."

"I understand that."

"I know when we were kids things like good and bad touches weren't talked about, but people still had consciences back then."

"Yes, you're right."

She wasn't sure what to say really. He didn't seem to want to talk about things like his childhood anymore anyway. Then, he didn't seem to want to talk about anything anymore. She should maybe be bothered by that, but she wasn't really. The kids weren't here. She was single. She wasn't doing anything wrong. She was allowed to feel good once in a while.

He was very good, too, with his hands and mouth at making her feel good enough she wanted to feel that way for a while longer. She tried her best to make him feel the same way, but she was so out of practice she could only hope she did as well for him as he did for her.

"I can't remember the last time I was in bed for hours," she said a while later.

"Me either," he said with a soft chuckle. "I should get home, though."

"I know."

"I wasn't planning on being gone for hours and Randy's not used to be alone that long because I usually take him everywhere I go."

"You can't take him with you when you go for rides on your motorcycle."

"No, but I don't usually go on motorcycle rides for four hours either."

She blushed at that. She'd never spent four hours in bed with someone before today. Ever in her life except her kids when they were sick and wanted to sleep with her.

"You're very good with him."

"Thanks," he said.

"And I'm not mad."

"Good," he said, sliding out of the bed and starting to dress. "You still going to go over to your brother's?"

"I don't know," she said. It was kind of late, but she'd had a crazy need to go over there today.

"Well, if you wanted to grab dinner or something…"

"No," she said softly. "I'm fine, John. Really. I know you didn't plan on this happening."

"Well, no, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like it to again or that the invitation to dinner wasn't sincere."

"I really shouldn't."

"We shouldn't do a lot of things, Claire."

"I know."

He shrugged, glancing at her as he slid his shirt on. "You sure? You can stay as long as you want. No pressure. You could check Randy's wound…"

She sighed softly. He had to throw that in there. He knew it, too, because he chuckled. He grabbed a pen and paper she kept by her bed and wrote something on it.

"My address," he said, setting the pad of paper down. "You want to come by and check on Randy, that'd be great. You want to pick up some Chinese on the way that'd be great, too. I'd pay you back."

"You don't need to pay me back for dinner."

"Oh, I realize I don't have to, but I'm asking you to do it so I'd pay you back."

"I really…"

"Come, don't come. Bring the dogs if you want."


He shrugged. "Sure. I don't have the space you do, but they'd make do in my yard just fine."

"I'd be afraid they'd get Randy riled up."

"Maybe so. Up to you. I'm not going anywhere tonight."

"You don't work tomorrow?"

"No, unless I'm called out to a scene."

"Oh," she said.

He leaned down and kissed her. "I'll give you a ride on my motorcycle."

"Do you have a spare helmet?"

"Of course," he said.

"That might just be incentive enough."

"Really? The motorcycle ride did it?"

"I haven't been on one in years."

"All right. Well, bring a jacket then."

"John," she said. This had bad idea written all over it. Seeing him was so, so beyond dangerous on many levels.

He ran a fingertip over her collarbone. "Don't give me an answer, but now that I mentioned Chinese I'd really love some Szechuan chicken."

She got out of bed and grabbed her robe.

"What's through there?" he asked.


"There's the door to the hallway. That's to your closet and your bathroom," he said, gesturing to the doors in her dressing area. "That goes out to your balcony." She was surprised he noticed the door to the balcony, but then she supposed he was a cop. There was probably little that got by him.

"It went to Bryce's room."

"Oh," he said with a slight frown.

"I'll walk you down," she said.

"Yeah, sure," he said. She shook her head at the dogs being all over him when they got downstairs.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's all right. Did they like your husband?"

"Yes," she said.

"Maybe they miss him. You know, that male presence. Whatever. They get used to their routines, too, and it seems like it was fairly recent."

"What was?" she asked.

He took her hand, sliding a finger over her ring finger where her wedding band would have been a month ago.

"You have tan lines there. So, I take that to mean you didn't take it off too long ago."

"No," she said.

"So, they probably miss him. They're not crazy out of control or anything. Believe me, I've been in people's houses that couldn't keep their animals under control. These guys are fine even if you gave them funny names."

"They're not funny!"

He chuckled softly, leaning in to kiss her.

"Szechuan chicken would be a great thing not to eat alone."

"I'll think about it."

"All right. See you later then maybe."

Return to Top

***Chapter Three***
Word Count: 4,505

She rang the bell, smiling a little at the sound of Randy barking from within the house. She'd known where his house was by his address. He lived in a fairly run of the mill part of Shermer. The houses weren't real old, but they weren't new either. They were houses their parents would have bought as starter-homes. On the smaller side with equally small yards. He was fortunate, though, having a corner lot he had a little more yard than his neighbors.

The house was nice. There were a couple of houses in the neighborhood that weren't so nice so she could definitely tell that John put some effort to ensure his was. The yard looked like it had been done recently and she wondered when he'd done it. He hadn't had a whole lot of time today to do it, but she supposed he had enough after leaving her office this morning before he'd come back to her house.

There were no flowers or anything in his yard she noticed. He had some bushes, but nothing that required any extra care. A perk of working across the street from her home she had a huge garden that she took great care planning each year.

"Hey, sorry," he said once he'd opened the door. "I was in the shower."

"It's okay," she said.

"Come on in," he said, stepping aside so she could.

She did, extending her free hand to Randy so he could smell her. He licked the top of her hand so she reached to pet him then. He was really a beautiful dog. Her dogs were retired greyhounds and were nice looking, but even she had to admit there was something breathtaking about a near perfect-looking German Shepherd as Randy was.

"He's doing all right?"

"Yeah, seems fine, really. He hasn't been walking around much or anything. He was where I left him this afternoon to go to your place when I got home. I took him out, on his leash, and he has been laying by me ever since. He followed me to my room when I took my shower, but didn't jump up on the bed or anything like he usually would."

"That's good. That means he knows his limitations and that you aren't going to push him to do more than he should. He trusts you and that's hugely important, but you don't need me to tell you that obviously."

"No, it's nice to hear, though, from someone who doesn't care about statistics or cases being solved."

"It'll take him a while, but he'll be fine. I could tell this morning."

"I'm sure him getting attention so quickly had something to do with that."

"I hope so," she said.

She drew her hand away then not sure now that she was here what exactly she should say. Or how. Somehow she didn't think he was going to take her saying she didn't want to see him again in stride. Otherwise he wouldn't have shown up at her house today after she gave him the silent treatment in the morning.

She still couldn't believe she'd had sex with him. Twice. God. She was absolutely insane for doing that. Responding to him was so easy to do, though, because he was so good at making her feel good. He had nineteen years ago, too. She was glad to see now was no different.

"Is that for us?" he asked, gesturing to the brown paper bag she was holding.

"Oh, yeah, well, sort of," she said, handing it to him.

She followed him to his kitchen then where he opened the bag, frowning a bit.

"You on a diet or something?"


"Okay," he said, glancing at her. He looked confused. She couldn't blame him really. She'd probably be confused if someone only brought enough dinner for her when she'd invited them to eat with her. She saw a look in his eyes as he closed the distance between them. Oh, God, he thought she'd come here just to have sex again.

"Well, you mentioned Szechuan chicken, so I brought you some," she said, hoping it would distract him from kissing her. It seemed to, but he still touched her. He settled his hands against her hips after grazing her arms with his fingertips. She shivered a bit at the contact and he smirked a bit at that.

"I wasn't asking you to bring me dinner. I mean. Well, I was, sure but I wanted you to eat with me. If I wasn't clear on that I'm sorry."

"I know, but," she said, taking in his kitchen. It was … nice. Homey even. Not in the same way her kitchen or her sister-in-law's kitchens were homey, but she could tell he actually used it. "I really can't stay. I made it seem like I might earlier, so didn't want you to not eat thinking I'd be showing up."

"Okay," he said again. "Everything all right?" He leaned in closer as if he was about to kiss her. That would be dangerous because once he kissed her she seemed to lose all logical thought and let her heart and wherever that base need to be close to someone came from control the situation.

"No," she said softly.

"Why not? Did something happen in the last couple of hours? Your ex-husband giving you problems about the kids or something again?"

"No, I just can't do this, John."

"Do what exactly? It's dinner," he whispered, brushing his mouth against her ear. She took a small shuddering breath at the warmth there.

"We've had sex. Twice!"

"It was more than twice."

"I know," she said. Did he have to be so matter of fact and such a smart ass about it? Of course he did. He was John. "Please don't be an ass."

"I'm not being an ass, merely stating facts. It was more than twice. You were a very willing participant each and every time, too."

"I know I was. And I'm sorry."

"For what exactly?"

"You have no idea how long it's been since I've had that. Closeness. I'd had a real bad day yesterday. You kissed me."

"You kissed me back," he said, finding her neck then. Her eyes fluttered closed and she was trying to decide if she really wanted to argue with him right now.

"I know. I'm not blaming you. I'm not, but I just can't."

"You know this isn't high school."


"I let you pull this shit nineteen years ago, walk away from me like I meant nothing."

"Because I knew I meant nothing to you!"

"You didn't even give me a fucking chance."

"I didn't want to get my heart handed to me on a silver platter by you, John."

He shook his head slightly. He'd drawn away now, wasn't trying to kiss her anymore. Why did that bother her? Immensely.

"So, you bring me dinner to what? Make you feel less guilty about telling me to get lost?"

"No. My life is such a mess. I just got divorced! As you pointed out earlier you can still see I was wearing my wedding ring not that long ago."

"You're an idiot."

"I'm sorry, excuse me?"

"You're scared. Your husband hurt you it seems, that's the vibe I got anyway. I get that. It sounds like he's being a dick about the kids, using them as some sort of post-divorce fuck you. That doesn't mean you should walk away from something that makes you feel good."

"You should talk. Have you ever even been married?"

"Nope," he said.

"Why not?"

"Well, let's see. Piss poor example. Check. I still live in the same fucking town where everyone knows the Benders so yeah, meeting quality women interested in anyone with that name easy to do. Check. The only decent person I ever met and had an interest in walked away from me. Check."

"It was one fucking afternoon."

"I wanted it to be more."

"You did not. You only wanted it to be more because I didn't chase after you like every other girl you'd had sex with did."

"If that's what you want to tell yourself. You don't know what I did and didn't do before that day."

"You're saying I'm wrong?"

"I'm saying that I was an eighteen year old guy who liked to breathe life into an image that everyone perceived about me. Come on. You know better than that. Maybe you didn't then, but you sure as hell do now. What eighteen year old guy wants to admit to never having had a girlfriend before?"

"John," she said.

"Randy and Cooper before him are the only beings I've been able to count on."

"I'm sorry," she said, meaning it. She was sorry he was lonely. She'd led a very lonely life, too, but she'd at least had her kids.

In the beginning she'd had Bryce, but soon into things that really hadn't been enough. They hadn't banked on that happening. Her wanting … More. It was the reason he'd given in and had Betsy. He was hoping it'd bury the need for more she was craving. It had worked at first. She was so glad to have a little girl, but he wasn't around nearly as much to help with things as he had been in the beginning with Bryce. She'd been left to take care of the house, her business, Bryce, Jr., and Betsy. Not that she couldn't do it, but she had no one to help take care of her. She wanted someone to end her day with. She was never going to get that with him.

"I don't want your pity."

"You don't want me, though," she said.

"You don't know that."

"I do, too. There are things…"

"What? What things, Claire? There's nothing you can possibly tell me that would make me think our paths crossing again right now, after you've gone through your divorce wasn't supposed to happen."

She breathed deeply and glanced from him to Randy. She stooped to take a look at his paw, her hand shaking a bit. There were things she could tell him. He'd probably never speak to her again if she did. She had to decide if that was what she wanted. Then again, if she didn't tell him and continued letting him see her she'd feel guilty.

"You haven't covered it?" she asked.

"No, you said not to."

"Good. It's best not to. Keep the cone on."

"Yeah, I heard you this morning. Why are you repeating yourself?"

She turned to leave then, pausing in the doorway. She swallowed, taking a deep breath again and glanced at him. She repeated herself because she knew he probably wouldn't speak to her again after tonight. That was all right. Sex with John had been a good thing, waking her up to the fact that she needed to move on. It wasn't going to be with him, but she still had to start living her life again. She was no longer exclusively Mrs. Bryce Mercer. She was Claire again and had to figure out who exactly Claire was on her own.

"There is something I could tell you that would make you think that."

"Yeah? Try me."

"You have a son," she said.

He didn't believe her. She could tell. She took the coward's way out then, taking advantage of the fact he was processing what she'd said. Rolling it over in his mind. She'd shocked him because she wagered the idea that there had been a consequence to that day of detention had never entered his mind until a minute ago.

Soon, though, he'd realize she had absolutely nothing to gain by lying to him about such a thing. She didn't want to be here when that happened. He'd be mad and want answers that she didn't want to give him. She left then. It was a cowardly thing to do, but she absolutely didn't want to talk about it. She just wanted him out of her life and she didn't want him showing up at her house or anything again.

She went to the only place she could go. Well, she could've gone to Bryce's house and seen the kids, but she knew if she did that Betsy would want to go home with her tonight. She missed her daughter and Bryce, Jr. terribly, but she couldn't do that tonight.

"Hey," Christopher said when he opened the door. "Everything okay?"

She shook her head, stepping inside. He knew she wasn't all right, of course. The fact she'd been sitting in her car on his driveway for the past fifteen minutes crying was obvious.

"Hey," he said when she hugged him. "What's wrong? Are the kids okay?"

"They're fine. Betsy wants to come home, but she's fine."

"Okay," he said then. He hugged her back and she was grateful for that. She'd been tempted to go back to Brian's house, but she'd come here instead. She'd needed to.

"I told him," she said.

"What?" he asked.

"John," she whispered.

"Oh," he said, leading her to his study then and closing the doors behind them. He handed her a snifter of brandy and sat next to her then. He'd poured himself a tumbler of scotch she noticed. She gave him a very abridged version of the events of the past twenty-four hours.

"Wow," he said once they'd both thought over what she'd just admitted to. She still couldn't believe it.

"I know."

"Why'd you tell him?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Why not? If there's one way to guarantee he stays away from me I think that was it."

"You don't know that."

She sighed. "He doesn't even really want me, Chris. He didn't then either I'm certain of it. I'm the one who did what he did to everyone else. You know? That's all he sees me as. I was the one who didn't run after him."

"How different your lives would probably be if you had," he said.

"I know," she said.

She'd thought of that over the years. Many times. Where would she be if she'd told him? Especially once things with Bryce started getting uncomfortable. Originally, she'd had no problem with their agreement. It seemed like a great idea at the time. She couldn't complain about where she was in the grand scheme of things. Bryce had taken care of her and the kids, ensured they lived well. She had a beautiful home and a business that was her own free and clear. She had land to own horses so her kids all learned to ride at a young age.

She had no idea where she'd be today if it wasn't for Chris and Brian, though. Somehow she'd managed to pull off completing her first semester of college without her parents finding out she was pregnant. If her parents found it odd that Chris and his wife suddenly decided to adopt a baby they never said, or at least Chris never told her about their parents' asking about it.

"He suspects, you know," Chris said.

"What are you talking about?"

"Kyle. He suspects a cop is his dad."


He shrugged casually as if he'd just told her that Kyle questioned why the sky was blue not who his biological father was.

"He came home from school one day. It was a few years ago. He was, I don't know, thirteen? Maybe fourteen. So, eighth grade or freshman year. He asked me questions, said he thought he looked like a cop who'd been at the school to talk to them."

"Oh. You never said anything."

"He never mentioned it again. I handled it. We've always been open with him about him being adopted. You know that."


"Claire. Don't freak out five or six years later. Clearly, John didn't see it or suspect because he would've found you if he had."

"Yes, but…"

"You wanted this. Remember? I'm his father. Ellen is his mother. We were on top of the situation. He never mentioned it again. He's fine. It's fine. You've never questioned what I've done until now."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just had no idea he ever asked that."

"I've never seen him to know if Kyle looks like him or not. It's natural for him to be curious especially if he saw someone he thought he resembled."

"He does," Claire said.

"That must be … hard on you. I didn't know that."

"Well, he doesn't look like me!"

"That doesn't mean he looks like his father."

"I suppose not," she said. He didn't look exactly like John or anything, but there were times especially now that he was older that he'd stand a certain way, or the light would catch him in such a fashion that she'd think for a second he looked a lot like John.

"So, you came here to talk to me? Or to see Kyle?"

"To see Kyle," she mumbled.

He chuckled softly. "I'd like to be insulted, but I guess I can understand that. An hour later you would've missed him. He's going out."

"I figured as much. It's Saturday night."

"With a girl."

"Really?" she asked.

"Yes," Christopher said.

"Who is she?"

"Someone who went to school with him at U of M."

"She lives here?"

"She lives out in Skokie."

"Have you met her?"

"No, he hasn't asked me to and I'm not going to do that when to this point it seems pretty casual."

"I was just wondering."

"I know. Go say hi to him before he leaves."

"Thanks," she said, setting the snifter of brandy down. She hadn't taken more than a couple of sips out of it. "Say, Chris?" she asked from his doorway.


"Any chance I could use your guest room tonight?"

"Uh, yeah, I suppose. Why?"

"I don't want to go home."


"There's a good chance he'll be there waiting for me."

"There is. I can't blame him really. Can you?"

"No," she said softly.

"What about the dogs?"

"I can call Bryce…"

"Are you sure you want to do that?"

"I don't really have much choice."

"That would be an interesting meeting."

"Wouldn't it?" she said with a soft laugh. "I'll call him in a bit. He'd do it."

"If he can't, let me know. I'll do it. I'd suggest Kyle could on his way to and from his date, but that may not be a good idea."

"Uh, no," she said.

"I'm not sure avoiding him is the right answer. That's sort of how you got where you are today."

"I realize that. I know I can't avoid him forever. I just don't want to talk to him tonight."

"Afraid you'll have sex with him again?"

"No, somehow I doubt that's even in play ever again."

"It'll be all right, Claire."

"I know. I just hadn't meant to tell him. Not really. I just assumed he'd take that I said I can't get involved with him right now seriously. I didn't think he'd push."

"He likes you. I'm not sure I'd stay away either if it was me."

Of course he would never be in this situation. He was married to the girl he went to senior prom with and had known most of his life. He'd dated girls before her, which had been Claire's mistake in hindsight. She hadn't wanted to get married so never saw the point in dating. She knew it had surprised the hell out of Christopher when she told him Bryce had proposed to her.


She made her way upstairs, saying hi to her niece and nephew who were getting ready to go to a movie with some friends. Not the same movie, though, it seemed. What did it say that her not even teenaged niece and nephew had plans on Saturday night and she had nothing really to look forward to but two dogs and a cat at her house?

"Hey, Aunt Claire," Kyle said when he opened his door.

"Wow you look nice," she said.


"Your dad says you have a date."

He blushed a bit at that. "Yeah, kind of. I mean, not really, just someone I know from school. We got along I guess."

"Well, I bet she'll think you look nice, too."

"Thanks," he said. "What are you doing here tonight? I figured with everyone still at Uncle Bryce's house you'd be out doing something."

"Not tonight. I'm going to stay here I think actually."

"Oh, cool. Well, I'll see you in the morning then."

"Yeah," she said.

"Hey, Aunt Claire?" he asked when she'd started walking down the hallway away from his room. There wasn't much more to say to him without seeming weird. She'd just needed to see him, assurance that he'd turned out all right. She'd made the right decision. One she regretted every day, but she knew he'd had a much better life than she would've been able to provide for him raising him right out of high school by herself.

"Yeah, Kyle?" she asked.

"Is everything okay?"

"Sure. Why?"

He shrugged, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans. She wondered briefly, looking at him right now with his hair just a touch longer than was acceptable to most people and his posture so similarly defiant yet not how John had missed it. Then she had no way of knowing if Kyle ever actually talked to John or just saw him. The class sizes at Shermer High had only gotten bigger in the past nineteen years.

"You look like you've been crying."

"Oh, just missing the kids," she said with a shrug.

"They'll be home soon, right?"

"Yeah, a few weeks."

"Good. I have a new game to show Bryce."

"He'd like that," she said. Bryce Jr. and Kyle were gamers. Before video games they'd done table top gaming of all kinds. Staying up all night playing games of Risk weren't uncommon for them. When they were younger it'd been games like Monopoly, but the three of them (when Alex was interested in playing the game Bryce Jr. and Kyle were playing) could usually be found enjoying a game of some sort.

"Cool. I tried showing it to Alex, but he wasn't really interested."

She was very glad her son got along with Kyle. Chris' other son, Alex tended to play with his younger sister and now Betsy when the group of them got together. He just wasn't as interested in the games as the older two boys were. She'd started to see a change in that the past year or so, playing with his younger sister and cousin wasn't as appealing. She imagined soon Alex would be more interested in the games Kyle had to show him.

"Have fun tonight," she said.


She fought the urge to ask questions. The instinct was there, but she had no business prying where she didn't belong. At the time it'd seemed like a good idea. She couldn't stomach the idea of giving her son up to someone randomly. Chris and Ellen hadn't thought she was insane for bringing it up to them in the first place. It'd taken them a couple of months to come up with a decision. Telling their parents that the baby belonged to a friend of a friend of theirs who couldn't raise a baby right now had gone off without a hitch.

Claire still couldn't believe almost nineteen years later that she'd gotten away with it.

She went downstairs then. Ellen was getting ready to drop Alex and DeAnna at their respective friends' houses.

"I think I'm going to go ahead and go home," Claire said.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. I can't avoid him forever and I really don't like the idea of Bryce roaming around the house without me there."

"Has he been bad?"

"No, but I realized as I was talking with Alex that I hadn't made my bed after this afternoon."

"Oh," Chris said. "I guess I'll have to remind Alex he's supposed to be making his, huh?"

"It didn't look like it'd been made in days, Chris!"

Chris chuckled softly at that. "Yeah, he hates making his bed. Didn't we all though when we were that age?"

"Yes," Claire said. Chris had been worse about it than she'd been but she'd left hers not made more than a few times growing up. Especially summer vacation.

"You sure you want to go home? You're welcome to stay. Ellen will be right back."

"I know. It's fine. I guess it's better to get it done with now than weeks later when the kids are home again. If he's even there."

"And if he tells you it doesn't matter?"

"How can you even say that?"

Chris shrugged. "You didn't tell him who adopted him, did you?"

"No," she said.

"Well, so he has no idea that you know where and who he is to show him."


Chris shrugged. "He was eighteen and the way you describe him who could really blame you for not rushing out to tell him you were pregnant."

"No one!"

"Maybe he'd see it that way."

"Maybe, I'm not counting on it."

"Well, don't overreact."


"You know, if he's there and just wants to talk to you don't get all defensive assuming the worst. Give him a chance to be rational."

She rolled her eyes.

"Do what you want, but maybe he'll understand you did what you thought was the best thing at the time."


She doubted it, though. Going by what he'd said earlier about Randy and Cooper being the only things he'd ever been able to count on she doubted he'd see her giving his child away to someone else to raise as being the best option.

She finished her brandy, talking with Chris about some other things that had nothing to do with Kyle or John. She was glad they had a close relationship. She got to see Kyle leave, wondering what kind of girl he'd be attracted to. There was a physical resemblance to John that was uncanny, but she didn't know Kyle well enough really and hadn't known John that well to be able to compare personalities.

He wasn't there when she got back to the house. She couldn't say if he had been or not. She was relieved as she let herself onto the grounds. Tonight was one night she was glad to have the gate for very personal reasons. She could ignore the buzzer if she had to. Bryce knew the code to get in so he wouldn't ring to get in.

"Hi guys," she said to her dogs when she got in. "You ready to go out?"

She poured herself a glass of wine before opening the door for them to go outside. She'd sit outside for a while before going to bed. Somehow she doubted John was going to just go away after what she'd told him. It was a nice thought.

Return to Top

***Chapter Four***
Word Count: 8,375

She was lucky he was a cop with a gun instead of a homicidal maniac with a gun. He hadn't known what to say to her at his place on Saturday. She was counting on that, obviously. He hadn't really believed she could possibly have something to tell him. He thought she'd been teasing to a point, pulling away from him because her divorce hadn't been that long ago. That certainly would have been reasonable and he was pretty sure anyone he knew who'd gone through a divorce would have told him not to push her.

The ink on that had been dry four months ago he learned. Pretty cush job her ex had as a state senator, working essentially six months out of the year. That explained why the kids were with him now, he supposed. For some reason John thought he was a US Senator, but that showed how well he paid attention. As long as he had a job and his paychecks were safe he didn't really follow politics.

He also had learned today that she had, in fact, had a baby about nine months after that day at school, January 3, 1985. It had been a boy named Kyle with no father named. He'd been nine pounds, six ounces which John thought was a pretty good sized baby in his limited experience.

He hadn't been able to find any adoption papers in Champaign County or here in Cook County. He had found that her brother Christopher and his wife only had two documented children. He had no idea why he'd even checked there, but he remembered Claire mentioning a nephew specifically and adding her other nephew and niece almost as an afterthought. So, he'd checked.

Despite only having two children that John could find record of, there had been three Standish children enrolled in the Shermer school systems over the years. The oldest no longer was, but John assumed he was in college somewhere. He'd be eighteen, closing in on nineteen soon. Wherever he went to school it wasn't part of the Illinois state university system. John supposed he could go to a private school, but he was betting on out of state somewhere.

Birth certificates could be forged, but John didn't think she was that crafty. Not on the off-chance they'd run into one another and he'd think she got pregnant out of their one time having sex together. Other women he maybe could believe would be that crafty and devious, nineteen years was a little long to wait to get revenge or something.

He'd used Randy's recovery as a reason to take some personal time that he had earned. No one batted an eye at John wanting to spend his time with him. It was an odd relationship he had with Randy, and Cooper before him. Few, if any, understood it. The closest he'd come was a couple other fellow K9 cops who lived like John did. Those with good childhoods, wives, and two and a half kids just didn't understand. They were more loyal and dependable than any person he'd ever met.

Being a cop had its perks when he wanted to access information that was more than questionable as to his reasons for wanting that information.

He'd been shocked on Saturday when she'd left, leaving him to realize she'd been serious saying that. A son. It was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard in his life. Except what did she have to gain by lying to him about it nineteen years later? The January 3 birthdate certainly coincided with the timing of when they'd had sex. He didn't see her rushing out to do it with someone else on the slim chance he'd gotten her pregnant that day.

Had he seen him over the years? He'd been working the schools for a long time. He'd never had any reason to pay attention to any of the kids more specifically than any others except for other officers kids. Was that why she'd reacted when he mentioned working the schools? He just thought she hadn't been overly impressed with his job duties. Certainly he did more, but as a cop who had the childhood he'd had well the school circuit had sort of fallen to him. There were others, but kids liked the dog. The dog made John approachable in a way a regular patrol officer wasn't. He wasn't sure he completely got it, because he never would've approached a cop. Then things had been different when he was growing up.

Sunday he hadn't figured out what exactly to do. Going to see her and demand information had been his first instinct, except she'd probably be expecting that. He couldn't force his way into her house. He couldn't even get to her front door without an invite onto the property. Approaching her at work wasn't an option because going by the pictures on the wall behind the desk at her office she had people who worked for her.

He'd chosen instead to research, immerse himself into solving the puzzle that was her seemingly hiding the fact she was pregnant from everyone. If John knew one thing for certain he knew that if Claire Standish had shown up on anyone's radar in Shermer pregnant he would've heard about it. That information led him to her house tonight. Randy was glad to get out of the house. John had been very careful about how much Randy did, but he noticed today that he was getting around much better than he had even just yesterday morning. So he figured a ride in his car wasn't out of the question.

He rang the buzzer to her gate, rolling his eyes that he even had to do that. He supposed when her husband had lived here it'd been sort of necessary. Being from Shermer, and an old Shermer name like the guy had, he wouldn't be difficult to find. All anyone would have to do is ask where the Mercer's property was and they'd be directed down this road by someone.


"It's John," he said simply.

No response. He sat for a few minutes, waiting to see if she was going to make him buzz again. She had to know he wasn't going to go away. He'd given her days, maybe that was too long but he liked to digest information a little bit before talking about it. Nothing good would have come out of a conversation they'd had over the weekend about this.

The gate opened, though, and he drove onto the property. He wondered where the ex lived these days. Was he still in Shermer? Or now that he was single was he downtown somewhere? Of course, with kids staying with him for six weeks he had to have room somewhere.

Kids. A family. From the pictures, the oldest boy who was named after his dad looked more like Claire than the husband. He hadn't found enough pictures of the youngest, a girl, to say who she resembled.

They hadn't wasted any time either John had noticed. She'd graduated from U of I in 1988, they'd gotten married a nice safe, traditional year after her graduation in June 1989. The oldest kid had come along in May 1990. There was a break then with the next one coming in 2000. He only knew this because he compared their birth certificates to school records to be sure she hadn't faked something with the oldest kid. Obviously the youngest had no school records, but John knew for a fact that one wasn't his. It was the oldest one he'd been curious about when he couldn't find adoption records and no indication she'd enrolled a child in school before Bryce Jr.

"How is he?" she asked when he let Randy out of the car.

"Better," he answered.

"Good," she said, clearly watching the dog instead of him as they walked to her front door.

"You don't look surprised to see me."

"Not really. I was hoping…"

"Yeah, I'm sure you were hoping lots of things that didn't involve me coming over here again."


"No, don't. Just let me do this. All right."

"There's nothing to do!"

"I have a fucking kid!"

"Yes," she said.

"A kid I didn't know about until days ago. I think I'm entitled to ask a few questions and find out some information on the subject."

"John. Please don't yell at me."

"I don't mean to yell, honestly, I didn't come here to yell. You didn't think nineteen years ago would have been a better time to tell me about his existence?"

"No," she said.

"Why not exactly?"

"John," she said.

"No, why? I'd like to hear why you went to such great lengths to hide it from me. I remember now that you didn't come home from school for the holidays that year. No one found it strange, myself included. Somewhere I'd heard that you were spending the holiday with a new boyfriend."

"That's what I asked Brian to tell people."

"Brian knew?"

"Yes," she said.

"And that it was mine?"

"Yes, of course!"

"I think I might rethink my rule on beating up civilians."

"Don't! Don't you dare. He did exactly what I asked him to do. I was so scared and alone."

"That was your choice! I didn't make you blow me off."

"We both know how that would've gone if I hadn't. You would've turned around and done it to me and then told all of your friends I was a frigid bitch or something."

"You don't know a damned thing about what I would have done."

"I know it was just sex to you."

"I told you not to believe everything, Claire. Remember that? Believe it or not you weren't the only one in that closet that day who'd never done that before."

"Shut up. I'm too old to believe your lies, John."

"No, I'm not lying. So yeah I was pissed as hell you just blew me off."

"Come on. You expect me to believe that? I'm not an idiot."

"No, you're not. What would I have to gain by telling you that now?"

She didn't answer him and seemed to be thinking that one over.

"Yeah, see. Nothing. I mean, you didn't exactly walk around the school telling people you were a virgin, so don't look at me like I was crazy for not doing that either."

"Yes, but people thought…"

"I can't help what people thought."

"Your wallet! Those pictures."

"They were friends. Believe it or not, chicks dug me back then," he shrugged.

"I believe it."

He smirked a little at that, watching as Randy and her dogs were sniffing one another.

"They aren't going to hurt him," she said.

"I know, I'm just watching."

"What do you want by coming here tonight?"


"I don't have any to give you."

"Does he know who I am?"


"Our son. It's your nephew, right?"

"How could you possibly…"

"I'm a cop, remember? I know people think because I work as a K9 handler that I'm just a dog sitter with a badge, but I really am good at my job."

"I didn't say you weren't," she said.

"So, I'm right, aren't I?"

She sighed and he could see her thinking it through. She went to the dogs who followed her to the kitchen though Randy stayed behind as he should have done. He heard the door open leading to the back and felt bad that Randy couldn't go out there, too. The property was big enough there was no fence visible from the front yard overlooking the lake John had noticed the other day. So her dogs had plenty of room to roam in and splash in the lake. Randy would love it.

She didn't come back to him, so he walked toward the kitchen where she was pouring herself a glass of wine and getting him a beer.

"You're right," she said finally once she'd had a seat at the table. How she could just sit at a time like this he wasn't sure, but he chose to lean against the counter that probably served as a breakfast nook or some fancy thing he didn't have time or room for in his house.

"How did you arrange it?"

"What do you mean?"

"I found his birth certificate. I found his school records. I found nothing about your brother having a third child."

"He has a birth certificate with Christopher and Ellen as his parents."

"You're right. I wasn't clear. There was no record of Ellen Standish giving birth. Now, I admit I didn't extend my search beyond Cook County, but I assumed even if they weren't living in Shermer back then they would've been close to home."

"We hired an attorney to take care of it privately."

"And you never once thought I should know?"

"What would you have done?"

"I don't know! You didn't give me the chance."

"I didn't give myself the chance either, John. I did what I thought was best for our son. He's been raised well, he was a good boy, and has become a good young man."


"Yes," she said.


"U of M," she said.

"Minnesota," he said, thinking that was right. "Minneapolis?" he asked with a frown.

She smiled a little at that. "Yes," she said.

"To do?"

"He wants to be an Engineer. Computer or Electrical. He hasn't decided for sure yet."

"So, he's smart is what you're telling me?"


That was an answer he hadn't thought would come out about a child of his. He wasn't stupid, but he certainly hadn't given much thought to any kid he'd have amounting to anything. Of course, he hadn't thought too hard about kids at all since he didn't have any. He knew Engineering was a tough degree, whichever focus he was leaning toward. Computer Engineering certainly seemed to be the way to go these days, but he imagined Electrical Engineers would always be a safe, stable job, too.

"Does he know who you are?"

"No, of course not. I think he might know who you are, though."


She shrugged, taking a sip of her wine.

"Come here, Randy," she said. John nodded so Randy went to her where she proceeded to look at his leg better than she had outside when they'd gotten here.

"My brother mentioned the other night that he'd asked him once if he knew who his father was," she said while running a hand along Randy's coat. "He'd seen a cop at school he thought he looked like."

"Oh," John said. "He looks like me?"

"Yes," Claire said.

"And you didn't recognize me that night?"

"It was late. I was tired. I'd been arguing with Bryce and was dealing with a homesick child. He doesn't look exactly like you. I did think you sounded like you on the street. I thought you looked like you at my office, but figured it was a trick of the light. I mean, John, you're a cop."

He could understand that. If he'd been her and only known that John he probably would've assumed it wasn't him either.

"Where'd Kyle come from?"

"I don't know. I'd seen The Terminator when I was pregnant. I was down there alone on Thanksgiving so I had to do something with my day."

"Are you kidding me? You named our kid after an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie?"

"I guess I did. Christopher didn't have to keep the name."

"I suppose not."

"John. What is it you want me to do? Say I'm sorry? I can say it, but I'm not. I did what I thought was best. Really, think about it. What kind of life could we have provided for a child at that time?"

"Doesn't mean I didn't want to know."

"Then you shouldn't have…"

"You didn't give me the chance! You fit me into the hole you wanted to work with. I would've liked to have known I had a son."

"To what end?"

John shrugged. There was the million dollar question, because he knew when it got down to it he had no rights. They weren't married, they weren't even involved. So, she could've done whatever she wanted with the unborn baby. She could've not had it, which certainly given the circumstances would have been the easiest solution for her. So, she could have told him he'd had a son, but what good would that have done him the past nineteen years. She would've told him she was putting it up for adoption but not who adopted him. So, he would've spent the last nineteen years knowing about him and nothing else.

"And if he'd been a girl?"


"Is it just because he's a boy that you're having this issue? Or would you care equally if he'd been a girl?"

"Well, he's not so it seems like a silly thing to discuss, but I don't know. I can't say. I'd like to think I'd care either way."

He watched her as she checked Randy over pretty thoroughly even though she was just using her hands and eyes. It was pretty clear watching her with not just Randy but her dogs as well that she loved animals, being a vet was clearly more than just a job to her.

"He really looks good."

"He's a good patient," John said.

"I still don't know what you want me to say. I did what I thought was right at the time. Do I regret it? I do, every day. I won't deny that especially after I married Bryce and knew I could have afforded him."

"Then Bryce probably wouldn't have been your husband if he knew you'd had a kid before you were married."

"No, you're right," she said. "It never would've happened."

"He doesn't know?"


"Even today?"

"No, I never told him."

"Some marriage."

"What good would it have done me or Kyle to tell him?"

"I don't know. It just seems to me your marriage was destined to fail by withholding something pretty crucial from him."

"That's not why our marriage failed."

"Why did it?"

"That's none of your business."

She was right. It wasn't at all. One of the things he'd done with his days off was check for any police reports to the house or property over the years. There'd been a couple incidents, but as far as John could tell they'd involved someone gaining entry onto the property. He could tell, though, that she'd been tempted for a second or two there to tell him something. How could he tell that? He wasn't sure, but it had taken her a little too long to tell him it was none of his business.

"Why'd you come over Saturday night then?"

"Because you seemed to expect me to, and I didn't want you coming back here. I was just going to tell you I couldn't see you again."

He snorted softly at that, taking a pull from his beer as he watched her.

"And the sex?"

"I told you. It'd been so long, it felt so good. I needed it probably more than I ever realized."

"You didn't lie to me about not having to pull out, did you?"

"No! I'm on the pill, though my doctor has told me I need to start thinking about other options."

"Why?" he asked with a frown.

She shrugged. "My age. I don't smoke or anything, but over thirty-five they recommend women don't take it any longer."

"I see," he said. He hadn't known that, but then he'd never thought much about things like that anyway.

"I just haven't yet."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Tell you what? That you were going to be a father at nineteen? That I was going to have a kid you didn't even want to begin with?"

"You don't know…"

"Don't! I thought about it. Months I thought about my options. I could have told you, you're right, but I knew it would cloud my judgment on what the best thing to do was."

"Yeah, because you must have known I wouldn't have wanted you to give it up."

"And you would've done what?"

"I don't know! You didn't give me the chance to find out."

"You know, it works both ways."

"What does?" he asked with a frown. He hadn't withheld anything from her.

"You led me to believe I was one of many."

"I never said that! Don't blame me for your assuming that was the case."

"You could have told me!"


"That you hadn't either."

"Like hell I was going to admit that."

"If you had…"

"Really? You think that would have swayed your decision making process about withholding the fact I'm a father from me?"

"It's not like I raised him myself without you."

"No, but you've been able to see him, watch him grow up, and know he exists. I didn't even have that until a few days ago."

"I know. John. But you didn't call me. You didn't do anything to make me think you wanted to see me after that day."

"That would've been exactly what anyone who knew what happened between us would've expected me to do, chase after the rich girl."

"And you expected me to do what every girl did with you? Do you hear yourself? Why would I put myself through that? I went to you that day."

"I remember!"

"No, I went to you. I wouldn't have put it past you to accuse me of getting pregnant on purpose."

"I wouldn't have done that."

"Really? You say that today, but go back twenty years, John."

He shrugged, glancing at the beer bottle. He nodded a bit. Yeah, an eighteen-year-old him probably would have said something like that.

"You don't know I wouldn't have come around, though."

"I couldn't take that chance! As it was, I don't know how I got away with my parents not finding out."

"Did you even have a boyfriend?"

"What?" she asked. She sounded confused, perhaps rightfully so.

"Your freshman year, I heard that you didn't come home for breaks because you were at your boyfriend's house."

"No, it's what I told everyone. My brother rented me hotel rooms for breaks."

"You were alone?"

"Yes," she said with a shrug.

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

He shrugged. "That you were alone for holidays that were probably important to you, stuck in a hotel room, hiding being pregnant because of me."

"It wasn't because of you. I made a decision. I could have not had him. I could have told you."

"Yeah, but you're right. I wanted to see you again, but I took you not talking to me as a sign you didn't want to. Being alone on Christmas makes me no difference. You, though," he shrugged.

"It was hard. I hated it, but Christopher and I thought it was easiest for me to stay down there."

"What did you tell people you went to school with who saw you pregnant?"

"That I put him up for adoption."

"And the dad?"

"I didn't say much of anything. I think my putting the baby up for adoption was clue enough he wasn't involved."

He scowled at that, walking to the door she'd let the dogs out through and peering outside. The yard was huge. Of course he knew that already, but seeing it laid out for him like this was kind of weird. He saw the old house she'd mentioned. It had been nice, but wasn't anywhere near as nice as what she had going on here. What did it say about the amount of land she had out here that she could have two more than good-sized houses on it? There was also a second building he noticed. It was pretty small, almost like a cottage and he imagined it was a guest house of some sort. Bryce would have likely had people here over the years who wouldn't want to stay in the house. Maybe Claire did, too, for that matter. It sounded like the old Mercer house was kept up, but was it suitable for people to actually stay in? Who knew?

The fence that ran along the road must have cost her ex-husband a pretty penny.

"Does that brick stuff that goes to the heavens go around the whole property?"

"What?" she asked.

"Your yard. The fortress that goes around it?"

"Oh, around the residential property, yes. Someone could get into the yard by going into the lake, but if they really want to get in here that badly they'd just find a way to scale the brick walls. It was here before we moved in here. It'd always been fenced in."

He nodded.

"What do you want me to do, John?"

"I don't know. There's not a whole lot that can be done, is there?"

"No, not really."

"You're lucky I'm a guy with a gun that's on the right side of the law, you know that?"

"I do," she said.

"Fuck, Claire. A kid would've changed…"

"It would not have changed anything!"

"You don't know that. You don't know anything about me except what you wanted to believe."

"So you what? Wanted to come down to Champaign?"

"I could've."

"You wouldn't be where you are today."

He shrugged. She was right.

"Where do you think we'd be if you found out?"

"I don't know," he admitted. He'd thought hard on that the past few days. How different his life would be if he'd known he had a kid this entire time. She was maybe right, though. He probably wouldn't be here today and try as he might to deny it he liked his job.

"I thought of that. I couldn't think of anything good. I really couldn't. Both of us resenting each other was a distinct possibility."

"Yeah, but you got to spend the last nineteen years knowing him! You got to have more kids."

"How did not knowing about him stop you from having kids?"

"You walked away!"

"John," she said.

"No, God dammit you don't get to 'John' me as if we're talking about a pair of socks I left on your floor. The most popular girl in school couldn't bring herself to admit she actually liked me. How do you think that made me feel?"

"Oh, come on."

"No, you asked me about that John. How that John would react. How do you think that John felt about what you did?"

"You didn't tell me!"

"Whether I'd had sex before that day is irrelevant and not the point at all. You liked me enough to come to me that day, but that was evidently all I was good for."

"We're talking in circles. We didn't communicate well. Either of us. We can't go back and undo it. You didn't tell me you actually gave a shit about me more than another notch on your bedpost. I didn't tell you that I'd fallen in love with you not long after seven o'clock that morning. What does that get us? Nowhere but where we are."

"Sure, easy for you to say. You have all of this. Nice house. Nice job. Nice family. I didn't get that!"

"I did not stop you from getting married and having kids. Don't you dare blame me and one day of our lives for what you all of the sudden think you may lack."

"Unlike you I didn't fucking want anyone else, Claire."

"Jesus. Are you listening to yourself? We were eighteen!"

"Yeah, so? You could fall in love with me at first sight but the same can't be true in reverse?"

"You did not…"

"You can tell yourself that all you want. You got married right out of college pretty much, right?"

"Yeah," she said with a frown.

"So you had to have been dating him for a while before that."

And that was the part that had bothered him when he'd heard she'd gotten married. It had meant she'd gone to school and just forgotten about that day. He'd assumed, until now, that the husband was the reason she hadn't come home for the holidays her freshman year. He seemed to recall reading something when they got engaged that they'd been dating for a few years. The past few days, though, it'd bothered him even more.

"Yeah," she said. "What does that have to do with anything, John?"

"Well, the way I look at it. Clearly you weren't all busted up about giving our kid away if you were out dating shortly after he was born."

She stood then and walked to where he was, slapping him across the face.

"Get out."

"Claire," he said, grabbing Randy by the scruff of the neck. He didn't like her putting a hand on his handler in the least. He saw tears on her cheeks and he felt like shit for making her cry. He hadn't meant to do that exactly. He thought he was kind of entitled to being pissed off given the situation, though.

"Don't you dare talk to me that way and then say my name as if all will be forgiven because you give me that look. You don't get to come into my home and insult me. I've said I did the best I could for all three of us. I can't make you accept that, but, you know, I don't have to. I don't have to sit here and let you pass judgment on me. You don't know anything about me or my life so get the fuck out of my house and don't come back."

"Claire. Come on," he said.

Randy growled when Claire moved her hand again. She didn't move it as if to strike him again, but clearly the dog wasn't taking the chance.

"Randy," John said. "You can't possibly have thought I'd find out and just because we'd had sex again just act as if it wasn't a big deal."

"You think I had sex with you for that?"

"I don't know. It sure seems kind of strange you just doing that, yeah."

"Get out now. Or I will call the police, John. I don't care if you are a cop or not. Get out of my house."

"Yeah, all right," he said. "No sweat."

The gate was open when he got to the end of the driveway and it was closed almost as soon as he pulled through it. Not that he was tempted to go back in there and talk to her again or anything.

"Well, that went real well," he said to Randy who was panting from the backseat. He was moving back and forth on the seat, too. He hadn't liked seeing her get physical with John at all so he was on alert even though John was trying to get him to stand down.


"Hi, Toni, it's Officer Bender."

'Hi, John. How are you?'

"I'm all right."

'How's Randy?'

"He's recovering just fine."

'Good. We miss him around here.'

She was being nice because John rarely frequented the precinct unless he had to for some reason. He just didn't have much reason to go there given his beat was the schools.

"Well, I'll be sure to let him know that."

'I think I have a treat at my desk the next time you bring him in.'

"We'll be sure to stop by then," he said.

'I look forward to it.'

He smiled a bit at that. He'd thought of asking her out for months, but never had. Mixing business with pleasure seemed like a bad idea, but she hadn't been shy about letting him know his attraction wasn't one-sided.

"Say. Could you do me a favor?" He knew what shift she worked and had checked the clock before calling to be sure getting her would be a good possibility. He was about to do something that was toeing the line, but he knew asking her to do him a favor would net him the information he wanted.

'Yeah, sure, at least I can try,' she said.

"I'm looking for my friend's house. I'm supposed to be having dinner there tonight and I think I must have written the address down wrong. Could you confirm it for me?"

'The name?'

"Brian R. Johnson. He's not answering his phone, but he was grilling outside so may not hear his phone ringing telling him I'm lost."

'Oh sure,' she said. He smiled a bit, glancing at Randy on the backseat who was much calmer now. She sounded relieved it was a him John was asking for information on.

"Thanks. I missed the first number so I was blocks off. You're the best," he said as he jotted down the address she looked up for him. It paid to be a cop sometimes.

'Anytime. Enjoy your dinner.'

"Thanks. I owe you one."

'I'll keep that in mind.'

He put the car back in gear and drove in the direction of Brian's house. Not surprising it was in the older but nicer part of Shermer. He stopped on the street in front of the house, putting his car in park.

"Come on, Buddy," he said to Randy who jumped out from the backseat when John opened the door for him.

He walked up the driveway and rang the bell when he got to the front door. He wasn't at all sure what he'd say. He wasn't expecting a woman to answer the door. An attractive woman at that. Huh. Who knew Brian had it in him? From inside he could hear the sounds of a piano being played, not very well.

"Hi, I'm looking for Brian. Brian Johnson."

"May I say who's here?"

"Uh, yeah, John Bender. I know him from high school," he said. By the look on her face she knew who he was. Fantastic. She didn't look unhappy to see him on her doorstep, but she wasn't thrilled either.

"Come in," she said. She'd waited just a minute too long so he knew she was doing it to be polite and he was a cop, not because she wanted to. He supposed he couldn't blame her. Who knew what she thought of him? Probably that he'd gotten Claire pregnant and left her high and dry without another glance or thought.

"Thanks," he said, stepping inside. He patted Randy on the head, gesturing for him to sit, and he did just that.

The living room was nice. Not as nice as Claire's, but better than his. Then that wasn't saying much. He had decent furniture, but he much preferred spending his money on things besides the newest and trendiest furniture.

"Have a seat, please, I'll let him know you're here," she said.

"Yeah, thanks," he said. He noticed a girl, probably about seven or eight, sitting at a piano in the living room. The music wasn't heard any longer so he guessed she'd been the one playing.

"Jenny, come on, sweetheart. Let's go find, Daddy."

"But, Mommy," she said, noticing Randy.

"It's all right if she pets him, unless you don't want her to."

She eyed the bandage on Randy's leg.

"He's fine. I wouldn't have brought him out if there was an issue," he said.

"Fine," she said tersely, but John could tell she wasn't certain or thrilled. Fuck. What the hell did she think she knew about him that she was hesitant to leave him in the presence of a kid? He was a cop for Christ's sake.

"What's his name?" she asked.

"Randy," he said.

"That's a funny name."

"Well, his real name is Dolphus."

She scrunched her nose, eyeing John for a second before her attention was back on Randy. She was petting him carefully, so evidently she'd been around dogs enough to know how to go about it.

"That's funny, too," she said.

"It is," he said with a shrug.

"What happened to him?"

"He got hurt. He's my partner."


"Yes, I'm a policeman."

"Oh," she said. She eyed the leg a second or two longer, but made no attempt to touch him anywhere near the leg. John was glad to see that.

"A bad guy hurt him?" she asked.

"He did," John said simply.

"Did you catch him?"

"Not yet, but we're sure trying."

"I hope you do."

"Me, too," John said. "He really likes it," he said kneeling next to her, "when you rub him right here."

She giggled almost uncontrollably when Randy licked her cheek in response to her rubbing him exactly where John had told her he liked. John didn't see any pets here so while it seemed she knew how to approach a dog he was guessing she wasn't used to dog kisses. Randy could be pretty affectionate, too. Cooper hadn't been like that so it had been a bit of an adjustment for John at first.

"John," a voice from behind them came.

He glanced at Brian not at all able to hide his surprise at seeing him look like he did. He sure had grown up well, which explained him getting the wife he had. He knew nice, geeky guys could get women like her, too, but not often. Brian was looking at John almost as intently so John didn't feel too weird looking at a guy like that.

"Hi Brian," he said.

"Jenny, go see your mother."

"But Daddy, I'm petting Randy."

"You can pet Randy again after I'm done talking to your dad."

"You promise?"

"I do," he said.

"You're a policeman so you can't lie."

"Nope, I sure can't."

"Okay," she said, leaving the room then.

"So, cute kid. Pretty wife. Nice house. Obviously, life's been good to you."

"It's been all right," Brian said.

John was actually a little surprised Brian had stuck around Shermer. He'd assumed of the five of them from that day he'd be the one to not just want to get away from living near his parents but be able to do it, too.

"What are you doing here?"

"Wow. Okay. How are you, too?"

"Sorry, I don't mean to be rude."

"Yeah, you do. That's okay because I'm not exactly here to follow Miss Manners' protocol either."

"Why are you here?"

He followed Brian to the living room, noticing the wedding picture on the wall above the piano. It looked as though they'd gotten married pretty close to graduating from college, too. He didn't understand that mentality, wanting to settle down with one person for the rest of your life at the age of twenty-two. He supposed what didn't work for some worked for others.

A framed picture of Jenny was on the piano, a school picture judging by the background. Sadly, he wasn't sure the backgrounds they used at Shermer Public Schools had been updated in the past twenty years.

"All right, bypassing small talk then?"

"I think that's fair since we're not exactly friends."

Fair enough. John hadn't hidden the fact he hadn't liked Brian. Of the five of them Brian was probably the one John had the biggest problem with by the end of the day. Funny he supposed. He certainly wouldn't have wanted the kid to kill himself or anything. He didn't like him, though.

"Okay. Fair enough. So then, I'm trying to wrap my mind around the fact that you've known for eighteen years that I have a son and didn't think that was information I should know."

"It wasn't up to me."

"Since when did you and Claire become secret-sharing buddies?"

Brian shrugged, taking a seat on his couch so John followed suit. Randy laid on the floor by his feet, watching Brian. John was glad to see the improvement in something as simple as laying down in Randy. He only put a bandage on the leg today because they were leaving the house. He'd put the stupid cone back on when they got home again.

"Since she decided to talk to me," he said with a shrug.

"That's a non-answer."

"I don't know what you want me to say. She talked to me after that day more than once. Initially it was selfish. Her reasons I mean. I knew that even then. She didn't want it on her conscience if I really did hurt myself. So, she talked to me. It was never at school or in public, but," he shrugged. "I didn't really care. Claire Standish was calling me on the phone. I mean, like anyone would have believed me if I'd tried to say she did anyway so it was a pretty moot point at the time."

Yeah, John could understand that way of thinking because he was pretty sure he would've been happy with whatever type of relationship she'd wanted from him back then. Hiding? Sneaking around? Not telling any of her friends? He would've been in if it meant having her as his girlfriend. Not right away, no, he hadn't thought that way. It had taken him a couple of weeks of stewing on the fact she'd blown him off to realize he'd had a pretty damned good thing in his grasp and seemingly blown it.

"She came to me, telling me she was pregnant. She asked me what she should do. I think she thought I could give her an answer, you know a right or wrong thing when it wasn't about that at all."

"And nowhere in that conversation did it enter your mind that the dad should be told?"

"Well, it did, sure, but I couldn't make her, John, and it wasn't my secret to tell. She wasn't even sure she was going to have it at the beginning."

She hadn't told him that. He could see that she might have been tempted to have an abortion. He had to admit he'd wondered why she hadn't. As Brian pointed out they weren't involved. She hadn't gone to him that day expecting that to have happened. It had to have been her first instinct. Yet, somewhere along the way she'd decided to have him.

"And when she decided to have him?"

"I didn't know until we were at school."


"We went to U of I together. Honestly, I probably wouldn't know for sure she'd had him if that wasn't the case."

"Oh," John said, not realizing that either.

"I saw her a few times over the summer, but she never said anything about it so I didn't bring it up either. I figured if she wanted to talk about it she would. I saw her, though, and it was pretty clear by then she'd decided to have it so we talked."

"And you still didn't tell me?"

"It wasn't my place to tell you. I was down in Champaign anyway."

"Come on. Don't feed me that bullshit. You're a guy. You're telling me you wouldn't want to know?"

"Well, I could say something about letting your dick do the thinking for you. You made fun of me that day yet I don't have any illegitimate kids."

He hated that word. Illegitimate.

"I didn't know I did until the weekend!"

"Did you ask?"


Brian shrugged. "Did you ask? You know. You had unprotected sex with her. Did you ever call her and ask her?"

"No!" Why the fuck would he have done…

"I see you understand what I'm driving at. She didn't tell you, she had the right to do that. You weren't even involved. As far as she knew she was a one-time thing and you weren't exactly father material."

"Thanks," he said.

"Just telling it like it was. But you didn't pick up the phone and find out either."

"No," John said.

"So, how do you think she felt realizing that it didn't even occur to you that could've happened?"

She probably felt as though he didn't give a shit.


Of course he hadn't. Logically, sure, there was always the chance. What were the odds that would happen one time, though? Obviously pretty good, but the thought hadn't once occurred to him that was a result of that day.

"I mean, I don't know what you felt about her, but not looking her up ever again to at least find out she wasn't pregnant…"

"Yeah, I get it," John said. Loud and clear. He was an asshole. He'd fucked up somehow when he hadn't even realized there was something to fuck up. "It still doesn't justify her saying nothing."

Brian shrugged.

"Whether I agree with you or her is irrelevant. It wasn't my kid. She needed an ear that first semester at U of I, I provided it. She was vulnerable, emotional. She tried to do the best thing."

"Did you two…"

"No," Brian said with a laugh. "That's what concerns you about my telling you we spent time together?"

"A little," John said. He could admit that.

"No," Brian said. "It wasn't like that. She introduced me to my wife actually."

"And her husband?"

"What about him?"

"When did he come into the picture?"

"John. It's not my place to fill in the blanks of the last nineteen years of her life for you. If you want to know answers you need to ask her."

"She kind of told me to get out of her house."

"So you came here thinking I'd talk when she wouldn't?"

"No, I wanted an explanation why another guy would think it was cool to withhold that information from me."

"What did you say to her?"


"You said she told you to get out of her house."

"Oh," John said with a sigh and shrugged. "I told her she obviously wasn't that shook up about giving our kid up if she started dating the soon-to-be husband shortly after she had him."

Brian shook his head and stood then.

"What?" John asked.

"You're lucky all she did was tell you to get out of her house."


"Cop or not, you said something like that to me…"

"Yeah, I suppose," John said.

"Jenny," Brian said when he walked to the doorway leading to the hall.

"What are you doing?" John asked.

"You promised her she could pet the dog again before you leave."


"You'll be leaving in a few minutes."


"She's my friend, John. Maybe you don't have many of those to understand that things said to you in confidence are expected to be kept that way."

"I bet your wife knows," he said.

Brian regarded him briefly before glancing at the floor. He tried to mask it, making it look as if he was looking at Randy instead but it was an afterthought. His immediate reaction was to look away from him.

"Yeah, see. I saw the way she looked at me when I told her my name."

Jenny came back to the room then and knelt by Randy who seemed to know it was time to go again because he was sitting up ready to do just that.

"John. I don't know what you want me to say or do. Say I'm sorry? I can't really say I am. What would you have done back then if she'd told you? Really. Did I think she should? Yes, but ultimately it was her decision and I couldn't argue with her back then she made the incorrect one."

"Do you know him?"

"I've met him, sure."

"Must be nice," John said.

Brian sighed softly. "Again, I didn't make you do anything that day. That was on you. You knew she was emotional, vulnerable, and inexperienced."

He had, sure, but he hadn't been able to say no to her. He still remembered her opening the door to that storage closet to this day. To say he was surprised was a severe understatement. Then she'd kissed him.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"She obviously wasn't thinking coherently."

"And I was? Jes…"

"John," Brian said cautiously.

"Geez," he corrected. "You think I had a stellar day that day before her finding me?"

"Yeah, but… You took advantage of the situation. Her innocence."

"There was absolutely no advantage-taking by me. She came to me!"

"Sure because you got her attention the way no other guy has. I don't understand it, believe me. She came here over the weekend and I couldn't believe it happened again!"

John noticed Brian used the word has not had as in prior to that day. Has as in present tense. What the fuck did that mean? Hell if he knew.

"She told you?"

"Yeah," Brian shrugged.

"Huh," John said. They must have been better friends than John realized or thought. "Are you going to tell her I came here tonight?"

"Probably," Brian said.

"Great," John said. She'd probably be mad at him about that, too.

"Good night, John. And, really, don't come back. I'm not going to answer any more of your questions and I can't undo the past."

"Bye Randy," Jenny said, leaning in and giving him a hug. She was very lucky that he was a tolerant dog. Cooper had let people get close, but he never would have let someone get this close. He'd been good with kids, had to be to work the schools as they did, but he had his limits. John knew what those limits were, though. Randy was a totally different dog. Different dog, different rules. Little girls could hug Randy and get away with it.

"Thanks for petting him. He likes that."

"Bye," she said, waving as John opened the door.

"She's cute," John said.

"Thanks," he said.

John sat in his car on the street outside Brian's house, playing the conversation over in his mind. It had solved absolutely nothing. He wasn't sure it was a wise thing to do, going there or not. He'd had to know, though, had to confront the guy. What guy did that? Fuck. He still couldn't wrap his mind around another guy thinking it was acceptable not to tell him he was going to be a dad.

"All right, Randy. Let's go get your cone back on," he said, turning his car over and putting it in gear so he could head home for the rest of the night.

Return to Top

***Chapter Five***
Word Count: 5,219

August 2003

John glanced in the rearview mirror at Randy who was looking out his window. It was hot, so John had the air conditioning on. That meant the inside of his backseat windows were going to need cleaning tonight to get rid of the dog nose prints on them.

The plan seemed like a solid one when he'd volunteered to do this stupid door-to-door assignment that his captain had sought volunteers for. Now, though, he was questioning his sanity. Was his life really that bad not seeing the kid? Of course, he realized, as he opened his door and got out before letting Randy out. There was no saying the kid was even home. He was betting he was, though. And his parents wouldn't be. Would his younger brother and sister be home? That was a wildcard. He could see the big brother stuck babysitting for the younger kids all summer, but he could also see the parents keeping the routine as usual and them staying in whatever after-school daycare arrangements they had during school. The middle child was iffy. He was nine or ten John remembered from his research so too old for daycare really, but too young to be trusted at home by himself with his little sister if the older Standish child wanted to do things during the day.

He'd parked on the street because this errand would take him to all of the homes on this block. He'd chosen to save this house for last, getting in his car to leave without stopping here at all. He had it in his mind already, the conversation he'd have with his captain telling him no one had been home at this house plus the other couple that he'd received no answer at. He really had no business doing this when all was said and done. So he had a kid. His life was no different than it had been before she'd dropped that bomb on him. He'd assumed her coming to his house that night was a sign she wanted to see him, that it had been more than just sex for her.

Curiosity got the better of him he supposed because here he was walking up the driveway. Randy didn't mind because he much preferred walking outside than riding in the car.

He took a breath as he rang the bell at the front door, pulling out his badge to have it at the ready.

A young girl, probably around the same age as Brian's little girl answered the door. That answered the question as to whether the younger kids would be in daycare or home with their older brother for the summer.

"Hi. I'm Officer Bender," he said, showing her his badge. "Is your mom or dad home?"

She shook her head. She was pretty cute with a headful of curls, not quite like Shirley Temple but pretty damned close.

"Well, is there a babysitter or something I can talk to?"

"Kyle," she called out, which of course was the response John had been hoping for. "Door," she said.

She ran off, leaving the door open. John grazed the top of Randy's head with his fingertips. It was hot out, which probably meant Randy was even more uncomfortable than John was. John was just glad he didn't have to wear an actual uniform like the street cops did.

"Can I help you?"

The little girl had come back with him, opening the door to step outside and stare at Randy.

"Dee," her brother said.

"It's all right," John said.

John tried not to stare. Or at least not to be obvious about the fact that was what he was doing. It was hard, though, and took him a second to glance behind Kyle so it didn't seem to be what he was doing. Claire had said he looked like him, but he hadn't thought she was being honest. Or at the very least seeing things she thought were there. Nope. He didn't look exactly like him, but he could sure see the combination of his dad and him in Kyle.

"He won't hurt her or anything," he said, running his fingers along Randy's cheek.

"Be careful, Dee," he said.

"I'm doing some door-to-door's in your neighborhood about some break-ins that have been reported recently."

"Really?" he asked, sounding surprised.

There hadn't been a string of them occurring every night or anything, but every week this summer a house in the area had been targeted. The neighborhood was a pretty well-to-do one so the captain wanted the upper class tax payers to know action was being taken. John ordinarily wouldn't have volunteered for this job, but he'd sort of felt the need to do it when he'd seen what neighborhoods were involved.

The last time he'd spoken with Claire he'd wanted to ask her what her son looked like. Their son. Kyle. Looking like John didn't tell him much really because John didn't think he looked much different than most other dark-haired, dark-eyed guys when it got down to it. He was hoping to maybe get her to show him a picture or something. He hadn't counted on her getting so pissed off at him.

"Yeah," he said, holding up his badge and a card. "You live here?"

"Yes," he said. "Well, I'll be leaving for school in a couple of weeks, but yes."

John had sort of assumed that was going to happen soon. It was why he'd gone ahead and said yes to this stupid task, knowing he wouldn't have a chance like it fall into his lap again. Chances were the kid wouldn't be home again until Thanksgiving. So he'd kind of seen it as a now or never thing.

"Oh. Where do you go to school?" he asked, hoping it wasn't an odd question. He knew the answer already, of course.

"University of Minnesota."

"It gets pretty cold up there I bet."

Kyle smiled a little at that. "It does, but it's all right."

"Well, good. What year are you?"

"I'll be starting my second," he said.

"Well, when your mom and dad get home just let them know someone stopped by. If they see or hear anything suspicious call us. We've stepped up late-night patrols in the area so assure them we're aware there is a situation."

"All right," he said, eyeing the card. John would've loved to ask him more questions, but he thought it'd be fairly strange if he did that. So, he'd stopped while he was ahead.

"Dee, come on, leave the dog alone."

"It's all right. He likes kids."

"You haven't always had him, have you?"

"Huh?" John asked.

"The dog. You used to have one a little smaller than him?"

"Oh yeah," John said.

"I remember him from when you came to my junior high school."

"He died a few years ago now."

"Is it an okay job?"

"What?" John asked.

Kyle shrugged. "Doing what you do."

"Oh, well, sure. I'm still doing it. I do more than just the school talks, those are probably the thing I like best, though. There was that missing girl a few months ago. I suppose you were still at school when that happened, but Randy and I searched for her for days."

"Did you find her?" Kyle asked.

"Yeah, in the forest preserve," John said.


"Yeah, probably a little younger than your sister here."

"I hadn't heard anything about it."

"It's hard to keep up when you're in a different state."

"That's why Mom and Dad didn't want me to let her out of my sight this summer."

"Probably so, yeah."

They'd caught the guy just a couple of weeks ago actually. It had been the girl's uncle. He could understand why some parents would be shaken up over something bad happening so close to their neck of the woods. Shermer was, overall, a pretty safe suburb. To this point they'd avoided the gang infiltration so many suburbs had succumbed to. He liked to think he played a role in that. Even if it was a small role, he didn't care.

"Anyway," he said. "Just let your parents know if they have any questions they can give us a call. We're happy to answer any questions. They can ask for me. My name's on the card there, or they can speak with anyone at the precinct if they have information or concerns."

"We have an alarm system."

That wasn't surprising.

"Keep it armed," John suggested.


"All right, Dee, is it?"

"DeeAnna," she said with a pout.

"That's a pretty name."

"Thanks," she said.

"You should go back inside with your brother, though."

"Can we go swimming now, Kyle?"

"Yeah, sure," he said.

"Sorry if I interrupted you going somewhere."

"You didn't, it's just in our backyard. I was waiting for my girlfriend to come over, but she's running late."

"Oh," he said. He had a girlfriend. Did Claire know that? She must. Did she know the girl? "Well, good have fun then. And DeeAnna," he said. "If you see Randy at your school next year you come say hi to him."

"Really?" she asked.


"See Kyle," she said and John couldn't help but laugh.

"Sorry. She loves dogs, which is great but she seems to think she can walk up to any dog. She has no fear."

"Oh, you're right telling her to be cautious."

"Thanks for stopping by," Kyle said.

"Yeah, sure. Be sure to pass along the message to your parents."

"I will," he said.

John chuckled softly to himself at the thought of Claire's brother seeing his business card there. He'd know no doubt why John had really been to the house.

"Good luck at school next year."

"Thanks," he said.

John and Randy walked toward his car just as, presumably anyway, the girlfriend pulled onto the driveway. He waited at the end of the driveway for a minute with Randy, letting him sniff the grass near the curb while she got out of her car. It wasn't nearly as nice of a car as Kyle's. It wasn't a bad car or anything, but he wondered what Kyle's parents thought of their son dating someone from out of their income bracket. If he was going to be an engineer he stood to do well for himself. Then he had no idea what she was going to school for. Maybe she was going to be an engineer, too.

He glanced to the front door as Kyle answered, letting her in. He tried not to be obvious about watching as the girl kissed him. She kissed him first, John noticed and shook his head a little at that, remembering being that age and someone kissing him first. She'd been the only one to do that that he could remember.

"Come on, Randy," he said as the front door shut. He caught Kyle looking at him, too, so John knew he had to leave or it'd be really suspicious him being out here any longer.


"Hello?" Claire said when she picked up the phone.

'Have you lost your freaking mind?'


'Uh, yeah,' he said.

"Why would you ask me that?"

'You told him who Kyle was?'

"No! I mean, yes, but he already knew. All I did was confirm that. He is a policeman, Christopher, you realize that, right? He really didn't need me to do anything but confirm what he thought."

'Yeah, well, you need to tell him to leave my family the hell alone.'

"What are you talking about?"

'He came over here today.'

"He did what?" she asked. She pushed Rosencranz's head off of her lap so she could stand from the couch. She'd just sat down to watch some news before meeting a couple of friends of hers for drinks.

'Yeah, that's right. You heard me. Came over here, left his business card.'

"I find it very hard to believe that he'd just walk up to Kyle and…"

'Oh no, he was very clever and subtle about it. Kyle said the officer mentioned some break-ins in the area and they were doing door-to-doors to tell the neighborhoods effected they were aware of the situation and were beefing up patrols at night.'

"Okay. So you think that was a lie?"

'No, but he's a K9 cop, door-to-door informational relays aren't exactly up his alley. Are they?'

"How would I know!"

'Claire. I mean it, you tell him to stay the hell away from my family or I will see about a restraining order.'

"He's not violent. You can't get a restraining order against someone who hasn't done you any harm. He's not going to hurt Kyle. He was probably curious."

'Tell him, Claire. I don't want him coming around here. He has no business…'

"Well, if you want to be technical about it."

'Don't be technical, Claire. He's my son! I didn't do this to have that guy show up nineteen years later.'

"I know that. I do. I'll talk to him."

'Thank you.'

"You're welcome."

'You really didn't know he came over here?'

"No. Why would I know that?"

'I don't know.'

"Did Kyle ask any questions?"

'No, but I'm not sure he'd ask this time. You know? He saw John's name on the card same as I did.'

"Oh," Claire said. So now Kyle had a name to go with the face he once saw and thought could potentially be his father. Great.

"I'm sorry, Chris, I really am."

'It's not your fault. I just, talk about a thing to come home to.'

"Yeah, I can see that. I'm going out tonight anyway, I'll stop by his house on the way and take care of it."

'I'd appreciate that. I mean, I guess I can't stop him. He was here on official police business, but I think I'd prefer he allow a different police officer handle Shermer PD's business in our neighborhood unless his dog is needed for some reason.'

"I know."

'He said he was real nice to DeeAnna.'

"Well, of course he was, he's not a monster, Chris. If I've ever done something to give you that impression that wasn't my intent. Not wanting to tell him I was pregnant was my thing, my being stubborn."

'I know. I mean, I don't. I didn't know the kid back then to say, but I believed you back then that this was the best thing for all involved. I just want to be sure you remember that it was you making that decision, thinking it was the best thing.'

"I do."

'Good night then.'

"Night," she said, disconnecting the call and hanging the receiver up. She pet Rosencranz on the top of his head absently, staring out the window. The last thing she wanted to do was see John, but he had to understand he had no right to just show up at Christopher's house like that.

She almost wished she didn't know where he lived then she could have used that as an excuse. She'd called her girlfriends to tell them she might be running a bit late.

She could not believe he'd shown up at Christopher's house! Brian had told her about coming to his house a few weeks ago. She'd assumed when she hadn't heard from him since that night at her house that he'd decided to leave the situation alone.

Evidently not.

Or did he go there today just to settle his curiosity?

Either way, she knew it wasn't fair to Christopher and Ellen that John thought he had the right to do that, badge or not.

She rang his bell, hoping against hope he wouldn't be home. She could at least tell Christopher she tried. Kyle was leaving in a couple of weeks for school again anyway. How much harm could John do in two weeks?

Claire imagined if he really wanted to he could cause a lot of harm.

It took him a minute or two to answer the door. She almost turned around to leave, assuming he wasn't home when he opened the door. He snorted softly when he saw her standing there. She, on the other hand, couldn't help but stare for a minute because he'd clearly just gotten out of the shower. His hair was wet and he wasn't wearing a shirt.

"Don't do that. You had to know I'd find out and…"

"Oh, I figured, just wasn't counting on the same night. I certainly wasn't thinking you'd get dressed up to come over here and slap me again."

He thought she was dressed nicely for him? "Get over yourself. I'm going out."

"Oh," he said.

"How's Randy doing?"


"He sure looks like he healed well."

"He did. You got paid and everything, right?"

"I did," she said.

"I was hoping there wouldn't be an issue."

"No, there wasn't. They paid very quickly actually."

"Good," he said. "My captain said you didn't gouge them with after-hours fees."

She blushed profusely at that. She hadn't felt right charging them anything extra when she'd spent a good hour of the night Randy was at her office having sex with John.

"That's why you didn't?"

How could he possibly know what she was thinking?

"They didn't know."

"But if they found out…"

"Who was going to tell them? Randy? I don't know if you noticed but he doesn't talk much."

"Don't be a smart ass."

"Well, I mean, that was nice of you, SPD appreciated you not charging them an arm and a leg, but they never would have known. Besides that had nothing to do with the care you gave to my dog."

"I know."

She sighed softly, embarrassed that he knew she hadn't charged as much as she could have for that night's services. She wasn't an emergency clinic. Certainly if someone called her she did what she could, but her answering service directed them to the after-hours emergency vet in town.

"John," she said, knowing her frustration at standing here like this was evident.

"You're not going to slap me again, are you?"

"No," she said.

He opened the screen door, letting her in.

"Thank you," she said.

"Yeah, sure," he said.

"Listen," she said.

"Yeah, I know. I had no right going over there. You could have saved yourself a trip over here. I knew that going over there. I knew that before I rang the doorbell. I knew that talking to him. I knew that watching him be protective over his sister with Randy. I had to do it, though."

"Well, no, that wasn't really what I was going to say. I can't really blame you for doing it, but you can't do it again."


"John. He's a good boy who's in school studying so he can be a good man. Do you really want to cause him emotional upheaval and distract him from accomplishing that?"

"No. I was just curious. You know? I'd never thought before what a kid of mine might look like. Be like."

"You should have asked me."

"Yeah, well, the last time I saw you you'd told me to get the fuck out of your house. I didn't think calling you up and asking you to take me to see him was going to fly."

"What you said that night…"

"I know," he said. "I'm sorry. Really I am. It was the reason I didn't go see you right away. If I'd gone after you I would have said all sorts of crazy shit. Crazier than what I did say believe it or not. I needed time to," he shrugged as if searching for the right word. "Process. I realize you didn't get time to process when it happened so it's maybe unfair I took that time. Think about it from my point of view, though. Forget for a minute about him, not completely but the pregnancy part. You say you fell in love with me, but you give our kid up and then it seems like you were with your ex almost right away. Even not knowing about Kyle, hearing you'd gone to school and gotten serious enough to be spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family instead of yours. Well, it hurt, I guess," he shrugged. "I mean, I had no claims on you, I know that now and I knew that then. You never calling me or anything made it abundantly clear. It doesn't mean I didn't want to have them."

"John," she said. God, this was exactly the type of conversation she'd been hoping to avoid.

"Was I wrong to say it was your fault I never had any kids? Yeah, I was. I can admit that. It's not your fault. It's my own problem. I can acknowledge that, too. The one person I ever really liked, that I ever really wanted to let see the real me couldn't be bothered."

"I've already explained it to you."

"I know, you did. It makes sense, but that's not how I saw it then. You know? I saw it as you deciding I wasn't good enough. Or at least not good enough for more than just a fuck." He shrugged. "I just never let myself get close enough to anyone again to find out I wasn't good enough for them either. It just wasn't worth it to me to find out I never would be. Then there was the doubt in my head about whether you'd even gotten anything out of it and maybe that was why you hadn't called or anything."

She stepped up to him then, more than a little surprised Randy didn't growl at her as she reached for him. The last time she'd reached for his face with her hand she'd hit him. His eyes closed as she ran her fingertips along his cheek.

"I'm sorry. I really didn't know. I didn't mean to hurt you or to make you feel any less deserving of love than anyone else."

"I know," he said. "My own fault. I guess I should have said something, if not that day I should've called you or something. Brian asked me if I'd even asked you about it."

"He did?"

"He didn't tell you?"

"He told me you came by his house but not what you talked about."

"Oh, yeah, he asked me if I'd ever called you or spoken to you about the possibility. I hadn't and I realized I probably should have. Is that part of why you didn't tell me? Because I didn't ask?"

"No. I was scared. I did love you. It was scary, though, John. I'd never given someone that power before. I didn't know what to do with it. If I showed you I risked you making fun of me. I wasn't willing to risk that," she shrugged. "So, I did nothing. Then I found out I was pregnant."

"You didn't think telling me you loved me then might have been a good idea?"

"I didn't want you to think the only reason I was coming to you, telling you I loved you was because of the baby, because I wanted something from you."

He opened his eyes then, regarding her.

"You certainly would have been within your right to want something from me when you were pregnant with my kid, Princess," he said.

She smiled a little at that. Stupid that nearly twenty years later he still called her that. And that she didn't tell him to stop it.

"I know, but that wasn't the reason I wanted you to be with me. Assuming you would have been with me. I didn't know."

"I would have wanted to try."

"I didn't think you would, John. I really didn't."

He nodded a little. She hoped he understood her thought process. It was a long time ago and a lot easier to be logical about it today than it had been those months before she'd decided whether to have Kyle.

"And the ex? I'm still trying to figure out how he factors into this. Not that I'm an impossible guy to get over or anything. Clearly, I'm pretty easy to do that about."

She sighed softly. She didn't want to talk about Bryce. Not really. It was a topic best saved for another time and place. Not tonight when she really had no desire to rehash the past seventeen years of her life and what an idiot she'd been. She leaned in and kissed him. She had to. Brian was right. Whatever it was about him, that day or today didn't seem to matter. Of course it might have had something to do with the fact he was standing in front of her in nothing but a pair of shorts. Maybe.

He worked a button on her blouse before stopping and pulling away from her.

"What are you doing?" she whispered.

"I thought you were going out somewhere?"

"Oh, I was," she said. "Am," she corrected quickly.

He chuckled softly at that.

"A date?" he asked, kissing her neck just by her ear.


She thought she heard him whisper 'good', but she could have been mistaken and probably was. She wasn't sure she understood John, or men in general, any better than she did that day of detention.

"Why not?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I don't know. No one's asked?"

"I find that hard to believe."

She'd been asked, sure, but not by anyone she wanted to say yes to. She sighed a bit when he continued to the next button on her blouse. She'd gone out on a blind date last weekend. It wasn't bad or anything, but she wasn't rushing out to see him again. He'd called a couple of times since then, but hadn't asked about her plans for this weekend yet. It was summer, people were busy so she didn't take it as a brush-off exactly. She had told him she'd get her kids back next week, though.

"It's the truth."

"They're loss," he said, sliding his hand inside her blouse once he'd finished unbuttoning it. She drew it out of her skirt and started sliding it off. He stopped her, though.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

He gave a soft snort.

"Don't worry. I was just going to suggest going to my room."

"Oh," she said.

"I mean if the door sounds better to you…"

"No," she said.

She followed him to his room more than a little surprised at how big it was. She was going to ask how he'd managed that, but he didn't give her the chance to say anything really because he slid his shorts off as soon as they were in his room.

God, he was gorgeous. He had been that day, too, but now it was so different. She reached behind her to work the zipper of her skirt, stepping out of it once she'd kicked her shoes off. She was probably going to hell for having sex with him so many times with nothing even resembling a commitment or anything from him. It was so worth it, though, she mused as he reached for her. He drew her to him for a kiss as he reached for her panties to slide them over her thighs. She stepped out of them once they'd fallen to the floor and joined him on the bed.

"I have a proposition for you," he said, kissing her jaw a while later.

"Okay," she said.

"Go home," he said.

"What? What kind of proposition is that?" He wanted her to leave?

"I'll follow you. You want to do this again tonight then we'll be at a place where you or I don't have to leave right after to let animals in or out."

"John," she said.

"What? You said it wasn't a date."

"It's not."

"Planned sex is a bad thing?"

"No," she said.

"Then what?"

"You want to spend the night with me?"

"Well, that was the general idea behind my going to your place. I guess if you don't want me to I can leave at some point."


"Why what?"

"Why would you want to do that?"

He drew away then, shaking his head. He shifted so he was sitting at the edge of the bed. He was watching her, though, very intensely. "So I'm good enough to fuck but not to sleep with? Really? Lots of women I'd expect that from, but not you."

"I didn't say that!"

"It sure sounds that way from my vantage point."

"I just," she sighed softly. She leaned up then, reaching for his back with her hand before she kissed it. "I've never had anyone want to sleep with me before."

"Shut up," he said.


"You've got kids, Claire. Obviously someone wanted to do something with you."

"That doesn't require sleeping." It didn't require actual sex either when it got down to it. Of course, John wouldn't know that.

"Are you shitting me?"

"No," she said.

He frowned slightly. "So, was this you or him?"

"I can't talk about it, John."

"Well, if it was you…"

"It wasn't me!"

"So then what's the problem?"

"My kids are going to be home next week."

"That's not tonight."

"I know," she said. "I just think it's a very bad habit to get into."

"It's one night. We'd need more than one night to make it a habit. Besides, your house is big enough I bet I could sneak out without anyone else seeing me."

"The dogs wouldn't allow that."

He chuckled softly. "You might be right. Let's worry about tonight now and the kids being home later."


He shrugged. "Maybe I think you deserve having the night spent with someone."

"I should…"

"Unless your other plans sound better…"

Absolutely they did not sound better in the least.

"Are you going to bring Randy?"

"That was the general idea, yes. I'd bring him knowing I wasn't going to be home later."

"Are you going to get dressed?" she asked.

He smirked a bit. "I don't know. Would you rather I did or didn't? You seemed to enjoy looking with just my shorts on."

She ran a fingertip along his shoulder, over his collarbone and down to his chest. She couldn't see him, but she didn't need to.

"Okay, more than just looking. I can certainly leave a shirt off. I doubt it's going to drop to freezing tonight."


"Uh, because it's the middle of August. What kind of question is that?"

"No, why do you want to do this. You're mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at the situation, but there's nothing I can do to change it. Before you told me I wanted to see you, see where maybe we could get without social standing and peer pressure involved."

"You did?"

"Yeah," he said. "That's why I asked you to come have Chinese with me that night."

"Maybe we could have Chinese for lunch tomorrow."

"You don't work in the morning?"

"I do, but that doesn't mean you couldn't bring me lunch."

He chuckled. "I suppose it doesn't."

"You really want to come home with me?"

"Oh, Princess, I've wanted to come home with you for a very, very long time."

She laughed softly at that. "I just bet you did."

Return to Top

***Chapter Six***
Word Count: 5,171

"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."

"That bad?"

"That bad."

"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 did?"

"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?"

"Fourteen years?"

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."

"I do."

"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."

"Six months?"

"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!"

"Yeah, well…"

"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?"

"Sure. Why?"

"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."

"It 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 glad."

"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."

"Thank you."


"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."

"Thank you."

"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?"


"Did Kyle?"

"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?"

"Oh, yes."

"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?"

"They will."

"Are you?"

"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?"

"Well, no."

"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?"

"I suppose."

"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."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah, sure."

"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."

"All right."

"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."

"I understand."

"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."

"Me, too."

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.

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***Chapter Seven***
Word Count: 2,361

"Are you breaking up with me or something?" Anne Marie asked.


"You haven't said anything all night."

"Oh, no," he said with a shrug.

"Kyle," she said, setting her hand over his. He took it once they stood from the table.

"Are your mom and dad home?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Oh," he said.

"That doesn't mean we can't go back there. They like you, you know that."

"I know," he said.

He did know that. He preferred hanging out at Anne Marie's house than at his house whenever he could. Anne Marie didn't seem to mind his little brother and sister, but he was the only one of his friends who still had siblings in elementary school. Most of his friends knew why, but she didn't. He'd never told her because it hadn't really come up. She hadn't come over to the house before this week and that was only because she'd assured him meeting them wasn't a problem.

He opened her door for her before going to his side of the car.

"I've just been thinking."


"Well, it's sort of strange."

"Okay," she said.

"I haven't told you that I'm adopted."

"No," she said.

"I mean, it's not something that really ever comes up in every day conversation."


"And, my parents are my parents."

"Sure, I get that. Totally."

He started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. It was Friday night and the place was busy. He wasn't going to take up the parking space any longer than necessary.

"Well, a few years ago. Junior high, seventh grade I think. Maybe it was eighth grade. They had this cop come to our school. You know. He talked to us about drugs and designated drivers."

"Right," she said. She'd heard it all, too, he was sure.

"I hardly paid him any attention at first. He had a pretty nice German Shephard with him. I've always liked them, wanted one but Mom and Dad wouldn't let us get any dogs. My cousins have always had dogs, usually more than one, and I was always jealous. So I spent most of his lecture watching him," he shrugged. "This kid started giving me shit, asking me if my dad worked as a cop and was here to check up on me, which of course he didn't. I didn't really see it, but my best friend at the time told me later he could kind of see why Doug was saying that. I asked my dad about it who, of course, told me nothing."

"He probably didn't know, Kyle."

"I know, but I've always had the feeling he and my mom know things. They've told me things about my mom. You know, general stuff. She wanted to keep me, I guess, but she was young and wanted to be sure I had a good life."

"And you do."

"I know. I'm not mad about it or anything," he said with a shrug. "I never saw the cop again, and honestly I never thought about it much after that. I mean, I have no real burning desire to find my biological parents or anything. Out of sight, out of mind. Right."


"Yesterday, he came to the house."

"The cop? He was leaving when I got there?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Why was he there?"

"Some robberies in the neighborhood, telling us that they were doing extra patrols at night and aware of the problem."


"I saw it way more yesterday than I did in junior high."

"You think he's your dad? Come on, Kyle?"

"I know, right? What are the odds I'd cross paths with him randomly once let alone twice in my life. He does look like me, though."


"I heard my parents arguing last night. My dad was madder than my mom. He doesn't usually get mad either. He's usually the calmer one. Mom's the one quick to overreact. Then this morning when I got up the business card he'd left was gone. I'd left it on the fridge for them to see it if they had questions or whatever."

"Maybe they took it."

"I don't know. Maybe," he said.

"You think they know who your dad is?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I've always thought it was real strange that they adopted me years before they had their own kids."

"Some parents do that…"

"I know. It's probably nothing, but he talked to me."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. He asked me about school. If it was cold up there. He told Dee to come say hi to his dog if she saw them at her school next year."

"It sounds like that's what he does…"

"I know, that part. Being nice to Dee. Clearly his job is to try to stop kids from getting into trouble, but the conversation with me," he shrugged. "I don't know."

"So, you've been quiet all night because…"

He was quiet for a few minutes after that, letting her question trail off because she'd probably think he was crazier than he already did for thinking like this.

"I was thinking of going to see him. I don't have his number anymore, but he's a cop in Shermer."


"I just want to know. I mean, I don't think I look that different than my mom and dad."

"No, you don't. I would never have guessed you were adopted."

"But I guess seeing him again made me curious."

"I think you should be careful."


"You could get hurt."

He scoffed at that.

"Your parents could get hurt."

"I'm almost nineteen years old. Legally I could find him on my own if I wanted to."

"True. Have you thought of asking the agency where you were adopted?"

"I don't think I was," he said with a frown.


"I don't know. I always got the impression it was done through a lawyer or something. I guess I've never asked, but I don't think I ever lived anywhere but with them."


"Yeah. Is that strange? I don't know anyone else adopted to know."

"I don't know either."

"Mom and Dad have always answered questions when I've asked them. I haven't in a long time, probably since seeing him at school that day honestly. It never really occurred to me that it should matter."

"Well, that's good. I mean, some people probably aren't so open about it. That must mean they wouldn't be upset if you did."

"I guess not. I've never asked really. I guess I was always more curious about my mom," he shrugged.

"That's probably normal, I mean she's the one who carried you, gave birth to you."

"Yeah," he said. "But what if he, like didn't know about me or something?"

"Kyle," she said, sounding cautious.

"Don't worry, I'm not thinking of finding him and running away to live with him or anything, but I mean it's possible if they were young. Isn't it?"

"And just randomly shows up at your house nineteen years later?"

"Yeah, okay, that part is the weird part. I don't know. He's not a street cop or a detective either, though. He's a K9 cop so why was he doing that?"

"Because his captain told him to?"

"You're not helping," he said. She was being logical and he supposed that was the right and fair thing to do.

"Is that why you haven't…"

"Kind of," he said. They hadn't gotten to the point of even thinking about sex really, but he'd been pretty up front with her from the beginning if she was just out to get laid he wasn't the guy for her. He didn't have a problem with sex, but he supposed somewhere in the back of his mind he wanted to do better than his parents. They'd given him up for a reason, not to make the same mistake they'd made.

"It makes a lot more sense now."

He laughed softly at that, pulling onto her driveway. "I suppose it does."

"No, I mean, I never had a problem with it, clearly. Knowing that your parents were young, though. I get it."

"Thank you," he said, turning the car off.

"Are you going to come in?" she asked.

"Sure," he said. "For a while."

Her sister was only two years younger than they were and was likely out anyway given it was Friday night.

"So," he said, taking hold of her hand when they met by the hood of his car.


"Would you come with me?"


"To the police station. If I were to go on Monday. Would you come with me?"

"You'd want me to?"

"I think so. I don't know."

"Sure. If you'd want me to I would. If you'd just want me to wait in the car I'd do that, too."

"Thanks," he said.

"You're welcome, Kyle, but you don't have to thank me. I'm surprised you asked, but of course I'd go wherever you need me to go."

"Thank you."

"And I'm glad you finally let me meet your parents last night."

"I didn't not want you to meet them," he said with a sigh. He knew that's what she thought. He just hated hanging around there when he didn't have to. It was bad enough he was stuck babysitting all summer. When his parents got home he wanted to go out and do things so his entire summer wasn't wasted. They paid him a fair wage, less than he'd earn at a job or they'd have to pay an actual sitter but it was fair enough he didn't complain too much about it.

"Well, I'm still glad."

"They liked you."

"How do you know that?"

"Dee told me this morning."

"How does she know?"

"She asked my mom this morning."

"Oh," Anne Marie said. "She's cute."

"I know she is, she knows she is. Mom and Dad are going to have their hands full when she gets to be a teenager."

"Unlike you, you mean?"

"I never really dated much."

"Much," she said, opening the door leading to the house.

"Well, I didn't really have time." Between sports and studying he hadn't done much of anything else, but it was how he'd gotten the scholarship he had from U of M. The guy who'd given him shit about the cop possibly being his father had gotten a full-ride scholarship to Iowa on football, tore his ACL during the second or third week of practice. He was done. Kyle wasn't sure if his scholarship money would still be there or not, but it wasn't a chance Kyle wanted to take. His parents had money for him to go to school. He'd always known it'd be paid for, but he liked doing the work that allowed him to get the grades to get offers.

"Hi Mom and Dad. Kyle's here for a while."

"Okay. Hi Kyle."

"Hi Mrs. Ellingson."

"Did you two have a nice dinner?"

"Yeah. We went to Friday's."

"Oh, that sounds nice. Did you want some dessert? I baked a pie."

"Not right now, Mom," Anne Marie said.

"I was actually asking Kyle, Annie. Maybe he'd like a slice of pie."

"Yeah," he said, tugging gently on Anne Marie's hand. "Maybe I want a piece of pie."

"Do you?"

"I'd love a piece, Mrs. Ellingson, thank you."

"Do you want ice cream or whipped cream? I made the whipped cream myself."

"Whipped cream sounds great," he said.

Anne Marie's mom didn't work, never had she'd told him at one point last year. So she had time to do things like bake pies on Fridays. His mom baked pies at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but that was about it.

Her dad was watching some news show on the TV and wasn't paying them any attention as they walked to the kitchen to have some pie with her mom. Her dad never said much to Kyle. He got the impression her mom liked him just fine, he wasn't sure about her dad though. Her assurances they liked him didn't ease his mind on that.

"You're not going to have a piece, Mom?" Anne Marie asked.

"No, sweetheart. You two enjoy it. Put your plates by the sink when you're done."

"All right," she said. Her mom had given her a much smaller piece than the one she'd given Kyle he noticed.

"You can have some of mine if you want."

"I'm really not that hungry."

"I'm always hungry for homemade pie."


He shrugged. "I like pie." He leaned in and kissed her. "Especially when it means you get whipped cream stuck to the top of your lip."

"We wouldn't want that."

"Right? Thanks for not thinking this whole thing is weird."

"It's not weird. I'm glad you told me. I can't imagine what you've been thinking since yesterday."

"Lots of things."

"Well, if you decide you want to go and want me along I'm there."

"Thanks, Annie," he said.

"You are not my mother!"

He chuckled. "I know. I like Annie, though. It's a lot easier to say than Anne Marie."

"That's not my name, though!"

"I'd let you call me something else."

"There's nothing to shorten or change Kyle to!"

"Well, that may be, but if you wanted to…"


He chuckled. "Settle down. I'm just teasing. Shit. I've never called you that before. I've just never heard your mom call you that either."

"I know. I hate it!"


"I don't know. Sometimes I think she still sees me as her little Annie."

"Oh," he said with a nod, understanding a bit. She was named after a saint or something. Her parents were Catholic. His were, too, but clearly hers were a lot more into it than his were. He'd gone to mass growing up but not regularly or anything. He hadn't been since confirmation, in fact. He had no idea where his parents came up with his name or anything. He'd never thought to ask.

"I thought you weren't that hungry," he said when she'd finished her pie and took a bite of his.

"I'm saving you from eating the whole thing by yourself."

"Likely story," he said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 2,911

"Why do you look sad?" he asked, joining her in her bedroom. He'd let the dogs in so she could get ready for bed. She took longer than he did so it was fine with him and she seemed to like him doing that. As if it took any great effort on his part to let the dogs in.

He still couldn't get over the house as he walked to her room from the kitchen. It wasn't big enough he'd get lost in it or anything, but she certainly didn't lack for space to raise kids, have more than one or two pets and not worry about everyone being on top of one another. He was pretty sure he'd be hard-pressed to have enough space for two kids on top of Randy.

Of course, he probably treated Randy better than most parents treated their kids. Or at least as well as that.

"What?" Claire asked.

"I don't know," he said, sliding a fingertip along her arm. "We've had a pretty nice weekend. At least I think we have. You look like that's maybe not the case for you."

"That's not true!"

"All right," he said, grabbing onto her ankle before he got into bed. He loved touching her and was pretty sure he'd never get enough of it. Her feet and ankles weren't real dark tan, but the rest of her was barring the parts a bathing suit covered. No tan lines on her back, though, so she clearly didn't keep the top to her swimsuit on when she laid out. He wondered how she managed to tan as well and dark as she was currently. He supposed she spent a lot of times outdoors with the horses she had and by her pool. He liked it on her.

"I feel a little guilty, though."

"Fuck. Why? We haven't done anything wrong. You're divorced! Your kids aren't here. You're allowed to live."

"No, that's not why."

"Good, because I was going to say."

"No, just the kids are going to be back tomorrow."


She shrugged and he turned onto his side, sliding a hand to her hip and tugging her gently so she was on her side, too, looking at him.

"Come on. What?"

She shrugged, running a fingertip along his arm at her hip. She did that sometimes, touched him while he was touching her as if she was amazed he was doing it. He didn't get that. He really didn't. She had yet to say anything real bad about her husband. They were divorced so, clearly, they had issues. The separate bedrooms really made him wonder what kind of life she'd had.

"It's nothing really."

"Don't do that. What?"

"You can't stay here again then."

"They'll go to their dad's some weekends, won't they?" he asked. He'd thought of that, too, actually. It'd been a while since he'd spent an entire weekend with someone. It was pretty nice he had to admit. He and Randy had gotten done later than he'd thought Friday night, but she'd insisted he could come over after they were done. He hadn't been home since leaving the house Friday afternoon.

"Sure, until he goes down to Springfield and then it's very rare. Once every six weeks or so, and I drove down there and stayed the weekend. I don't know how it will work this year since we're divorced now."

"With him?"

"Well, yes. I mean, I had my own room and I wasn't in the way."

"You're divorced now, though, Claire, you can't do that."

"What do you mean?"

"Come on. He's got his own house up here. You can't go down there and stay with him as if you're still married."

"It's not like I hate him."

"Yeah, well, that's still very weird."

"It's the only way it worked out. He got to spend the most time with the kids because I could close the practice that Monday."

"That makes sense," he said, having to agree with the logic. It was her practice so she could open and close it whenever she wanted. Likely, she knew the dates in advance so patients just weren't scheduled those days. "And that's very nice of you."

"They're his kids, too."

"I get that, I do," he said. "Well, we can worry about that when the time gets here. I'd rather focus on the every other weekends he'll have them until that happens."

"Is that right?"

"Actually, no, it's not."

"What?" she asked. He chuckled softly at the look she was giving him just now. She didn't like that answer at all.

He leaned in and kissed her, sliding his mouth to her jaw and lower to her neck as he worked the buttons on the top she wore. She insisted on wearing something to bed, which he wasn't sure he understood when he'd just removed it the first two nights. Whatever made her comfortable, he supposed.

"I'd rather focus on the rest of the one here and now," he said.

"I like the sound of that."

"He's not going to drop them off at seven o'clock in the morning, is he?"

"No," she said.

"Good," he said, working her top over her head. He'd learned Friday night the buttons weren't just for show or decoration. They served no real purpose that he could see really, but if they weren't undone the shirt wouldn't come off. Evidently they were designed to give people those extra couple of seconds to really think about whether they wanted to have sex or something.

"Why? He wouldn't care."

John found that incredibly hard to believe. He didn't have an ex-wife, but he had a couple of ex-girlfriends he'd been serious enough about to care about seeing them with some other guy. He couldn't imagine spending almost half of his life with a woman, having kids with her, and not caring she was seeing someone else months after divorcing him. Then maybe he wasn't normal, but going by what he heard around the precinct and other cops he didn't think he was out of the norm with that thought process.

"I bet your kids might care."

"Oh," she said.

"Probably not a good way to meet them for the first time either."

"I suppose not," she said.

Meeting her kids was a scary thought, and not one he wanted to spend any amount of time worrying about tonight. He much preferred thinking about ensuring she wanted him here the next weekend she didn't have them. So he decided to shut up and set about doing just that.

She wasn't much of a toucher. She wasn't afraid to kiss him or to let him know that she wanted him, but touching him seemed to exceed her comfort zone for some reason. He didn't mind exactly because her being a willing participant had never been in question. It did make him wonder, though.

She was also seemed self-conscious of his seeing her naked. He'd offered to take a shower with her yesterday morning, but she hadn't gone for that. She'd used the dogs as an excuse, but clearly the shower could have waited until after the dogs were let out. He hadn't pushed, though, and hadn't brought it up again this morning.

He thought her insecurities were pretty pointless. He hadn't examined every inch of her, but he thought she looked just fine for having one kid let alone three. And the parts that would've been most effected by having kids he'd spent a good amount of time getting to know.

"I don't think your cat likes me very much," he said an hour or so later when they settled in to go to sleep. She seemed to know that's what they were doing, too, because only then did she join them on the bed.

"I know," Claire said.

"So I'm right?"

"She's never had to share my bed with anyone but me."

"I suppose," he said, as the cat found a spot nearest to him for the moment.

He reached behind him to pet her, scratching her ears.

"She's all right for a cat, I suppose."

"Not a cat person?"

He shrugged, drawing his hand away from Gertrude and sliding it around Claire.

"Just never been around them much I guess. Have you always had both?"

"Yes," she said.

"And horses?"

"Yes," she said.

"I never pegged you as an animal person," he said.

"What's not to love about animals?"

"I don't know. The you then, though, taking care of anything else…"

"That's not very fair."

"I know, but that's how I thought."

"I won't deny my parents ended up taking care of our dogs more often than Christopher or I did growing up."

"Imagine that."

"I think that's one of the reasons Chris doesn't have pets. He remembers it was Mom and Dad who took care of them, cleaned up after them. I just," she shrugged, pressing against him. This he could get used to. Her body's instinctive attempts to stay close to him. He liked that about her a lot. They hadn't woken up this close either morning, but that hadn't bothered him. They weren't twenty, but falling asleep with her like this was nice.

"Does your little girl ride horses?"

"Yes. She just started this spring, actually. She's a natural. I knew she would be."


"She's on the small side and she's watched her big brother and cousins so she knew the rules before we ever put her in a saddle."

"Did you start that young?"

"I did," she said.

"Huh," he said. Yet another thing about her he hadn't a clue about until now.

"That surprises you?"

"That you rode horses?" He shrugged. "No, I suppose it's not surprising. It's certainly something a well off person would do that someone like me wouldn't have had the opportunity to."

"You could have ridden!"

"Right," he said with a soft chuckle. "Tell yourself that."

"Do you know how to ride?"

"I know how within reason, sure. I'm not going to give that Shoemaker guy a run for his money or anything."

She laughed softly.

"You could go riding with me sometime."

"Hmm, sure," he said.


"Sure, as long as you don't laugh at me. Or take me out into the woods somewhere and leave me to find my way back."

"I wouldn't do that."

"Well then, sure."

"It's a date then."

"Yeah?" he asked.


"All right."

"Some weekend when the kids are at their dad's."

"Right," he said. "You know, your daughter's three, right?"

"Yes," she said.

"You're surprisingly calm about being away from her for so long."

"I wasn't at first. The first few days were terrible. Never mind I've never had the house to myself ever. I don't think I've ever been alone in my life until this summer."


"When would I have been? Other than that Thanksgiving and Christmas I was pregnant, and that was different."

"I suppose."

"Eventually, though, it got better."

"You're ready to have them back, though, I bet?"

"I am," she admitted. "I'm sorry, maybe that's not the answer you were hoping I'd give."

"No, no. What makes you think that?"


"Claire, come on. They're your kids. Of course you want them back."

"I'm glad you see that."

"I'm not a complete dick."

"I didn't think you were."

"I'm glad to hear you say that. Now, get some sleep, Princess. Your kids are going to be home tomorrow and something tells me you're going to have a busy week trying to make up for not seeing them for six weeks."

"You might be right."

"I think I am, yeah."

She hadn't mentioned the youngest one calling again wanting to come home, but he imagined Claire missed her daughter as much as the daughter missed her mom. The older kid was probably able to roll with the change a little bit easier, but he could see to a three-year-old why it would be very confusing. Especially since it sounded to John as if Claire and Bryce had continued to live together even going through their divorce. He hadn't lived in the house, but on the property and eaten dinner with them just about every night she'd told him. Then, Bryce had spent six of the months down in Springfield, so maybe her parents living separately wasn't a big deal for her. Spending all of her time with her dad and not her mom was probably different, though.

"That's good."

"You probably think I'm weird."

"Weird? Why?"

She shrugged.

"Because I didn't have parents like you are and had, you mean?"


He shrugged. "I don't think it's weird that parents want to be good parents. I think it's weird when I see situations where it was obvious a parent or parents didn't want the responsibility and shirk it."

"You see that a lot?"

"I do," he said.

"Is that why you're not as mad about Kyle as I thought you were going to be?"

"Oh, if you'd stayed to talk to me after telling me about him I would have been plenty mad. We wouldn't be here now in your bedroom I'm pretty confident. You left, I wasn't going to chase after you with that laid in my lap. Yeah, though, I can acknowledge starting out with a disadvantage of being an accident to two people who were as young as we were and weren't even involved to begin with probably wasn't the way to a good life."

"I'm glad you can see that."

"Only because of my job."

"I know. I see it, too, believe it or not."

"What do you mean?"

"Not everyone should have a pet. I see dogs, cats, and you name it brought in that clearly aren't taken care of. The parents wonder why they're sick. Last winter I had a little boy bring me a turtle he'd found on his driveway. Clearly someone had him as a pet, decided they didn't want it anymore and just let it go."

"A turtle?"

"Right? Can you imagine? The boy's mom brought them in. I told her what they'd need to care for it, give it a good environment, and from what I know the turtle is thriving."

"That's good," he said.

"It is, I wish I knew who would do that, though. It has to be someone around here if the boy found him on their driveway."

"Right. I can't even imagine. I mean, at least put him in a pond or something."

"Yeah. Sadly, there's nothing I could do about it even if I did know who did it. Just like I can't report the people who don't do more for their pets than the bare minimum. They're not breaking any law. There's a family up the road about a mile from here. They have cats, like eight of them, none of them are allowed in the house. I have no problem with outdoor cats, but they do nothing to stop the cats from creating more cats. I've tried to talk to the wife, tell her she should get some of them neutered but it falls on deaf ears. There's always someone willing to take cute kittens off their hands. I think about those cats, though, when it's cold in the winter."

"Randy is the closest thing I've ever had to a real family truthfully. I couldn't even imagine leaving him outside or not caring for him properly."

"I know, I can tell that about not just you but him, too. He's so obviously loved and loyal to you. That's good."

"Yeah, my job kind of depends on that."

"I know."

He shifted a bit on the bed, turning onto his back. She turned, too, so she was facing him and rested a hand over his abdomen.

"You know we're going to go home tomorrow and Randy's going to look at me like I'm holding out on him."

"What?" she asked, lifting her chin a bit to look at him.

He chuckled softly. "Your pool. I honestly didn't know he liked to swim."

"He's never before?"

"Well, not for fun, no. He's gone in before on a search, sure."

"Oh," she said. "Well…"

"Relax, I'm teasing. He'll be fine."

"I'd tell you that you can bring him here anytime, but I just don't think coming here tomorrow would be a good idea."

"I wasn't trying to weasel an invitation in. I imagine it'll be kind of chaotic."


"Probably for a while."

"At least until school starts again."

"Where does your little girl go?"

"I have a nanny come to the house."

"Ah," he said. That made sense he supposed. "Well, if you want a break from chaotic you have a phone. I have a phone."

"You want me to call you?"

"If you want to, sure. Other than taking him for a walk I have no plans for the evening coming up here. If you don't I won't take offense or anything."

"All right."

"And if I don't answer it's not because I'm avoiding you or don't want to talk to you. It just means I got called out for something."

"Hmm," she said. He wasn't sure if the 'hmm' was a tired sound or an indication she was thinking. Either way, he knew it was late and she had her kids coming home tomorrow after working all day. He'd feel bad if she was tired because of him.

"Night, Princess."

"Night, John."

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***Chapter Nine***
Word Count: 3,783

He probably should have had Anne Marie come with him after all. He'd decided not to this morning.


Well, he didn't want to look like a fool.

If he was wrong he supposed he wouldn't look like a complete fool. If he was right, though, and the guy was a dick to him or something then he'd look like an even bigger fool. So, she was at his house babysitting his brother and sister instead. He hadn't been completely surprised she made the offer, but he was a little. He liked his little sister, but she could be kind of bratty sometimes. Their mom told Kyle (repeatedly) it was her age, but it seemed it'd been her age forever now. His little cousin didn't seem to act the same way as Dee, but he was a little older now than when Dee was that age. So maybe he saw things differently.

He pulled open the door leading to the police station. He'd never been here before. He'd never had reason to be. He knew where it was, of course, but going in here or knowing where to go look for someone exceeded his knowledge.

"Hi. Uh, I'm looking for Officer Bender," Kyle said to the woman at the desk.

"Is there something I can help you with?"

"Uh, no, ma'am, I just need to speak with him if he's here."

"All right. Let me see if he's in," she said. He listened as she picked up a phone at the desk and spoke to someone on the other end. "He'll be up in a minute."

"Thanks," he said, walking back to the entrance and looking outside. He shoved his hands in his pockets, wondering what he was even doing here. What were the odds? He had no idea if his birth parents were even from Shermer, but they almost had to be. He'd gotten the impression from things his dad had told him over the years he hadn't been adopted from an agency or anything. Wouldn't that indicate his parents were local for his mom and dad to adopt him?

Then what he knew about the adoption process was nothing. He could admit that. He'd never had much reason to think about how his parents got him, just grateful they had.

"Hey, Toni," someone said from behind him and Kyle turned to look. It was Officer Bender.

Kyle watched him for a second, trying to see him how Doug had seen him back in junior high. Was Kyle just seeing things today because Doug had planted the thought in Kyle's head? He remembered him, though. He'd never forgotten the officer because unlike most people who look like one or the other of their parents, Kyle didn't. He'd never had that. So the guy had stood out in Kyle's mind because it was something so many people took for granted.

"He looks as good as new," she said, stepping away from the desk a bit to pet the officer's dog. Kyle hadn't been paying attention to what they said to one another, but she was obviously talking about his dog.

"I was surprised to get your call to come up here. I thought you didn't work days during the summer at all?"

"Short-handed so they pulled me in."

"A double?"

"Not quite. I'm working twelve."

"Well, I appreciate having you here."

"Thank you, John," she said. Kyle glanced between them a little closer then. It was pretty clear she was into the officer. The way she said thank you caught his attention, but even the way she was standing closer to him than the dog really. "I'm so glad Randy's all right. I was worried about him," she said, sliding her hand against the officer's.

"You and me both, Toni," he said. Kyle knew when the policeman spotted him. He drew his hand away immediately. Too quickly, as if he'd been caught or something. What business was it of Kyle's if the two were involved? The woman, Toni, looked between the two of them a little curiously. She didn't look too pleased the officer had brushed her hand off his as he had. "I hope the day goes by quickly for you."

"Thanks," she said.

Now that the officer was walking toward him Kyle had no idea what to even say.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

Fuck. He didn't even remember him! That didn't bode well. Surely if Kyle really looked like him he'd see it, too, especially if there was the possibility he was his birth father.

"Uh, yeah, my name's Kyle Standish. You came by our house…"

"Oh, right. I remember. Sure. Everything all right?"

"Yeah, sure. I just," he said, glancing back at the woman he'd been talking to before spotting Kyle. She was watching them. She was trying to not be obvious about it, but she was. "Can you, like, go outside for a minute?"

"Sure," John said. "I'm going to take Randy for a little walk across the street, Toni. I have my phone on me if anyone needs me. Otherwise I'll be back."

"All right," she said.

The policeman fell into step beside him. Randy was on the other side of the officer but he had no trouble keeping up with them.

"Did something happen to him?"


"Randy? The woman back there said she was glad he was all right."

"Oh, yeah, he was shot a while back. Your…" he said and stopped. "You know how people get around animals. Your sister isn't the only one who loves them. Anyway, he's fine."

"Oh, good. I didn't really think about the fact that could happen."


"Is that what happened to your other one?"

"No, just old age, thankfully."

Kyle grew quiet then. He had no idea what the fuck to say and the guy probably thought he was weird beyond belief for showing up here like this.

"What can I do for you, Kyle?"

"I'm not sure."

He laughed then. "Well, if you aren't sure I'm not sure how I can help. If you think you know something about those burglaries going on you can call in an anonymous tip. No one would know it was you."

"What? No," he said quickly. He didn't know anyone who'd do that shit because most of the people he knew lived in his neighborhood.

"All right."

"Do you know my parents?"

"Your parents?"


He was quiet for a little bit after that. He tried to cover it up by focusing on Randy, but the dog was fine.

"I know of them, sure."


"How do I know them?"


"I grew up here the same as your dad did," he said. "I was a few years behind him, but sure I knew who he was. I think he was in grade school with me for a couple of years, fourth and fifth grades maybe."

"That's it?"

"What more is there? Shermer's a suburb, but it's a pretty big suburb."

He shrugged then. This was a pointless, useless trip. He wasn't learning anything and the trouble was he had no idea what to say without sounding like a crazy person.

"I'm adopted you know."

"Okay," John said, sounding cautious.

"That day you were at my school one of my friends thought I looked kind of like you."

"No offense, but I think you could look like a lot of people."

Kyle had thought of that, too. He really had. He hadn't forgotten about the officer, but he hadn't dwelled on the fact Doug thought he looked like him or anything. Until he'd shown up at their house. What were the odds of that happening?

"You know your parents?"

"I wish I didn't, but sure," he said.

"Why?" Kyle asked. He wasn't sure what to make of that answer.

"Why what?"

"Why do you wish you didn't?"

"Because when it came to parents I got the short-end of the stick. And then some."

"But you know them. You see where you came from. You can look at someone and see a resemblance."

"Sure," John said.

"Imagine going through life not having that."

John sighed softly.

"Look, Kid. Kyle. I don't know what you want me to say here."

"I was just curious, I guess."

"If I was your long-last dad?"

"I don't think going door-to-door is in your normal job description."

"I'm a step above a beat cop when it gets down to it. A big step maybe, sure and I have seniority over everyone else anymore these days but if my captain tells me to do a job I do it."

He glanced at him then. He wasn't exactly denying it. Sure, he wasn't admitting it either, but he hadn't come right out and said it was impossible. Or laughed at him for the ridiculousness of the thought.

"Listen, Kid. I don't know your mom and I barely know your dad to recognize him passing by on the street. However, I suspect they may not be too happy to hear you're going up to random people asking them if they're your mom or dad."

"It was just so strange you showing up at our house."

"I have to pay my bills just like everyone else."

Had that really been all it was? He had shown up to do a job and nothing else? Was Kyle seeing things where there was nothing to see? Maybe so, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Doug hadn't been too far off.

"It's brave what you did," he said then after a bit of silence between them. Kyle was realizing he'd made a huge mistake and this guy probably thought he was an idiot.

"How's that?" Kyle asked. He didn't feel very brave.

He shrugged, knelt down and pet his dog. Kyle did the same because he really was a beautiful dog.

"Coming here. Doing this. What if I was him and I'd told you there was a reason you were put up for adoption? Like I didn't want a kid? I mean, I could've said anything. Yet you took the chance."

"Well, it was just strange, twice. You know?"

"I do know."

More silence. The dog sure wasn't bothered by the attention he was getting. Kyle couldn't help but notice, again, the cop hadn't denied anything. Not really. Eventually they started walking back toward the police station.

"What are you studying?" he asked then.


"Oh yeah?" John asked. "You must be pretty smart then."

"I don't feel so smart right now."

"Kyle, you're not stupid. Just do me a favor, all right?"

"I can try."

"The next time you think someone may be your dad, let me check them out. Okay? There are people who'd take advantage of you, you know? Your parents are pretty well off and I'm guessing it's not common knowledge that you're adopted."

"No," Kyle said.

"You have an uncle who's a politician and probably aspires to be more than a state senator."

"Yeah?" What did his uncle Bryce have to do with anything?

"Someone may think your folks would pay some money to keep that quiet. Not sure how it would affect your uncle's future, but it could. You never know how someone could spin it if they were out to do something shady. Some folks may lie to you and tell you they are your dad, hoping to get something from you."

"Do your parents live around here?"

"Yup. The same piece of shit house I grew up in. They'll be there until the walls crumble down around them I wager."

"Oh," he said.

"Hard to imagine, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"You've had a pretty good life I bet. Good schools and access to horses and all sorts of things. Not everyone had that."

"I know that."

"I'm glad you do. I hope you consider the fact that your parents did what they thought was best for you at the time. You know? I'm sure they didn't enter into such a thing lightly."

"I do. I mean, I guess I don't really. They were young my dad says so I'm not sure they were doing what was best for me or them."

"I'm guessing what was best for all of you was a good decision. My parents are prime example of a couple who shouldn't have given it a try. Trust me it wasn't fun growing up like that."

"I know," he said. He didn't, not really. He didn't know anyone well who grew up the way the officer was implying he'd grown up. There were kids he'd gone to school with who hadn't had good homes, but they weren't people Kyle knew.

"Maybe you should let the finding them thing rest until you're, you know, grown up a bit. On your own. And better equipped to handle whatever happens from you finding them. You don't want to piss off your parents. They've raised you."

"I know that."

"And maybe talk to them about it beforehand, see how they feel about it before jumping into it."

"I never really thought about it until now."


"No," he said with a shrug. "Mom and Dad have always told me my parents were young, you know. Too young."

"Well, then they obviously know something and they're willing to share information with you. It works both ways, you know. Talk to them, but finish school first. You're smart, no use getting distracted by something that isn't going to change anything."

"Thanks for being nice to DeeAnna."

He chuckled then as he stopped in front of the steps. "You're welcome, but she's a cute kid. You don't need to thank me."

"Well, thanks," Kyle said. He had no idea what else to say.

"Sure. Anytime," he shrugged.

"John," Kyle said as John started up the steps.


"Thanks for not laughing at me."

"Nothing to laugh at or about. What would you have done if I'd said I was?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know," John repeated, looking curious.

"I don't. I mean, it seemed so farfetched an idea I didn't think much about coming here to ask you."

"Well, if I was him I'd have to be pretty proud that you've turned out as good as you have. Your parents took a risk, too, you know. Anyone could have adopted you, good or bad. I see the bad a lot. You're lucky and I hope you know that."

"I do."


"You meant what you said earlier?"

"About what?"

"You'd check someone out for me?"

"Sure, within reason. I mean, I'd have to know you were pretty confident the guy was an actual possibility."

"And you're not?"

The officer shook his head then.

"I only wish I could turn out a kid who's going to become an engineer."

"Cops aren't stupid."

He chuckled then.

"Are you going to tell your parents you came here today?"

"No," he said.

"Does your brother and sister know where you are?"

"No," he said.

"Where are they anyway?"

"My girlfriend's watching them."

"Oh, that's nice of her. What's her name?"

"Anne Marie."

"Pretty. She goes to school with you?"

"Yes. That's where we met. She lives out in Skokie."

"Good. Well, you get on home and I can assure you I won't tell them either."

"Thanks," he said, turning away as John walked up the steps toward the precinct doors.


John rang the buzzer at the gate, wondering how she was going to react to his showing up here tonight. He'd come immediately after work so if she didn't want her kids to meet him or anything today he'd look like a police officer. He kind of had to admit he was curious what they were like, but imagined after being gone for a month and a half her house would be pretty chaotic.


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

'John,' she said. 'It's not a real good time.'

"Yeah, I got that, but I'll be five minutes tops."


"I swear. I just need a few minutes of your time. Come on. I know what today is. You think I'd just show up here without a legitimate reason?"

'Okay,' she said, buzzing the gate open so he could drive through.

Ah, the ex was still there, John noticed by the vehicle that wasn't Claire's on the driveway. The hatch was open and while it was mostly empty there were still a few things in there indicating they weren't done unpacking.

She met him outside, reaching to pet Randy almost immediately through the open back window of his car.

"Sorry," he said. "Really, I'm not here to intrude." He got out of the car, letting Randy out, too. He glanced at John.

"Go ahead," he said before Randy darted off near where Claire's dogs were.

"John," she said. "This is kind of a bad time."

"Yeah, I know, I wasn't expecting he'd still be here."

"They just got home like twenty minutes ago."

"Oh," he said. "I'm sorry, really, but I figured you'd want to hear about my day."

"What? I mean, not that I don't, but can't it wait until an evening when I'm not seeing my kids for the first time in weeks?"

"Normally it could, sure, but Kyle came to visit me at the station today."


"Yeah, see, I thought you might like to know that today not over the weekend or next week."


"Apparently he thinks I'm his father."

"Oh my God. He said that?"

"He asked me. Well, not flat out, directly but that was his question."

"You didn't…"

"No, I didn't admit to anything, but I had to be careful. I didn't deny it either. I couldn't. I am his father, Claire. I'm not going to lie to him."

"No, I know."

"So, I sort of skirted the issue. I don't know if you want to tell Chris or leave it alone. I'll leave that up to you. You know your brother, I don't."

"I know."

He reached for her then, sliding some hair away from her face.

"You look tired," he said. While he'd spent the night and they'd had sex before going to sleep and once they'd woken up he didn't think he was responsible for her looking that way.

"I had to put a dog down about an hour ago."

"Oh. Shit. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. It's just never easy even though they're not mine."

"I can imagine. You treat them so you're familiar with them."


"Well, I tell you what. As much as I'd like to offer to stay and help take care of you I know tonight isn't the time for that. So, I'm going to get on home, leave you to your kids. I just wanted to let you know."

"I appreciate it, I do. I can't believe he did that."

John shrugged. He could sort of believe it, because an eighteen-year-old John would have done it in a heartbeat if he'd been in the situation Kyle was facing.

"I told him if he ran across anyone else he thought might be his father to let me know and I'd check them out before he confronted them."


He shrugged. "I don't know. What are the odds he'll meet someone else he thinks is me?"

"Probably not high."

"That was my thought, but I figured that way I could assure him whoever it is isn't without admitting anything."

"Please be careful."

"I'm not seeing him again! He came to me!"

"Because you showed up at his house, John!"

"Yeah, okay, it was stupid. I told you I knew that before I even did it, but I had to."

"I understand."

"Thank you." He whistled for Randy then. "You want to talk to someone who's not a kid before you go to sleep give me a call. Okay?"

"I'll be…"

"I know you'll be fine, but your house is full again when it hasn't been for weeks. You just put an animal down and I know necessary or not that's going to affect you. So, if you need to talk, give me a call. That's all I'm saying. I'm not expecting it."


"Can I kiss you?"

"Probably not a good idea today."

"Because he's here?"

"Because my kids are here and they don't know you yet."


"I imagine at some point you'll meet them."

"Aww, that almost makes it sound like you want me around. That must mean I did something right."

"You did."

"I'd love to do whatever it is I did right again sometime."

"Me, too."


"Yes," she whispered. He chuckled, unable to help it.

"Maybe over the weekend?"

"I can't leave them alone at night."

"So come over during the day sometime."


"Why not? Sex during the afternoon is the same as sex at night just with the sun up instead of not."


"Yeah? Better than a fuck you no I guess, I'll take it. Let me know."

"Okay. I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to lie and I'm sorry that you can't come in."

"If he wasn't here?"

"I'd probably let you come in at least."

"Is he being decent?"

"Yeah, he's fine."

"All right," he said, watching as someone came out of the house and walked toward the SUV. It wasn't her ex-husband.

"Who's that?" John asked.

"I can't, John. Not today. You aren't supposed to be here and you're a cop."

"Okay," he said, regarding the guy as he took the remaining things from the SUV and headed toward the house. He wasn't sure what his being a cop had to do with the situation, but he had to trust she'd tell him if it was important. He shrugged, letting Randy back into the car. He couldn't make her. "Get some rest."

"I will."

"I hope you have a good night, Claire, really."

"I know, thank you. And yes, thank you for coming over to tell me. I appreciate it especially since I know it's out of your way to come out here."

"Worth it to see you again."

She glanced at her shoes then, but not fast enough for him to miss the blush on her cheeks.

"I'll buzz you out in a couple of minutes."

"That's fine."

He waited by the gate for a couple of minutes and drove out. He wondered what the chances of her coming over Saturday or Sunday afternoon even were. If not this weekend since she just got her kids back after so long but some weekend? She hadn't seemed opposed to the idea in general. Her oldest boy was like thirteen so certainly old enough to babysit his younger sibling for a couple of hours.

Return to Top

***Chapter Ten***
Word Count: 3,049

"Hello?" he said, trying to sound more awake than he was. He'd been called out to a scene a couple of towns over because they needed some extra dogs for a drug bust. He didn't mind going, but he and Randy hadn't gotten done until nearly four in the morning.

'Hi. It's Claire.'

"Hey," he said, glancing at his clock. "Aren't you supposed to be working? Is everything okay?"

'I am and it is. I'm there. I just thought I'd call you.'

"Well, you're sure welcome to call me anytime, you know that. It just worried me since I know you open before eight every morning."

'You sound tired.'

"Do I? You can tell that?"

'I guess I can.'

"I got in about four this morning."

'Oh,' she said.

"I was working," he added quickly, realizing what that statement could have sounded like. He hoped she wouldn't think he'd do that, leave her house and go to someone else. He hadn't been to her house for that purpose last night, but he had the entire weekend before.

'Until four in the morning?'

"Criminals don't punch time clocks, Princess."

'I suppose not.'

"You don't believe me? You want to talk to my captain?"


He chuckled softly at that. "All right then. So, what's on your mind this morning? Did I do something wrong after all?" He couldn't shake the feeling that he was going to catch some shit for talking to Kyle at all. How could he have known the kid was going to show up at the precinct looking for him?

'No. I was going to see what you were doing for lunch.'

"Honestly. I was planning on sleeping for a while longer. Lunch wasn't a thought yet."

'Well, okay. I'm sorry I woke you then.'

"Okay," he said.

'I'll talk to you later then. Sorry I woke you,' she said.

"Wait," he said, staring at the ceiling for a minute. She was just going to hang up? He was going to let her, too, for a second there. Except she'd called him looking to initiate plans with him. "You wanted to have lunch with me? Is that what you were getting at?"

'I, well,' she said and stopped.


'Never mind, it's not important. I'll see you later.'

"No, don't do that. You called me, seeming to ask me what I was doing for lunch."

'Well, I have a couple of hours free because my appointment before lunch canceled.'


'The kids are at my brother's house. They missed their cousins and I wasn't counting on having two hours free instead of my usual one. So I dropped them off there before work.'


'I was going to see if you weren't working if maybe you wanted company.'

"You want to come here?"

'Well, you can't come to my house.'

"Right," he grimaced. We couldn't have that. Even if her kids came home from Chris' house to see him sitting in their kitchen. What was the big deal? "I don't have much here in the way of food. So bring whatever you want and I'll pay you back."

'I actually have a lunch here.'

"Okay," he said with a frown.



'I wasn't. That wasn't. Never mind.'

Suddenly it made a little more sense why she wouldn't want him at her house.

"Come over whenever you want to get here. I'm not going anywhere. If I happen to be in the shower I'll leave the front door unlocked just come in."


"Claire. Listen. I could be a douche and make you say it. You don't want to, so that's fine. I'll be here. Come over. If you want to bring your lunch with you, bring it. If you don't, that's fine. I'd love to spend two hours with you."

'Well, it won't be two full hours.'

"Yeah, I get that. Get here when you get here."

'Okay. Sorry.'

"What the fuck are you apologizing for?"

'Well, I woke you up and…'

"Yeah, to say you wanted to come over on your lunch hour and apparently not have lunch. What's to apologize for for that? Go back to work, Princess. I'm far from mad. In fact I, oddly, don't want to go back to sleep."

'Even though I couldn't say it?'

"Jesus. What kind of asshole would get mad about that? I guess I'd be mad if you hung up without explaining what you were really asking me and I figured it out too late to tell you to come over, but I'd have gotten over it."

She laughed at that.

"You know, eventually."

'I'll keep that in mind.'

"See you in a while then."


He got up and ate some breakfast before taking Randy for a decent walk. He showered after that, wondering just how a guy like him prepared for a woman like Claire coming over for such purposes. If she was someone like Toni at work, he'd know. Toni and Claire were night and day. He doubted Toni would know a horse from a giraffe sadly. Not that he considered himself much better than Toni, honestly, but he didn't get the impression she'd grown up around anyone like Claire at all. John hadn't embraced it or cared about most of it, but he knew the things some of his friends had access to.

She rang the bell and he answered the door. He was kind of surprised at how nervous he was. They'd never done this before. Her coming to him. The last time she'd come here, in fact. Well, that was what led Kyle to showing up at the precinct yesterday because it was the day she'd told him that bit of information. Well, she'd been here one other time, coming here also because of Kyle and John showing up at his house. That visit led them to where they were now. He wanted to think they were embarking on a relationship, but perhaps it was too soon to think that.

He hadn't told anyone he knew. He couldn't really even if he wanted to, which he didn't. He knew, though, if he had any close friends they'd tell him he was pretty nuts for ever trusting her again. They'd certainly tell him he was more than a little nuts for being with her like they currently were. He supposed he probably should have been madder about it and a lot less forgiving. Except what good would that do him? She'd get mad at him for being mad at her and, well, he knew ultimately he didn't want her mad at him.

Would he have been a good dad eighteen years ago?


He wasn't even sure he could've been a good boyfriend eighteen years ago and he didn't see her telling him she was pregnant and letting him off the hook from some sort of commitment to her.

So, it was what it was.

"Hi," he said.

Evidently she didn't even have talking on her mind because she didn't reply before kissing him. She reached for the end of his shirt, lifting it over his head. She reached for his shorts then, judging by her groan against his mouth she approved of the fact they just pulled off. Honestly, if he'd known she was really going to come over here for the purpose of sex he would've left the shirt off. A part of him, though, had doubted she'd actually go through with it.

He guessed he shouldn't have doubted her, but it seemed a pretty huge step for her.

She stopped kissing him as she tugged his shorts lower. It was his turn to groan as she touched his length.

"Fuck," he cried out, sliding his fingers through her hair as she moved to her knees and took him into her mouth. He could tell over the weekend she wasn't confident about what she was doing. He'd tried to assure her she did an absolutely fantastic job. Perhaps in some perverse way he got an extra jolt of pleasure in knowing this wasn't something she seemed to have done a lot of and she wanted to with him.

He closed his eyes and just enjoyed the feel of her mouth around his hard on. Christ, he could really stand here and let her do this all fucking day and he'd have no problem with that. She'd probably have a problem with it, though, because as much as he'd enjoy it she'd get little gratification out of it. Little because she did seem to get enjoyment out of pleasing him, knowing she was turning him on. Likewise, though, because he was pretty sure little turned him on more than how ready she got for him.

"Claire," he whispered after a while.

"Mm," she murmured around his length, glancing up at him.

"I do have a bed, you know?"

He groaned again as she gave his shaft one last lick before drawing away. She nipped at his inner thigh before she stood.

"How much time do you have exactly?" he asked, glancing behind her at the clock on the wall.

"I have to be back by one thirty."

"All right then," he said. "Leave them," he added when he saw her bend down to pick up his shirt and shorts.

"Sorry, habit."

"Yeah. I'm not a kid. I can pick up after myself. I just have other, far more important things on my mind right now."

"You do?"

"Yes," he said. He chuckled at the screech that she let out when he picked her up. That got Randy's attention, too. Until he realized that John was fine. He went back to dozing on the couch once he saw that.

"John," she said as he carried her to his bedroom. "What are you doing?"

"Oh, Princess, you know how long I've waited to be able to say you were in my bed. I didn't want to delay the process any longer than necessary."

"I've been in your bed before."

"Yeah, you didn't come to me for that reason that day, though. That was different."

He knelt above her on the bed, catching her up to him on the amount of clothes he was wearing.

"You couldn't have worn something easy to get out of?" he asked. The blouse she wore buttoned really oddly. He managed, but his fingers just weren't made to do tiny, delicate buttons.

"I didn't know I was going to call you when I got dressed this morning."



"I'm not sure I should be insulted or flattered that somewhere during your morning the idea occurred to you. Either way, you're here. I'll take you, funny buttoning blouse and everything."

"Thank you," she said, reaching to her side to work the zipper to her skirt.

"I love that you still don't wear nylons."

"Hate them."

"Me, too," he said.

She laughed softly as he peeled her stockings down and off, followed by her skirt and the garter holding them in place.

That day with her had been the first time he'd ever encountered a garter belt and stockings. It was probably the sexiest thing he ever experienced, probably even to this day. He knew she hadn't dressed like that with sex in mind that morning of detention. So that meant she dressed like that normally, and there was something extremely exciting knowing that under her prim and proper clothes she was wearing something sexy. And from that day forward he was the only one besides her who knew that.

"You need me to set the alarm?" he asked a while later.

"No, I'm not going to fall asleep."

"You sure?"

"I'm relaxed, but not tired."

"Glad I could relax you," he said, sliding a fingertip along her arm before kissing her shoulder. "I'm glad you called."

"Even if I'd just wanted lunch?"

"Well, this was more fun, but sure."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Sure," he said with a shrug. "Everything okay?"


"I don't know. Yesterday when I brought up you coming over during the day on the weekend you seemed sort of shocked I mentioned that."

"Well, kind of…"

"So, a day later…"

"I'm just such an idiot."

"Uh, why?" he asked.

"I'm worried about you meeting my kids. You know? I'm trying to do the right thing. Ease them into the idea that Mom and Dad aren't married anymore."

"Okay. Right. I mean, that's normal. I'm not upset about it or anything. I told you that yesterday. I wasn't mad about you not inviting me in."

"This isn't about you, John," she said.

"Wow, okay. You just said…"

"I know what I just said. While I've spent the last six weeks worrying, wondering how they'd react. Especially Betsy. I think Bryce Jr. always knew things weren't right. Anyway, I've been careful and he," she stopped then and he could hear that she was crying.

"Jesus. What's going on that has you so upset?"

"He brought the person he's seeing with him yesterday to drop off the kids."

"Wow, really. That seems kind of a shitty thing to do."

She turned then to face him, running a fingertip over his lower lip. She laughed softly then.

"Thank you."

"Sure. I mean, that just seems kind of rude. Not that I know the first thing about divorce or sharing kids."

He was quiet for a minute or two as she touched him and he thought over what she'd just told him.

"So, am I hearing what you're saying correctly? That SUV he has isn't big enough for three adults and the kids."

"No," she said.

"I only saw the one SUV there."

"Yes," she said.

"Huh," he said. "Has that always been the case?"

"Yes," she said, seemingly relieved that he'd figured it out on his own.

"Even in college?"

"Yes. He was never involved with anyone until now."

"He's doing that in front of his kids?"

"His kids?"

"Okay, your kids, both of your kids. You know what I mean?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. I think he'd be afraid I'd get pissed off and say something publicly."

"Well, yeah, talk about a career-breaker. That'd be it, right there."

"I know."

"So, he brought the guy to the house but you're not sure what the kids know?"

"As far as Bryce Jr. said he's Dad's friend."

"Well, that's good. Brian knows, doesn't he?"


He frowned a bit, thinking over the conversation he had at Brian's house. "I just got the idea Brian knew things. I don't know."

"He does. I talked to him before agreeing to marry Bryce. I had to talk to someone and he already knew I'd had a baby and kept that secret."

"Why'd you agree to marry him?"

"It seemed so ideal at the time. I don't know. My life hasn't been awful. I have wonderful kids, a profitable and thriving business, and property that I love."


She shrugged. "I was young and stupid. Maybe I thought I could change him. I don't know."

"Sex with you didn't change him? I'd say he's pretty set in his ways then."

"We only did a couple of times anyway."


"Bryce Jr. was the only time we ever actually tried. It didn't work the first couple of times and then, I don't know."


"He couldn't after that. I'm not sure why he could at first, but eventually he couldn't even do it with me. We went the artificial insemination route," she said. "Bryce was supposed to be our only child, but I really wanted to try for a girl. I was pretty unhappy by then and Bryce knew it. I think he thought if I had another baby and it turned out to be the girl I'd wanted that I'd stay put."

"Oh," he said. "How did you get around anyone finding out about that?"

"Went far away from Chicago."

"I see," he said with a nod. Money talked.

He shifted then so he was on top of her again.

"Hi," he said, sliding a hand along her hip before finding the spot between her legs.

"What are you…?"

"You just told me, or I guess admitted, something pretty huge. I guess I need to make sure I let you know that it doesn't change how I feel about you."

"I'm very glad," she whispered as he slid a finger along her nub.

"Yeah? How glad?"

She turned her head to glance at his alarm clock.

"Glad enough I'd love to push getting back late."

"Yeah?" he asked, sliding a finger inside of her.

"Uh huh."

"I would very much love being the reason you're almost late. To work," he added.

She chuckled.

"That's the only late you have to worry about."

"I sure as shit hope so."

"So how old is Bryce again?" he asked as he moved to enter her.


"How old is the kid?"


"So I have a lot of time to make up for is what you're saying?"

"Yes! Think you can keep up?"

"You have no idea how much I look forward to being as up as you need me to be, Princess."

"I was afraid," she whispered as he thrust into her a way she seemed to like.


"If I kissed you yesterday. I wanted to, so badly. I was so glad to see you, even though you weren't there just to see me. I was so glad. I was afraid, though, if I started I'd do something stupid."

He chuckled softly at that, finding her neck and ear. "Name the night and I'll come over and we can kiss all you want."

"How about tonight?"


"Uh huh."

"You're not just saying that because I'm inside of you at the moment, are you?"

"You can't stay the night."

"I know. I know the rules."

"There's no curfew for me, though."


"And there are blankets on my couches behind doors that lock just in case."

He chuckled softly. "I love when you get rebellious, Princess."

"Me, too. But I love it even more when you do that."

"Do what?"


"Make love to you?"


"Fuck, I assure you I love it just as much."

"Prove it," she whispered, nipping at his neck. She didn't need to ask him twice.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eleven***
Word Count: 2,437

"Kyle," DeeAnna called from outside his door.

"Yeah?" he asked, opening it to glare at her a bit. She knew he was playing a game.


"All right, I'll be right there."

He made his way to their TV room and picked up the phone. "I've got it, Dee, thanks," he said when he heard her breathing into the phone. He hoped she hadn't been talking Anne Marie's ear off. His sister seemed to like having a girl to talk to who wasn't their mom.

"Hi," he said once Dee hung up.

'Hi Kyle. It's Bryce,' his cousin said.

"Hey. What's up?"

'You busy tonight?'

"Uh, well, not at the moment," he said, glancing at the clock on the VCR. It was early yet, though, so there was no telling. Anne Marie had mentioned seeing a movie maybe, but she was doing some shopping with her mom today before going back to school so wasn't sure how late she'd actually be.

'Can you come pick me up?'

"Sure," he said. "I might be going out with Anne Marie later, though."

'Oh,' his cousin said. 'Never mind then.'

"Well, that doesn't mean you can't come here. I mean, Alex and Dee will be here. I'm sure Alex would play something with you."

'Yeah, okay.'

"I'll be there in a bit."

Kyle slid his shoes on and grabbed his keys.

"Where are you going?" Dee asked him.

"Going to get Bryce."

"Oh," she said, looking sad with that news.

"I haven't heard from Anne Marie yet, kiddo. Maybe she'll come over later."

"She said next time she came over she'd do that braid she had last weekend."

"Oh," Kyle said. He understood now why his little sister was so anxious to see her again. They'd be gone after next weekend and not home again until Thanksgiving. "Well, I haven't heard from her. If she doesn't get to it now maybe when we're home over Thanksgiving she can."

"Okay," she said, pouting expertly. Kyle rolled his eyes.

"You want to come with me to get Bryce?"

"Sure," she said, brightening a bit at that.

"You have to sit in the backseat, though," he said.

"I know," she said.

He went to find their mom while Dee ran to get her sandals. She'd evidently left them in the backyard.

"I'm going to take Dee and go get Bryce."

"Okay. Is everything all right?"

"I don't know. He just asked to come over and hang with me."

"He knows you may be going out tonight yet?"

"He does. I told him maybe Alex would play with him."


Dee was back by then so they went out to his car.

He pulled up far enough so Dee could push the buzzer on the box to get in. She had to unbuckle her seatbelt and climb onto her knees to do it, but she liked doing it for some reason. He never really understood why his aunt and uncle had a gate, but he had to admit their house and yard was pretty sweet. His parents' house was nice, but it was like ninety-nine percent of the other nice houses in Shermer. Whenever he'd mentioned growing up who his aunt and uncle were, especially in high school when kids used to drive on the road by the house, they'd been jealous.

And he realized that was probably what the gate was for. There were rumors that the cemetery at the end of the road was haunted and all sorts of crazy stories that went with such a thing. Kyle had never seen anything like that and he'd been here plenty of times, but people loved a good story.

He and Dee got out. She walked in the direction of the other side of the house, hearing the dogs no doubt.

"We're not staying, you know," he said. "We're just here to get Bryce and go home."


"Dee. We're not staying here so you can hang out with the dogs and cat."

"Okay," she said.

Her eyes widened, though, when a dog ran to the door from the other side of the yard.

"Look, it's that policeman's dog," she said.

Kyle frowned a bit, glancing at the dog. He had to admit it looked an awful lot like Officer Bender's dog. "It just looks like him. There's hundreds of German shepherds, Dee."

Kyle rang the bell while Dee stood staring at the dog. At least she didn't try to pet it without permission. Had Aunt Claire rescued another dog? That's where she'd gotten the other two dogs he knew.

"I'm leaving, Mom," Bryce called out as soon as he opened the door. "Hey," he said, closing the door behind him.

"Dee," Kyle said. "Quit staring at the dog. Come on," he said.

"But Kyle, I swear it's him."

Kyle shook his head, slid a hand to his sister's shoulders and tugged her to him. "Come on. You didn't say your mom got another dog," he said.

"She didn't," Bryce said as they got into Kyle's car.


"It's not her dog. It's her boyfriend's dog."

"Oh," he said, glancing at the dog again. "I didn't know she had a boyfriend."

"I didn't either," Bryce said. "Can we go now?" he asked.

"Yeah, sure. What's up?"

"Nothing. I just had to get out of there. He's there all of the time."

"That's not abnormal, Bryce," Kyle said.

"I guess. We left to spend our time with Dad she wasn't seeing anyone."

"Well, maybe she met him while you were gone. Six weeks without you guys is a long time." Kyle had never known his aunt to go out to bars or anything, but he hadn't ever known his aunt to not be married before either. Seemed to him, though, if he had kids and was suddenly without them for a while he'd probably find something to occupy his time.

"Maybe," he said. Kyle tried not to laugh at his cousin's obvious sulking. "So, he brought his dog with him? Must be staying for a while tonight?"

"He brings him all of the time. He's been there every night this week!"

"Is he an asshole or what?"

"Kyle!" Dee said from the backseat.

"What?" he asked.

"You're not supposed to talk like that."

"Tell Mom or Dad and I'm not going to take you with me again."

"But, Kyle…"

"Dee. I didn't say it about anyone so it's all right."

Bryce glanced at Kyle, no doubt wondering what Dee was doing along today anyway.

"No, I mean, I don't know him well enough to know that. I just," Bryce shrugged. "I don't know. He knows things about Mom Dad doesn't know. It's weird."

"How do you mean?"

"There's this picture of Mom from prom that's hanging in the living room."

"I remember it," he said. Kyle remembered when a friend of his had been here with him and thought his aunt had been very hot in high school. Kyle had told him to shut up, but he'd had to agree he'd been right.

"He knew her date's name."


Bryce shrugged. "I don't know. It's just weird. They went to school together, I guess. And he shows up conveniently after Mom and Dad get divorced?"

"Weirder things have happened."

"And the way they said they met sounds so crazily farfetched."

"How's that?"

"His dog got shot chasing a suspect and Mom was there when he got shot so she operated on him."

"Chasing a suspect," Kyle said, his stomach sinking a bit at that.

"Yeah," Bryce said. "He's a cop."

"See, Kyle," Dee said from the backseat. "I told you it was his dog!"

"I guess you were right, Dee," Kyle said.

"You know him?" Bryce asked.

"Yeah, he came by the house a while ago about some robberies in the area. He let Dee pet his dog."

He left out the part about thinking he could possibly be his birth father and going to visit him at the police station one day.

But now…


He was going to potentially see the guy, knowing he'd confronted him as he had.

The guy probably thought he was an idiot.

And yet…

He hadn't admitted to knowing his aunt when he'd talked about knowing his dad that day Kyle had sought him out. Wouldn't he have done that? Clearly he knew Aunt Claire's maiden name.

"Do you remember Mom before she married my dad?" Bryce asked.

"What?" he asked.

"Do you remember Mom before she married Dad?"

"Kind of. You know vaguely. She was at college so I didn't see her other than holidays and breaks. I was, like, four when they got married. I was their ring bearer, I remember that."

It'd been the first time he'd ever had to wear a tuxedo. He'd hated the shoes, but the tux itself had been all right. Aunt Claire and Uncle Bryce had seemed to think he looked pretty good, too.

"So what has he done that you don't like him exactly?"

Bryce shrugged and Kyle realized he probably wouldn't like anyone his mom or dad went out with that weren't each other.

"Has your dad gone out?"

"No," Bryce said.

"Maybe it's not my place to say it, man, but it's normal. Your mom's not even forty yet. Cut her some slack."

"I know, but does he have to be here every day?"

"Well, it's better than your mom bailing on you every day and going to his place."

"I suppose."

"Come on, he's a cop. He can't be a bad guy. He seemed cool enough when he came to our house."

He hadn't told him he was insane for walking up to a virtual stranger and asking, basically accusing, him of being his birth father. He didn't call his parents and tell them either. He'd, in fact, offered to help check anyone out. That didn't scream to Kyle like someone who was a jerk or out to use his badge to get away with murder.

"He's spending the night?"

That surprised Kyle immensely for some reason. Aunt Claire just didn't seem like the type who'd do that. One of his friends, Blaine, had a mom who had guys spend the night all of the time. He'd never understood that really, but it wasn't his place to judge. Even as a kid, though, he'd found it odd that Blaine thought nothing of his mom's date from the night before being there the next morning at breakfast.


"Come on, Bryce. You don't, like, think your parents are going to get back together or something, do you?"

"No," he said, but he didn't answer as strenuously as the first no had been.

"Well, give your mom some credit. She's not going to date a jerk."

"She's never dated anyone but my dad. How's she supposed to know who's a jerk and not?"

"She hasn't?"


That surprised Kyle for some reason. He'd assumed by the pictures and stuff he'd seen over the years that Aunt Claire hadn't lacked for dates.

"I get the impression she liked this guy and he liked her but they never dated for some reason."

"Oh," Kyle said. "Well, I still say give him a chance."


"I can't come get you when I'm in Minneapolis."

"I'm aware," he said, looking out his window.

Kyle shrugged, glancing to the backseat at Dee who didn't seem to be paying them any attention. He knew better, though. "Don't go telling Aunt Claire that Bryce doesn't like her boyfriend."

"I won't!"

"Just making sure. She wouldn't like that very much if you did that."

She rolled her eyes, pouting again. He realized then that she was probably more mad right now about not being able to pet the dog again then she was interested in any conversation she'd been privy to on the way back to his house.

"So, Alex is home?" Bryce said when they walked to the front door. He seemed to understand Kyle was likely going to bail on him at some point during the evening.

"He is, but I can get you back home when I come home later. Just let your mom know it'll be around my curfew time so she knows."

"I could just stay here."

"You could do that, too, sure. I'm sure my parents won't care." Kyle camping out at their house and Bryce doing the same in reverse wasn't unusual. They'd always been pretty close.

"I'll grab us some Cokes if you want to head up to my room," Kyle said.

"Sure," Bryce said.

Kyle grabbed them each a Coke and some chips before heading upstairs. He saw his dad in his office, working on something and glanced at him for a minute.

"Everything all right?" he asked Kyle.

"Yeah," he said. He wondered what his dad would say if he mentioned Aunt Claire was dating the cop who'd come here that day. His dad hadn't been pleased about that at all. He'd been the maddest Kyle could ever remember seeing his dad, which was saying a lot because his dad didn't really get mad that often.

"All right. Bryce here for the night?"

"Not sure, maybe. If not, I'll drop him home when I get back from seeing Anne Marie."

"Is she coming here?"

"I don't know."

"She's welcome here anytime, I hope you know that."

"I do," he said. It was too crowded and busy here, though. At her house they were left alone for the most part. Her parents seemed to trust that they weren't going to have sex on the couch in their basement or something because they never bothered them or checked on them when they watched movies down there.

He went upstairs then not sure he knew what it all meant, maybe he wasn't supposed to. He'd talk to Anne Marie about it later, maybe she wouldn't find it such a strange coincidence that the guy was now dating his aunt. They went to school together Bryce said, they knew one another years ago. It sounded like their paths crossed inadvertently.

He wondered what Aunt Claire would think if she found out he'd gone to see the officer about being his dad. He was just glad no one knew. He'd told Anne Marie about the visit enough to tell her the officer had denied being his father, but he hadn't really. He'd kept that part to himself because he didn't want to sound even crazier to her than thinking the guy was to begin with. He hadn't denied it, though. Not outright saying he wasn't his father or even possibly that.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twelve***
Word Count: 2,367

"Fuck," he murmured at the sound of her daughter coming downstairs again. "Doesn't she ever go to sleep like she's supposed to?"


"What?" He drew away so that she could get up from the couch. He'd dated women with kids a time or two, but he'd never until now spent any substantial amount of time with those kids. He'd certainly never been around three year olds before. The week after they'd come back from their dad's house she hadn't been like this. Now, though, it seemed she found every excuse under the sun to put off going to sleep as she was supposed to.

"What honey?" she said, walking to the stairs.

"Thirsty," Betsy called from the stairs.

"You can get a sip of water. You had some not long before you went to sleep."

"Okay," she said, running from the stairs towards her bathroom no doubt where she'd get her sip of water.

It was a school day tomorrow so Bryce was in his room, presumably sleeping. Bryce had a phone in his room, but John didn't get the impression he talked on it often other than to Kyle and a handful of other friends.

"Why does she do that?" he asked.

Claire shrugged, taking her seat next to him on the couch again. She slid her hand into his, lacing her fingers through his. When she did that, reached for him and touched him because she wanted to it made him forget about being annoyed that a little girl ruled the house in some respects.

She brought his hand to her mouth, kissing it before running her tongue over one of his knuckles.

"She's three?" she answered with a shrug.

"I don't get it," he said.

"I don't either, but I imagine you and I were the same way."

"Really? You think I would have gotten away with that once in my house? Never mind every day this week."

"John," she whispered.

"Don't worry, I don't think you're too soft on her or anything, but she always seems to choose the worst possible times to do it." Like when he was just about to unbutton her shirt or remove it the couple of times she'd been wearing a shirt that pulled on instead of buttoned. Two nights ago it was about the time Claire was about to use her mouth on him in a way he very much enjoyed. That hadn't been for just some water, though, and by the time Claire had finished with whatever she'd needed. Well, she wasn't much in the mood to continue anymore.

"I know," she said.

They got back to the kissing they'd been doing before Betsy wanted her drink of water. It was clear, though, that was all that was going to happen for the most part. Claire was afraid Betsy would come downstairs, which John could understand he supposed. He could tell by the way she was kissing him that her attention wasn't completely on him, an ear on the stairs for the sound of footsteps. He even drew his hand out from under her shirt after a few minutes because it just wasn't as much fun touching her when she wasn't as invested in it as he was.

"I have an idea," he said.


"Mm. Yes. I do get them once in a while."

"Very funny."

"They go to their dad's next weekend, right?"

"Yes," she said, sounding cautious.

They hadn't gone last weekend because it was the weekend before school started and they had last minute shopping to do and whatever.

"Well, how about me and you go downtown that Saturday."

"Okay. Sure."

"And stay the night somewhere. Maybe get a room with a Jacuzzi or something."



"I don't know…"

"Who's going to know? And so what if they do know? It's a night in a hotel, I'm not asking to move in with you."

"And what are you going to do with Randy?"

"I don't know. There are a couple of people at the station who'd take him."

"I just don't know that's a good idea."

"Come on. When was the last time you got out of this house?"

"I've been to your house!"

"Not the same thing at all. Come on. You work and you have your kids. I get that, I do, but you deserve a night for you, too."

"I know," she sighed softly.

"If I can find a place for Randy to stay and a place for us to stay is that a yes?"

"Sure," she said.

"Would both nights be doable?"

"That'd be pretty expensive."

"I didn't ask for your commentary about the cost, Claire. I asked if you'd be willing to do it."

"Yes," she said.

"Really? Yes? Just like that."



"Did you ask expecting me to say no?"

"Kind of. I figured it'd take some convincing or a few days for you to think it over. Something."

"I'd love to spend a weekend with just you."

"Yeah?" he asked, sliding his arms around her to gather her onto his lap. He slid a hand along her thigh, pushing her skirt up a bit as she shifted on his lap. Her mouth found his in perfect time with his fingertip grazing her inner thigh before sliding inside of her panties.

"Uh huh," she said as she reached between his legs to work the fastening on his jeans.

"You just want to have sex again without kids a floor above you."

"There is that," she whispered. He worked with her, shifting a bit so she could slide his jeans down enough to take him inside of her.

They both moaned softly into their kiss at the feel of being together like this again. If he wasn't careful he was liable to say something really, incredibly mushy sounding one of these times. He'd never felt as emotionally invested in sex with anyone but her, being inside of her.

"Hmm, maybe I should rethink the downtown bit then," he murmured as she found his ear and kissed it.


"There's so much to do downtown it'd be tempting to leave our room more than we have to. Who wants to spend a weekend downtown and then say we did nothing?"

"What other option is there?"

He chuckled, finding her neck and nipping the skin there. He slid both hands further under skirt, cupping her ass to draw her further onto him. He was getting pretty used to sex with clothes on anymore, or the bare minimum necessary removed. It was fun and all, but he wanted her naked again because sex with her undressed was way more fun as far as he was concerned.

"I don't know. We could just stay here in Shermer and do nothing all weekend?"

"That would be a terrible waste of money," she whispered.

"I disagree more than I can express to you."

She bit her lip as she moved along his length.

"How confident are you they're asleep?"

"Uh, pretty," she said. He supposed that should've been obvious. They'd fooled around when she wasn't sure if they were asleep or not, but hadn't had sex until she was sure they were all conked out for the night.

"Can I talk you into moving to the floor?"

"My skirt will get all full of lint and pet hair if I do that."

"I didn't have you laying on the floor in mind when I asked."

"Oh," she said.

She'd let him behind her once so he wasn't sure if maybe asking for her to let him be that way was too much for her. Until she slid off his lap and slid out of her skirt.

"I guess you are sure they've fallen asleep," he said, watching as she went to her hands and knees on the floor. He'd assumed by her taking off her skirt she was dismissing his idea.

"I am, yeah," she whispered.

He slid behind her, admiring the view of her like this. He knew she was self-conscious of her figure. Kids or no kids he thought she was still as stunning to look at as she had been that day of detention. He leaned in, placing a kiss against one of her ass cheeks before moving to slide into her. She liked it this way. He'd learned that the other time. She wasn't a faker and she wasn't shy about telling him what felt good and what felt better than good. Him behind her, pressing into her as deep as he could go was better than good for her.

Him, too.

Only drawback, he finished too fast. Especially tonight like this, mindful that someone could come downstairs. She'd shut the door to the room they were in behind her and everything, but kids could be pretty fucking stealthy he was coming to learn by hanging out around here with hers. The little girl especially. She was sneaky as hell, purposely or not. Or maybe it was just that he wasn't used to kids.

He grabbed for the blanket on the couch and slid it over them once he finally pulled out of her. He hated doing that almost as much as he hated going home at night when it was time for them to go their separate ways. He slid next to her then, sliding an arm around her.

"So which won out? Downtown or something else?"

She turned to face him then, running a fingertip over his lower lip. He kissed her finger as she did that and he loved the look in her eyes that flashed for the second or two he did that.

"You decide."

"Yeah? So you'd be okay with me getting us a room for two days knowing I have no desire to leave the room other than for food?"

"If that's what you want."

"What about what you want?"

"I just said either is fine. And it is. It's your idea. Maybe you want to go downtown and do some things."

"Let me see what I can work out with Randy. What will you do with yours?"

"You are joking, right?"

"No," he asked with a frown.

"I have two techs who would take them at the drop of a hat."

"I suppose," he said. She brought them to work with her now that the kids were in school. When they were home the week before school started she hadn't done that.

"Is there someone who can go with Randy if he has to get taken to a scene?"

"Yeah, they'd call a handler in from another town more than likely. There's a guy on the squad who could go with Randy to the basic, run of the mill things like drugs or something."

"Well, that's good."

"Yeah," he said, leaning down and kissing her shoulder before finding a breast.

"I'm sorry if Betsy annoys you."

"She doesn't annoy me. I'm sorry if I make you think she does. I'm just not used to it and she didn't seem this bad last week."

"It's new for her, you know? Having to share my attention, my time with anyone but her brother."

"I suppose."

"She'll get better."

"Bryce, on the other hand."

"What about him?"

John shrugged. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he got the distinct impression her oldest son was not at all happy John was hanging out at the house with their mom as much as he was. He tried to be nice about it. He asked the kids about their days and stuff. Betsy always answered him without hesitation. Bryce, however, wanted nothing to do with John's attempts at getting to know him.

"I don't think he likes me."

"He doesn't know you."

"I get the distinct impression he doesn't want that to change."

"I can talk to him…"

"No! Don't you dare do that. He's either going to like me or not, that's between us. I don't want you to interfere as if I'm incapable or relying on you to smooth things over. That wouldn't be a good impression-maker either."

"Are you trying to make an impression?"

"Uh, yeah," he asked with a frown. "What kind of question is that? What do you think I'm doing here exactly?"

"I really don't know sometimes."

"What does that mean? How could you not."

"I don't know. I keep waiting for you to wake up one day and realize I withheld a huge piece of information from you."

"You're right. There are mornings I wake up and question my sanity for wanting you as my girlfriend. I do, though, Kyle or not."

"I just, God, I have so much going on."

"You're a mom and you're trying to hold your family together knowing that you have to keep very important things from them. That's a lot to deal with. That doesn't mean you can't have a boyfriend and someone to talk to about it."

"Just what you want to hear about, Bryce."

He shrugged. "You're right. I'd rather not, but he's a part of your history and he's your kids' father. Even if you didn't get the fun part of making them with him. I get that. If you need to talk to someone, well, I'd rather it be me than Brian."

She scoffed softly at that.

"I should get ready for bed."

"I know," he said softly, sliding his hand lower between her legs and into her panties.

"That's not getting me ready for bed."

"I think it is getting you ready for bed. Just think how exceptionally you'll sleep."

"God. Once wasn't enough?

"Once is never enough. If you let me stay here one night I'll show you that again…"

"I can't."

"One weekend they're at their dad's."

"Well, sure, then."

"Next weekend we'll do something different."

"John, you really don't have to."

"I know I don't have to. It just seemed like it'd be fun."

"A Jacuzzi does sound heavenly."

"Yeah?" he asked, moving on top of her.

"Uh huh."

"Heavenly enough to let me ensure you sleep real well tonight?"

"Me? Or you?"

He chuckled, sliding inside of her. "Both."

"Well, in that case, since it's for both of our sakes."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirteen***
Word Count: 2,904

"Hey, Toni," he said. "We're on for next weekend, right?"

"Yes, we sure are. I'm looking forward to it."

John had immediately thought of Toni as someone who'd take Randy for the weekend. He hadn't told her why he was going out of town for the weekend. He wasn't quite that stupid, but he knew the woman loved his dog. And, yeah, okay, he knew the woman was into him, too, and would enjoy doing a favor for him. Shady of him and maybe bordering on being an asshole, but he'd worry about that another time. He'd flirted with her over the past couple of years she'd worked there, but he'd never taken it beyond that.

"The kid an informant or something?" she asked, nodding in the direction of where Kyle stood and the reason John was up here.

"No," he said. He hadn't noticed he was even there, not looking for him or thinking he'd be showing up here again anytime soon. "Thanks. I'll see you on Friday then if I don't before then."

"Sure. Bye Randy," she said, petting him before John walked toward Kyle.

"Hi," he said. What could he possibly want today? Had he answered a question wrong? Or said something in a way that would lead to him coming back here again?

"Hi, sorry," Kyle said.

"Hey, no need to apologize. You can come by anytime," he said, cringing inwardly as soon as the words left his mouth. He shook his head a bit, focusing his attention on Randy for a second so neither of them would (hopefully) dwell on what he'd just said. Because, yeah, not knowing about him until recently or not. Well, what dad would balk at his son coming to see him, even if Kyle didn't realize that's what he was doing? "What's up?"

"You're seeing my aunt?" he asked then and John wondered how in the hell he'd found that out.

"Let's go for a walk outside for a bit, okay?" he said.

"Yeah, sure," he said, following him out the doors. "Doesn't he, like, ever pull on his lead or anything?"

"Oh, at the house sometimes when I'm walking him, but not usually, no. We work long and hard with them so they don't do that stuff." He glanced at Kyle who was watching Randy more intently than he seemed to be paying John attention right now. He handed the lead to him. "Here," he said.

"Oh, no, he's…"

"He'll be fine, trust me. I wouldn't let you do it if I thought there'd be a problem."

"Thanks," he said. "I've always been jealous of my cousins. They've had pets since I can remember."

"Not you?"

"No," he said with a shrug. "I thought about getting a place off-campus this year that would allow pets, but decided not to."

"Why not?" John asked.

"Well, what would I do with him or her over breaks?"

John nodded. "Good point," he said. "Plus they're a huge responsibility. If you don't think you can do it, then you're probably right in waiting. Though I bet your aunt would help you out there if you asked."

"Why didn't you tell me you were seeing her?"

"I don't know. That day you came by here her kids were just getting back I wasn't sure what that would mean for us. I've only been seeing her a few weeks really."

"She fixed up Randy?"

"She did."

"That was more than a few weeks ago," Kyle said.

"Well, I don't know what to tell you there beyond the fact that we didn't start dating immediately." Had sex immediately, but not dating. "She's recently divorced and well, I'm a cop."

"But I asked you if you knew my dad."

"Sure. I don't, not really. I know his sister, but you didn't ask me about her."

"You went to high school with her?"

"Yes," he answered.

"Did you date her then?"

"No," John said with a scoff. "No one really dated your aunt back in high school."

"Why not? Pictures I've seen she had dates."

"Sure, I guess, but not like boyfriends. I assume that's what you're asking me."

He shrugged.

"I liked her, but I wasn't boyfriend material back then."

"Why not?"

John shrugged. "My parents sucked and so I had an attitude problem. Your aunt was the only person who was really ever nice to me for a while there. Actually for a long while. And through my own fault that only lasted a day."

"Sorry," he said.

"It is what it is. I'm here today because of it. I did some not so nice or good things growing up, but then I turned eighteen and decided I didn't want to end up exactly like how my old man predicted I would. In prison or dead. So I had a choice to make."

"And you chose to become a cop?"

"I guess I did."

"Is it a good job?"

"I like it. Honestly, I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I like meeting kids like your sister and you when you were younger. I like the idea I could maybe make a difference in a choice they make. I didn't have anyone who gave a shit about me, so I try to be that."

"I see," Kyle said.

"What's on your mind, Kyle? You didn't come here just to ask me if I was seeing your aunt."

He shrugged. "I don't know. I just wondered why you hadn't said anything about knowing anyone in my family when I mentioned it."

"I don't know. I guess I should've, but like I said I wasn't really sure what we were doing. I'm still not real sure."

"Why not? You don't like her?"

"Kid, no, that's not it at all. I'm pretty sure I loved your aunt nineteen years ago. That hasn't changed. I'm not the one with kids and a recent divorce. She's not the one with a risky job. I don't really know how well she's going to take to that when we're no longer newly dating. So, I guess we're still at the 'we'll see what happens stage'."

"Oh," he said.

"I can admit I haven't had many serious girlfriends over the years and I've never dated anyone with kids."


"No. Well, I guess that's not totally true. I've dated women with kids, but I've never met the kids."

"Be cool with Bryce, okay?"


"Yeah. He's a good guy, you know, but I think he still has it in his head that his mom and dad will get back together."

"Oh," John said, nodding a bit. Fat chance of that happening, but he could see where a kid not knowing the things about his dad John did would hang onto that hope. "I try to be, you know. I can admit I'm not entirely sure what to do with them, you know? I ask questions, try not to pry or appear to be too interested but don't want them to think I'm not interested. Betsy seems to be the most willing to share anything – and just about everything – with me."

Kyle laughed at that, handing Randy's lead back to John. "Yeah, Betsy's funny that way. She likes people and she likes telling them anything they'll let her talk about."

"Were you like that?"

"Me?" Kyle shrugged. "I don't think so. I don't know. Bryce is five years younger than me so I was in school by the time he came around. I was sort of used to be the only kid around."

"No other cousins?"

"No. Well, my mom has a sister and a brother, but they don't live in Chicago so I hardly see them and didn't really even when I was a kid. I was always the oldest, though."

"Oh," John said, not knowing that about Chris' wife.

"I'll be honest with you. I think Bryce is suspicious of you."


Kyle shrugged. "I don't know why exactly." Kyle frowned a bit and John wondered if Kyle and Bryce were puzzling some things out separately or together. John had no idea if Bryce knew Kyle was adopted. "I probably shouldn't say that, but I like Claire and it didn't take a genius to spot they weren't exactly happy for a while now."

"You leave this weekend?" John asked. He figured maybe a change of subjects was a good thing about now.

"Yeah," he said.

"You and the girlfriend doing all right?"

"Yeah, she's nice."

"That's good. Nice girls aren't a bad thing."

"I know. We've never," Kyle shrugged.


"Well, you know I grew up knowing my parents were real young and I just never wanted to go there, risk that."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"I know, but sometimes I wonder despite her saying she's cool with it that she thinks I'm not interested."

John chuckled softly at that. "I don't know her, but just be honest with her. Tell her where you're at, what your focus is on. If she has a problem with that, well then that's her problem not yours. Men always get the raw end of the deal about pressure and stuff, but I've seen it happen both ways. You know?"

"I do. Her parents are real nice."

"Yeah? That's good."

"They like leave us alone when we're there, watching a movie or whatever. At my house, Mom or Dad come downstairs to check on us. Or DeeAnna does."

John laughed softly at that. "They must trust you, that's good, Kyle. Don't take that as an insult."

"And mine don't?"

John shrugged. "I don't know her parents, but I know your parents or at least I know how Chris and Claire were raised. I think they probably, like you mentioned not wanting to do, don't want to see you repeat something. Your aunt seemed to think this girl is the first girlfriend you've really had."

"Anne Marie."


"Her name."

"Oh," John said.

"And she is."

"Well, are her parents in the same financial situation yours and your aunt are in?"

"No. I mean, they do all right, you know, but no. She's there on student loans. She knows I have my scholarships but wouldn't have needed them to go to school."

"Well, then they may have concerns that spring from that type of thing more than not trusting you. You're their son, she's not their daughter and they don't know her. I saw it in high school, see it now on the job, girls get pregnant thinking the guy will be the answer to their problem."

"She doesn't have any problems."

"That's good, but trust me when I tell you don't believe everything that's presented to you. There were people growing up who didn't have a clue what my home life was like. My dad was such a good actor. He could be drunk as a skunk and put on a good show for anyone that he was sober and a good guy. It was the reason things between your aunt and I never would have worked back then, though. It wasn't a question of liking her or not, it was a question of trusting her because I'd never had anyone to trust to that point. She thought I wasn't interested, and by the time I realized I was interested well it was too late to say something so I just didn't. She was going to college and stuff anyway, which was something I knew I was never going to get. I thought, too, that she'd take one look at the way I actually lived, not just what I told her and that she'd bail."

"Sorry," Kyle said.

"I'm not looking for your sympathy, just telling you that not everything is as it's presented to the world. Your parents know this same as I do. They're being cautious. That doesn't mean they don't like her or anything."

"I didn't really give them a huge chance to get to know her either. I like being at her house better."

"Why?" John asked. He hadn't been inside of his house, but it was a damned nice house. Not as nice as Claire's, but it was still nothing to be ashamed of.

"DeeAnna and Alex," he shrugged. "I don't know. She doesn't have grade school siblings."

"Ah," John said. "Well, that's not wrong exactly, but she must not mind them if she babysits once in a while for you."

"No," he said.

"Do me a favor," John said when they'd gotten back to the police station.


"I don't know if you've talked to your mom and dad about this stuff, and if you haven't that's fine. I realize sometimes there are things you can't say to your parents but another adult is okay. I'm certainly not going to tell anyone."

"Not even my aunt?"

"Uh no. I mean, I can't say I won't ever tell her things we talk about, but not about your relationship with a girl if you're asking me for advice."


"If you go down that road, make sure you use something. You know? Even if she tells you she's using something or you know you're going to marry her next week. You've got a bright future ahead of you. Your mother gave you up so that you could have that opportunity. Don't let her sacrifice end up in the same situation she found herself in years ago."

"Thanks," he said.

"I'm not saying she's untrustworthy. Don't take what I just said to mean that. It's just you can never be too careful and if you haven't before someone devious could take advantage of that and tell you things that aren't entirely true."

"I know."

"And don't take my telling you to use something as a suggestion you should go out tomorrow and do anything either. I'm not saying that. I'm just putting it out there. Because ultimately if something happens, whether she's using something or not, it's on you to protect her as well as yourself. The buck stops with you, but I'd tell her the same thing if she was standing here talking to me. I'd tell her to carry a condom in her purse because you can't assume each other is and I remember my first time. Trust me, I'm not sure it would have mattered to me if I'd known then I wasn't thinking rationally."

"I get it."

"Just making sure. I'm not telling you what to do or not do, just saying if you're going to do it be sure you know what you're doing."

"I know. I hear you. She's never pushed, maybe she's fine with where we are. I just, I know other people, other couples we know, are."

"You know what? You don't know, unless you've walked in on someone doing something. Then you know. Otherwise you really don't know. You have assumption and things other people are saying. That doesn't mean those things are actually happening. One of the reasons things wouldn't have worked with your aunt back in high school. She thought I had a different girlfriend every day. No one ever asked me if that was how I was, they just saw me with girls and assumed. What guy's going to say it's not true when they're sixteen and seventeen?"

"So you never went out with her?"

"No," he said.

"But you liked her?"

John shrugged. "I liked what I learned about her one day, yeah."

"One day?"

John chuckled. "Yeah, we served a Saturday detention together. It was the first and only time I'd ever talked to her really. I knew her of course. Everyone did. She was Homecoming and Prom queen. All that stuff. To say our paths never crossed until that day beyond passing one another in the halls of Shermer High once in a while would be very accurate."

"Why'd she go to detention?"

John snorted at that. "Don't go getting all excited. She cut school to go shopping."

"What did you do?"

"I pulled a fire alarm."

"Oh," he said.

"Anyway, I guess if I'd been honest with her maybe things would've turned out different. Maybe. No telling. I think, though, things turned out the best for all concerned."

Kyle nodded a little at that. "Well, thanks."

"Sure," he said. "Anytime. I meant that."

"I know, thanks."

"Hey, John," he said, stopping to turn around from taking those last few steps to his car.

"Yeah?" John asked.

"We wouldn't be standing here today having this conversation if you'd been honest with her?"

"Probably not, no." For a multitude of reasons. One potentially being that there would be no Kyle if he'd spoken up and told the truth about his inexperience before they'd gotten to the point of having sex.

He got into his car then and left. "Fuck," John muttered to himself as he mulled over what Kyle had just asked him and how he'd answered. That could be taken so many ways. The question and the answer did not mean anything specifically. Many things would have been different after that day if he'd been honest with her.

"I think we'll keep this conversation to ourselves just in case, though. Right?" he asked Randy. Randy of course said nothing back. Randy probably would disagree with John, but he wasn't going to stir up a hornet's nest based on a possibility, especially not with the kid leaving for school in a couple of days.

Return to Top

***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.

Return to Top

***Chapter Fifteen***
Word Count: 4,454

"So am I still staying here tonight then?" he asked when they got back to her house. She hadn't said much in the car on the way home. John hadn't thought too hard on warming up her car. He was trying to be nice, knowing she had kids to get ready and make sure they had all of their things together. Of course, him sitting in her car, which Bryce obviously recognized, was a pretty good give away that John had been there for dinner with them.

Evidently that hadn't gone over real well with him.

Why though? If the guy wasn't into women what did he care who Claire had Thanksgiving dinner with?

She didn't answer, but she didn't tell him no either.

Her mom had sent her home with some leftovers so he helped her get the things out of the car she had and followed her inside.

"You're not really mad at me about having Toni watch Randy, are you?"

"Mad? I don't know if I'm mad, but it might have been nice if you'd told me instead of hearing about it from someone else."

"I didn't even think about it. She's done it before when I've had something to do for a weekend or overnight."

"Something or someone?"

"Claire, come on. Don't do that. Even if that was the case that was then, not now."

"But she likes you."

John shrugged.

"And you like her?"

"I can't deny I wasn't attracted to her."

"And you think that wouldn't bother me?"

"I didn't do anything about it! I won't deny I flirted a bit, knowing I could but it never went beyond that."

"Kyle said he saw you…"

"She touched me! She was petting Randy and touched me. I wasn't expecting it, so I didn't draw away fast enough maybe. I don't know. I saw him, though, and did."


"God. Claire. What do you want me to say?"

"I don't know, but I'm reminded of the fact that you never really wanted one girlfriend."

"Fuck. Are you kidding me? That was twenty years ago and not at all how I felt when I was presented with the opportunity to have one girlfriend. You never gave me the chance to find out if I'd do well in that situation."

"I never!?"

"Okay, but you know what I mean."

He handed her the last of the things to put in the fridge, which he imagined they'd eat most of since the kids were gone.

"Claire. I don't want anyone but you. I can't promise you what's going to happen tomorrow or next month, but I have no plans on bailing on you. You're right, I've never had a serious relationship, but that was my own doing. And, really, can you honestly say you've had a real serious relationship either?"

She opened her mouth to argue with him, but he could see her realizing what he'd said was more or less true. Yes, a marriage was a serious relationship but a sham of a marriage wasn't a real relationship. At least not as far as he was concerned. Maybe she thought of things differently.

"I want to believe you."

"And what about you?"

"What about me?"

"How do I know that I'm not just handy to make up for years of a lack of sex life?"


"I don't think that. So please don't tell me to leave. I'm just pointing out that we both have to take a lot on faith here. I'm not that guy!"

"How does he know?"

"Huh?" he asked, not sure what she was asking him.

"Kyle. He knows. Doesn't he?"

John shrugged. "I think so, yes."


John sighed. "He came to talk to me a second time. He was upset I hadn't admitted to knowing you when he was there the first time and asked me if I knew his dad."

"You are his dad!"

"No, not me, Chris."


"I didn't say anything about you and he thought that was strange I guess since I'm dating you. He didn't really say he knew, and I didn't really admit it was true, but yeah."


"Yeah, all right, I should have said something, but I didn't know how and I didn't want to worry you. You were busy with the kids going back to school and getting Bryce back and forth to football and stuff. It just sort of slipped my mind."

"I guess he reacted better than I thought he would if he ever found out."

"Well, obviously he has some questions and feelings on the subject. I'd expect you'll hear from him about it at some point. Maybe not this weekend or over Christmas, but at some point."

"I absolutely don't want to deal with it."

"Just be honest with him, Claire. That's all you can do. Maybe he'll be mad for a while, but surely he'd have to realize where he'd be and where you'd be if you kept him nineteen years ago."

"I hope so."

"I thought dinner went fairly well otherwise. I mean, your dad didn't seem too sure about me but he didn't order me to leave or anything."

"No, he wouldn't have done that anyway."

"That makes me feel infinitely better, thank you."

"Well, you're not Bryce and you do have a very … different job than Bryce had."

He scoffed at that. That was an understatement. No doubt that different job, being a cop that was dangerous, also presented the possibility that he was going after her for her house and stuff. He knew there were some people who'd think that. There wasn't anything he could do to prove otherwise either, really. Her kids were here at this house so clearly he was going to be the one coming here instead of them coming to his house. They could, sure, but he didn't have anything for kids Betsy's age to do. So it just made the most sense.

"So we can stay?"

"Yes," she said. "I need to check your bandage anyway."

"Please tell me that's not the only reason you're letting me stay."

"Not the only reason, no."

"Thank you."

"Thank you for coming today. I know you'd rather have done anything else."

"Well, not quite anything else, but you're welcome. It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be."

"I know you were in a lot of pain."

"It wasn't that bad."

"John, don't lie to me. I saw it. I may not doctor humans, but I know what pain in someone's eyes looks like."

"I was all right until Betsy wanted me to hold her. She was fine, too, I positioned her the right way, but then she shifted and jabbed me right there with her knee."

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I didn't know! I didn't even see her ask you to pick her up."

"It's all right. It's not her fault, clearly she didn't know or she would've been careful. I didn't think to tell her she had to be careful."

"She likes you."

"I'm not sure why, but I'm glad. She's pretty cute."

"She is," Claire agreed.

She let the dogs back in and locked the door behind them.

"And she likes you because Bryce never quite knew what to do with her. Boys aren't big snugglers, you know? I mean, they do but it's not the same. I think Betsy could lay in bed with me all day and watch cartoons and she'd enjoy every second of it. Bryce would've done it for an hour, maybe two, and then he would've needed something in addition to the TV."

"I get it."

"Good. Not to say that Bryce is mean to her or anything, he's not. He just let me carry her and stuff. Bryce at this age didn't really want to be held and carried around."

He reached for her, sliding his arms around her so he could hug her.

"I have an idea to put to rest any doubt you have about this Toni situation."

"What's that?"

"Have lunch with me tomorrow."


"You're closed so you can have lunch anytime, right?"


"So, plan on about half past eleven. If something comes up I'll let you know."

"How does that solve the problem exactly?"

"Well, she'll see you're there to see me."

"I'm surprised she hasn't asked you who Kyle is."

"Toni is a super nice person. There's a reason I trust her with Randy, and I hope you can understand that because you have pets, too. I wouldn't trust him with just anyone, but she's not the brightest one out there. She asked me if he was an informant the second time he showed up."

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah, I don't think she's going to be putting one and one together to make two anytime soon. Something tells me after tonight he's not going to stop by and see me again either."

"That bothers you?" she asked before kissing him.

"A little. I mean, no, but you know there's a part of me, yeah."

"I'm sorry."

"How sorry?"

"Why?" she asked. He chuckled softly.

"Sorry enough to forego the pajamas tonight?"

"You have to work in the morning."

"I know, that's why you should stop standing here arguing with me about it and just agree so we can go to bed."

"All right."

"Thank you!"


"You expecting someone?" he asked when the buzzer rang.

"No," she said, groaning softly when she saw it was Chris' car. There were a couple of other control panels in the house, but the one in the kitchen was the main one with a screen so Claire could actually see who was at the gate and stuff. The other panels didn't have the cameras, just the ability to talk and open the gate. The cop in him hated that she knew, but she never felt unsafe here or anything.

"Who is it?" he asked, glancing at the car, but not recognizing it. It wasn't Bryce's or Kyle's.

"Chris," she said.

"Oh," he said.

She let him in and walked to the front door. He stayed in the kitchen while she did that, which was fine with her. Chris followed her into the kitchen, glancing at John for a second. She refused to feel embarrassed or if she was doing anything wrong. What if after her marriage with Bryce she chose never to get married again? Her brother didn't expect her to live like a nun for the rest of her life, did he? Then maybe he did. She always felt as if she disappointed him by marrying Bryce when she did and having her business all the way out here.

"Are you crazy to bring him to our parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner?"

"No, why?"

"Claire. I realize you haven't had to think much on this, but you do remember that no one in our family but me knows you had a baby, right?"

"I do remember, yes. I'm not stupid, Chris."

"So bringing the guy who looks like him and happens to actually be his father was a good idea why?"

"You think I should just never bring him around Mom and Dad's house?"

"I think you should have warned me about it beforehand. I also think you should think long and hard before bringing him around again anytime soon, yes."

"You told me Kyle wasn't going to be there until later so I didn't think it was an issue."

"Claire! Mom and Dad aren't stupid. They're going to figure it out if you keep bringing him around. You know that as well as I do."

"And so what if they do figure it out? What can they do about it now nineteen years later? Ground me?"

She had a point, and Chris must have realized that because suddenly her brother's attention was focused on John.

"And you, stay the hell away from my son."

"I haven't gone anywhere near him!" John said.

"DeeAnna says you were in the basement alone with him for a while last night while she and Anne Marie got pie."

"She and Anne Marie got pie, I stayed downstairs. Why is that a problem?"

"You know damned well why it's a problem. Claire saw a reason to put him up for adoption back then, you don't get to come in here and decide you want to be involved with him as if the past nineteen years don't matter."

"I haven't said they didn't matter and I haven't made any effort to be involved with him."

"You came to my house!"

"I have a job to do. You think I should tell my captain I couldn't do a neighborhood canvas because my kid who doesn't know me lives in one of the houses?"

"You could have gotten out of the assignment. You and I both know it."

"Chris! I don't understand why you're so mad. Mom and Dad seemed to like him well enough." They hadn't said anything, of course, but Claire knew by now how her parents' reacted to situations. Her dad may not have been as nice as her mom was to him, but her dad hadn't hated him.

"I'm just reminding you of the situation and that you're toeing a line that risks exposing everything you did back then."

"I can't help that I'm dating him."

"You can, too!"

"I'm sorry. You want me to not date him because Mom and Dad might figure out what happened?"

"I think you should think long and hard about what his agenda is."

"My agenda?" John asked.

"Yeah, you. Pretty convenient you showing up in her life again months after she got divorced."

"Jesus Christ, you give me way too much credit if you think I've thought about anyone from high school for more than ten minutes of my life since then. I did not pay someone to shoot my dog as a ploy to meet up with her again."

"You didn't have to see her again."

"You're right, I didn't. I wanted to, I can't help that and I'm not going to apologize to you for how I feel. If anything, knowing I'm still here seeing her after finding out about Kyle should tell you I have feelings for her."

"Or you're biding your time until you can really hurt her."

"Yes, you're right. I've spent the past nineteen years as a cop so that I could plot out my revenge against anyone who did me wrong in high school. As for Kyle, I'm not doing anything to the kid."

"He was upset last night."

"Maybe he and his girlfriend got into a fight or something. I don't know. Why am I to blame?"

"Because you're the only thing different about his life."

"Maybe he had a bad week of class. Maybe he bombed a test. Maybe a lot of things. It's not my fault."

"I knew this was a bad idea."


"This whole thing. I don't know what you saw in him then or now, but you better not expect me to pick up the pieces a second time when he does something this time around."

"I'm not eighteen!" Claire said. "I won't have you coming into my house insulting John either. You can't hold what happened then against him now. He's not that guy any more than I'm the same girl from that day."

"What are you going to do if Mom and Dad find out?"

"I don't know! Admit it? He already knows the truth anyway, so it's not like if they find out more people would have to hide it from him."

"How does he know? And how do you know he knows?"

"I just do. I don't know."

"You told him," he said, pointing at John.

"He did not," Claire said. "Everything in the world is not John's fault! Kyle is not completely John's fault. I knew about birth control the same as John did. I took the chance the same as he did."

"You hadn't had sex before."

"Neither had he."

"Right," Chris said. "If you believed that then you're not as smart as I thought you were back then."

"He didn't tell me that then!"

"Are you going to help me pay for his college tuition?" Chris asked.

"He has scholarships, Christopher. Don't be an ass. He knows the truth, he's not running off to live with me or John. People find their birth parents all of the time, it doesn't change anything about who their parents are. You're his dad. Ellen is his mother. I know that. John knows that and I'm pretty sure Kyle does, too. If you think his knowing anything, or Mom and Dad finding out, changes things then that's on you not me."

"Don't psychoanalyze me."

"Don't come here sounding ridiculously paranoid over nothing. He's known for months and you haven't known. Does that speak to someone who's going to do anything stupid to you?"

"You need to be careful," Chris said.


"Bryce Jr. told Kyle that he spent the night last night."

"Yes. I'm not married, I'm allowed to do that."

"That's the kind of example you want to set for your kids?"

"We didn't have sex in front of my kids, Chris. He spent the night because he was coming with us. Why am I justifying myself to you? I'm almost forty years old, if I want him to move in here I can do that."

"If Bryce Jr. told Kyle, chances are he's going to tell his dad, too. Truthfully, I don't really care what you do, but he might."

"Let him get angry."

"You're still the mother to his kids. He still has political aspirations beyond state senator. Just remember that."

"I do!"

She did know that. There was a US senate seat he was running for next fall. She knew that, had known it. It was why he'd given in and let her try for a girl, thinking it'd make Claire happy and more prone to staying in the marriage. A second baby would look good he'd been told or Betsy would never even be here. She couldn't get artificially inseminated without his cooperation. It was also why they'd gotten divorced as quietly and amicably as they could, so that his chances of getting elected wouldn't be harmed. She didn't want to move to DC, though, so his wanting to run sort of moved things forward more quickly than they may have done ordinarily. Would he win? She had no idea, but wouldn't be surprised if he did. The Mercer's were a very powerful family politically with a good reputation. His father and grandfather were spoken highly of.

"Chris, I'm sorry, I honestly didn't think it'd be a big deal to bring him to dinner. Do you and I think Kyle looks like John? Yes, because we know who John is and what their relationship is. I'm not sure Mom and Dad would think too hard on it, though."

"Maybe not, but you have to be prepared for them to ask or figure it out."

"I have been, I was back then. You have no idea how terrified I was of them finding out. I'm done being scared. I made a decision and it was a good one, the right one. I don't regret that or having him. I certainly don't regret being in the position to have to decide whether to have him."

"I should go," he said.

"Really? You came over here to yell at me and you're just going to leave?"

"I have some things to do while Ellen's home with the kids. Besides, he's here."

"He's leaving," she said, gesturing to John. "He works today."

"Oh," he said. "I didn't realize. Sorry."

"You're not sorry or you wouldn't have yelled at me to begin with after seeing his car on the driveway."

"I wasn't yelling, I just don't know if you realized how careless that was."

"Like I said, you told me Kyle wasn't going to be there until later. I figured it'd be a good way for Mom and Dad to meet John."

"So it occurred to you meeting him for the first time sitting at the same table as Kyle may not be a good idea?"

"It did," she admitted.

"Well, at least you thought it through. I'm glad."

"I'm sorry," she said when she came back into the kitchen after walking him out.

"Nothing to be sorry for. He probably has a point. I guess I never really thought about your parents thinking anything of me other than being the guy you brought to dinner."

"I think Chris is paranoid."

"Well, it's not like I'm going to see them again anytime soon."

"Well, Christmas is next month."

"Christmas is a little more personal than Thanksgiving, isn't it? I guess I assumed I wouldn't be included in that. That's gifts and stuff."

"Well, you could be there if you wanted to be."

"The kids will be with Bryce Christmas?"

"No, he leaves for Springfield next week. So, I'll bring them down Christmas Day after we've done stuff with Mom and Dad."

"Well, how about I drive with you? You just stay the night, right?"


"I can go with you. We can stay the night somewhere down there. I'll find a place."

"You don't have to do that."

"I know I don't have to do that, but you cook for us all of the time. You even have dog food here for Randy now, which is nice, but …"

"Groceries and dog food are not a hotel room."

"Maybe I like the idea of you getting a night like that once in a while. I liked seeing you as relaxed as you were back in September. I haven't seen it since then."

"Because I'm busy!"

"I know that. I'm not telling or asking you to be less busy."

"John, it's really not necessary. I can drive them down there, spend the night at…"

"So, that's cool. You staying with your ex-husband but I can't have a woman watch my dog?"

"I'm laying odds that she's not a lesbian."

"While I don't know that for sure, I tend to agree with you. That's not the point. You got mad I had a woman watch my dog. This is you spending the night at a man's house who knows you intimately. I don't care how long ago that intimacy occurred. You're in a relationship with me, I don't want you spending the night with the guy who happens to be the father of your kids."


"And who has aspirations on being a US senator. You didn't tell me that part."

"What difference does that make?"

"It makes a difference. How do I know he won't realize that a wife would be a good thing for him to get elected?"

"I'm not going to remarry him!"

"Yeah, well, you did it once and stayed married to him for years so what's to stop you from doing it again because he needs you to do it?"

"Because I don't want to live in DC?"

"That's the only reason?"

"Well, that's the main reason. That's the reason we got the divorce now. I knew he was running. His grandfather had died. We talked about it for a while and then decided it was better to do it now. We were able to do it amicably, people see that we still get along and the kids are shared between us. It worked."

"So, I play no bearing on that?"

"On what?"

"You remarrying him?"

"John! He hasn't asked me to remarry him. He's not going to ask. I think a couple of months is a little soon for you to be asking me questions like that."

"Why? We can't have legitimate feelings for each other in five or six months?"

"When we have so much other stuff going on? I think anyone would tell us we should wait to see how things with Kyle really work out before we make any decisions."

"And your family, I bet. Mom and Dad start to piece it together are you going to bail on me?"

"I don't know! I don't think so, no. I meant what I said to Christopher earlier. What can they do about it now?"

"Your father could disinherit you."

"He could, but I don't think he'd do that over something eighteen years ago. And Chris…"

"Would give you half anyway because he wouldn't think it was fair."

"Yeah," she said. "John I just really don't think it's a good idea if you go down there with me."

"He already knows I was at your parents' house tonight."

"I know that, but it's not the same as you driving with me to bring our kids to see him."

"So, I'm good enough to bring to Mom and Dad's house on Thanksgiving but not good enough to bring to meet the ex? Yet I'm supposed to tell you who I let watch my dog?"

"John, that's not it at all. I'm just not sure Christmas Day is the right time to do that."

"Fine, whatever. Do whatever the fuck you want. I have to get to work."


"Whatever your deal is I'm not overly thrilled at meeting him, you know, but I figure it's sort of inevitable if I'm going to be around you and your kids. It's Christmas, which may mean nothing to me in the grand scheme of things, however, I figured maybe you'd like to spend the night somewhere. Go swimming or something. I'm sorry for thinking you'd like to do something to take your mind off of not having your kids on what I'm sure is a day you're used to having them."

"I know, I just…"

"Don't make excuses. Whatever the reason, I get it. Can't meet the ex. I've got to get to work."

"John, don't leave mad."

"Too late. Forget about lunch, it was clearly a stupid idea anyway."

"John. Please."

"Nope. Not going to talk about this anymore, but I want you to think about the fact that you apparently had no problem with me meeting your parents and your entire fucking family, spending hours with them even. For whatever reason, though, I can't make a drive down to Springfield with you to drop your kids off. What kind of message am I supposed to get from that exactly? I'm not sticking around for an answer. When you have one that doesn't sound as backwards as I think you're being right now, you let me know."

And like that he was gone. She had no idea what to even say to him anyway.

Return to Top

***Chapter Sixteen***
Word Count: 3,336

She'd never been here before. Well, maybe back in school they'd taken a field trip here. She vaguely recalled that when they were studying how the justice system worked. They'd taken a field trip downtown, too, to a courthouse and were able to sit in a courtroom for a little bit.

She couldn't recall John being a part of either field trip, not particularly surprising she supposed. His parents probably wouldn't have spent the money and he wouldn't have wanted to go even if they'd been willing.

There were moments, few and far between because she knew he wasn't the same guy at all, but they still happened where she couldn't quite wrap her mind around the fact he'd become a cop.

He hadn't come to her house last night. She'd waited up for a while, but when it was clear he wasn't going to show up she'd gone to bed. She chalked it up to his working late, but she imagined that wasn't the case. She could have gone to his house, but hadn't thought about it until later.

She also realized this morning if he was that mad he wasn't going to just show up at her house. She wasn't sure her showing up here was the best course of action. The officer at the desk was eyeing her curiously.

"I'm looking for John Bender," she said finally, hoping she wasn't making a huge mistake coming here like this. She didn't think he could get much madder at her, but then she wasn't sure how mad he was capable of getting.

"You have an appointment?"

"Uh, no."

"Your name?"

"Claire Mercer."

His eyes flickered in recognition at the name. She sighed a bit. There were times she didn't mind having Bryce's last name. It'd certainly proven to be a blessing more than a hindrance over the years, but now that they were divorced she didn't like it as well. If she didn't have kids she probably would've gone back to Standish.

"Have a seat, I'll let him know you're here."

"Thanks," she said, walking to the area where there were seats. She wasn't going to sit unless too much time had gone by.

"You have political aspirations I don't know about, Bender," the officer at the desk said after she'd heard the sound of a door open and close in that direction.

John scoffed.

"Why are you both wet?" she asked.

"He needed to be cleaned up and I ended up needing to get cleaned up, too."

"Oh," she said.

"What do you need, Claire?"

"Need?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm at work here."

"Well," she said, glancing at the clock behind him near the desk. "I wasn't sure what time you'd be done."

He scoffed at that. His schedule was not regular nine to five, though. He could have started at six this morning for all she knew. How was she supposed to know?

"That still doesn't answer my question."

She glanced at Randy who was sitting beside John calmly. He looked fine so she wondered what happened to him that he needed to be cleaned up, but she supposed it was none of her business. That had bothered her yesterday more than him being mad at her had really. She wanted to know things about him that no one else knew, more than just Kyle, too. She wanted it to be her business.

"You," she said softly.

"I'm sorry. What?"

"You asked me what I need. That's my answer."

"Yeah, well, I'm not sure what you need and I need are in the same ballpark right now. I realize you just got out of a fifteen year commitment so I don't know maybe the timing is just off."

"Can you take lunch? Or can we talk somewhere I'm not being scrutinized because the guy at the desk knows my name?"

"I guess," he said. He didn't sound too sure it was a good decision. "Give me a few minutes to get him situated. I'll be back. I swear to god you get me to lunch and tell me some bullshit about how the timing is off or something …"

"I'll be here."

"Yeah, all right," he said. "Come on, Randy."

"Do you own a uniform?" she asked when he came back.

"Yes, of course. I haven't worn one in years, but I have one. I have things to go to and do where it's required."

"I suppose. I'd just never seen you wear one and I didn't notice any in your closet at your house."

"That's because I keep them in the guest room's closet. They stay pristine that way because there's nothing else pressed up against them."

"Ah," she said. "Where do you want to go?"

"I don't care," he said. "I don't have real long, though."

"All right," she said. It was a Saturday afternoon so there were some places that weren't as busy as they were during the work week at lunchtime. She found one of those places.

They ordered and Claire fiddled a bit with her glass.

"I understand why you feel the way you do and said those things. Do you really think I'd let you stay at my house with my kids there if I was in a totally different frame of mine than you are? If I was just with you for sex? I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't let you get to know them as you have. You've been there just about every day since they got back from their dad's house in August. I wouldn't have invited you to my parents' house for Thanksgiving."

"Well, I don't know. Some people do that shit. I see it all of the time."

"I suppose you do," she said, not having thought on that. He probably saw a lot of stuff that Claire thought of as irrational.

"Just last week. Well, never mind. Let's just say I wish people, men and women, screened people before letting someone get involved with their kids."

"I didn't screen you."

He chuckled softly at that, taking a sip of his Coke. "And I'm a prime example of why you should, right?"

"No, that's not what I meant. Listen. About Christmas. You took what I was saying way more personally than I meant it."

"I did huh? How impersonally should I take the news that you don't want me to go with you?"

"I understand why you would. It's not that I don't want you there. I love the idea. The kids will be crashed in the backseat by the time we get out of Chicago. So company, you, would be welcome. I can't say I'm fond of the drive. Bryce is Bryce. You going with to Thanksgiving is not the same to the kids as you going with to see their dad. It's a balancing act. I can move on, he can't really. So if I move too fast. If there's anything that comes across as seemingly inappropriate on my end."


"He can't date, John. So if I show up in Springfield with a boyfriend months after being divorced and he's not even seeing someone …"

"It's pushing a year. When I saw you in July you said four months. It's not like you just got divorced and two days later I was staying at your house."

"I know. It doesn't seem like a year, though at all."

"The guy at the house that day in August?"

"I don't know who he is, but he still can't date him. He can't bring him to functions. He can't run a campaign with him by his side."

"I suppose," he said.

"I'm trying to be considerate. That's all. It was only last Christmas that was an issue of our not being married any longer."

"All right."

"It's not that I don't want you with me. I honestly didn't even think about staying there. It's just what we did last year. If you saw his house down there, you'd know."

"Well, clearly going by your house here I know. Jealousy isn't logical, sweetheart."

"You're jealous of him?"

"I'm jealous of the years he got with you, yeah. Sure, I can admit that."


"Not logical, remember? I mean, did I spend the last fifteen years jealous? No, of course not, but now that I'm with you. Know things, it bothers me that if I'd been a good guy, done the right thing."


"I know. We probably wouldn't be here. Logically, I do, but that doesn't mean I don't go over it in my head."

"I know."

"I'm sure you do, and I'm sure you've gone over it in your head way more times than I have over the years. How could you not?"

"I had an idea."


"How many days off do you get for Christmas?"

"Well, it's on a Thursday and I worked this weekend so I get it off. I do work Christmas Eve, though."

"What if you met me down there and we could spend the weekend down there? Have you been there since that trip we took back in grade school?"

He looked at her oddly for a minute or two, and she realized very likely he hadn't gone on that trip. She remembered it because it was the only time in her life she'd ever spent nine hours on a school bus and it had been awful. Never mind they'd left at like six o'clock in the morning to be able to spend the day down there.

"Okay then. Have you ever been there?"

"No," he said.


"No offense, but meeting you down there would be a waste of both of our time."

"Well, I wasn't suggesting you drive down there. I'll look into a plane ticket."

"Claire. How is that any different?"

"The kids, Betsy, mostly won't blab to Bryce about you being down there with me."

"What's he going to do exactly?"

"I don't know, but if they told him you stayed the other night and then…"

"You think he'd try to take them from you?"

"I don't think he would, no, but I didn't think we'd be where we are today either. You know? He drinks way too much these days and isn't the same guy he was when we met. I liked that Bryce, John. A lot. Enough that marrying into such a deal was appealing to me. He was my friend."

"Does your brother know?"

"No, Brian's the only one who knows. And you."

"So, all those years, Chris has no clue?"

"No. I wouldn't do that. I only told Brian because I needed someone to assure me I wasn't crazy."

"Brian told you it wasn't crazy marrying someone who was gay?"

"Brian told me that I should do what I thought would make me happy. I thought, at the time, it would. Being a senator's wife, being a Mercer, hasn't been bad to me."

"I suppose."

"So that was my thought. You could fly down there and drive back with me. He'll drive them back up the Sunday night they have to get to school."

"What does he do with his house when he's not in it for six months?"

"I'm really not sure. I imagine he has someone to stop in and look at it."

"Or a friend to stay there?"

"Maybe," she said with a shrug.

"I wonder if that friend would go to DC with him."

"I doubt it."

"I suppose not."

"John, I understand why you're mad at me, but you have to understand this isn't familiar to me. Dating. It's been a long time and what we're doing is way different than what Bryce and I did. I have kids, though, that I have to think about, and like it or not my name is still Mercer so I can't do anything to drag the name through the mud."

"I get it."

"Do you?"

"I do."

"I want you there with me. We'll leave Mom and Dad's around two o'clock, which will get us there around six or so. That certainly gives you enough time to get some rest if your night runs long Christmas Eve."

"It shouldn't, but yeah."

"Is that a yes?"

"I can buy a ticket."

"It might be real expensive."

"I'd actually book a bus ticket. I can have Randy with me then instead of putting him in a cargo area."


He shrugged. "Sure. You'll let me book the hotel so I can find one that will allow Randy?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Thank you."

"You're not going to leave him with Toni?"

He shrugged a bit at that. "No, I'll use being a cop and find a hotel who will let him stay with us."

"She's not there today?"

"She doesn't usually work days actually. She usually works afternoons into the evenings. It just so happens the two times Kyle has come she's been called in early."

"Oh," she said.

"Hoping to meet the competition?"

"Am I competing?"

He scoffed. "No."

"If I hadn't come by today?"

He narrowed his eyes a bit, regarding her.

"What are you asking me?"

She shrugged.

"You're asking me if I would've asked her out or something because we fought?"

"I guess."

"No. If she wasn't someone I worked with maybe I'd be that big of an asshole, but no. Besides I'd need condoms if I was going to do that."

"You would?"

"Uh yeah, and I sort of don't have any anymore so that would be deeply inconvenient."

"Deeply, huh?"

"Yes, and I can admit that I hate those fucking things."

She laughed softly. "I've never…"

"Yeah, I know. I'm not going to buy anymore so you can find out the difference."

"Maybe I want to…"

"Nope, not doing it. Unless you tell me I have to then, of course I would."

"Have to?"

"Well, you mentioned this summer your doctor recommended…"

"Oh, I've already taken care of that."

"You have?"



"Don't worry, I'm fine. It's just a different form of birth control."


"Trust me, I don't want anymore."

"I know."

She bit her lower lip lightly and ran her finger over the edge of her spoon. They hadn't gotten soup or dessert so it was unused.

"That doesn't bother you?"

"Nope. Never wanted them. Seems to me we had this conversation. Or maybe I just had it with myself, I don't know. No. I'm fine without producing anymore Bender's."

"And two years from now?"

"Don't see that happening. I mean, I like to think we're taking steps to my being a pretty significant part of your kids' lives. That's fine with me."

"Some wouldn't…"

"I'm not some."

She laughed softly. "No, I guess you're not."

"I could ask you a similar question, you know."


He shrugged, taking a sip of his Coke after he pulled his wallet out of his pocket.

"I'm going to buy. I invited you."

"Get out of here. I'm not letting you pay for lunch."


"Save it. You're not buying me lunch. And my question," he said. "Well, you have no concerns? Worries about my being around your kids, knowing how I was raised? A part of me wonders if that wasn't why you made the decision with Kyle you did."

"I have no qualms about you, John. You wouldn't be a cop if you were violent."

"Well, I'm not sure that's a good judge…"

"I'm fine."

"And if Bryce does some sort of background check on me and finds out about my past?"

"Do you have any violent arrests or altercations on your record?"


"Well then what can he say?"

"You're worried about his reputation, he may not be the one digging up dirt on me."

"And again. What can they say? Despite the odds you got out and have made a good life for yourself? That's not a bad thing last I checked."

"I know you said it's too soon, but I know people who've gotten married in less time than this."

"I know that, but there's so much to deal with. It goes beyond just us."

"All right."

"Are you going to come over tonight?"

"Do I get to help you cook dinner?"

"If you want to."

"Then I'd love to come over tonight."

"I missed you last night."


"Yes," she said. "The house was empty and when the kids have been gone the past few months you're always there, in my bed."

"Well, I'll try to make up for that later then."

"How's your side?"

"It's all right. I changed the bandage when I showered just now and it looks good. I don't think anyone would look at it and think I didn't see a real M.D."

"You're lucky, you know."

"What do you mean?"

"He either didn't know where to stab you to nick anything important or his aim was very off."

"Yeah, he was just blindly reaching for any part of me he could get."

"You're still lucky."

"I know."

"Does that happen a lot?"

"I'm a cop, Claire. We pursue criminals, most of whom don't want to get caught."

"I know, but you've never come home needing stitches before."

"Home, huh?"

"You know what I mean."

"I do, and I'd be okay with it being home when you're ready for that."

"What about what you're ready for?"

"Uh, I'll put my house on the market tomorrow if you're offering."

"You'd do that?"


"Move in with me?"

"Sure," he said with a shrug. "Why not?"

"I don't know."

"I'd be more worried about you. You're worried about his name, having a live-in boyfriend might tarnish that name a bit."

"I know."

"Well, when you're no longer worried about that let me know and I'll talk to a realtor."

"Why do you have to sell your house?"

"Hmm. Well, I couldn't fit you and kids plus two more dogs and a cat in my house. Besides, Randy really likes your pool."

"Randy does, huh?"

"Yes. He was really looking forward to using it last night knowing the kids were gone and it'd just be him."

"I bet he was crushed."

"He was."

"He could go in there tonight."

"I'll be sure to tell him that."

She drove him back to the station. They'd been gone a little longer than an hour but he didn't seem that concerned about it. He leaned in and kissed her. A nice kiss, too, not just a kiss goodbye.

"Thank you for inviting me to lunch."

"Lunch that you bought."

"I can't let you buy me lunch, Claire."

She sighed but kissed him again before finding his chin.

"You're welcome."

"I'll see you later."

"What do you want for dinner?"

He chuckled softly. "You."

"Just that?"

"To start, yes. You're not the only one who missed you last night. Expecting a whole weekend and then suddenly finding myself presented with a whole weekend of nothing."

She laughed, running a fingertip over his mouth.

"Poor thing."

"I know, right? It's awful. Giving you regular sex is a terrible burden."

She shook her head, drawing her hand away after he'd kissed her finger.

"So, that's what I want for dinner. Maybe I'll bring a pizza or something for us to eat whenever we get hungry later."

"You said you wanted to help me cook."

"I do. I want you. I want to undress you. That's helping you get what I want for dinner ready."

She blushed, she knew it without him chuckling at her reaction.

"All right, Princess. Have a good rest of your day then. Maybe you should take a nap."


"I plan on making up for last night."

"I'm counting on it."

"Good," he said, getting out of the car then.

She watched as he walked up the steps and went inside. He'd just said he'd live with her. Why did that idea make her excited instead of screaming for the hills in fear? She wasn't sure, but she couldn't deny his saying that had made her feel good.

Return to Top

***Chapter Seventeen***
Word Count: 5,596

"I'm sorry. You what?"

"I was hoping you'd do me a huge favor and watch the kids for the weekend for me."

"Me? Wouldn't, like, your brother, parents, or their dad be a better option?"

"Their dad isn't in town and if you got called into work in the middle of the night Chris could take them."

"Is this some sort of test?"


"If I say no it proves I'm not ready or something?"

"Are you going to say no?" she asked.

He huffed and she couldn't help but chuckle softly.

"No," he said. His head was back against the back of the couch and he was, no doubt, staring at the ceiling wondering what he'd just agreed to.

"You have some veterinarians' convention or something?"

"No, I'm going to go see Kyle."

"Oh," he said. "Really?"

"Yes. I figured maybe talking to him there instead of here would be better. I don't think Chris will be too happy if I seek him out, but I have to. He knows and I want to talk to him."

"Right, I see that. Chris would too if he wasn't so bent out of shape about him finding out."

"I'll leave Friday after work and be home Sunday as early as I can be. Really, if something happens that you need help you can call Chris."

"I'm not calling your brother, Claire."

"Or Brian would help, too."

"Maybe I'd call Brian."

"Thank you."

"Betsy's the only one I have questions on. Bryce seems mostly self-sufficient."

"And he can help you with her for the most part, but sure. I'll make sure there's food here and everything."

"Food is the least of my worries, but that's good. What are you going to tell them?"

"I hadn't figured that part out yet."

"Maybe I wasn't too far off with that veterinarians' convention, huh?"

"I suppose not."

"Or a weekend with some friends?"

"That, too, maybe except I'd hate to have to make anyone lie if they saw the kids."

"You don't have to name names."

"No, I guess I don't. I have done that a time or two over the years."

"Well, then they wouldn't think anything of it."

So that was how she found herself in Minneapolis on a Friday night. Alone and not at all sure of her decision. She stopped for some dinner before checking into her hotel for the night. She'd managed to find a decently priced room right near campus. There was no home football game this week, which probably played into that luck.

It'd been a long time since she called her own phone number.

'Mercer residence.'

"Hi, Bryce. It's Mom. How are you?"

'Hi Mom. I'm good.'

"Yeah? Good. You're up kind of late, aren't you?" she asked, glancing at the clock. It wasn't that late considering it was Friday night.

'We just finished watching a movie.'

"Oh," she said. "What movie did you watch?"

'Angels in the Outfield.'

That made sense, it was one of the few movies that Bryce and Betsy could agree on. Bryce was a little old for it these days, but he was willing to watch it over something like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. She wasn't sure if she'd told John that.

"Well, that's good. Is John there?"


"Okay. You have a good night's sleep. And thanks for helping John with Betsy."

'Yeah, sure,' he said, handing the phone off.

'Hi,' he said.


'Everything okay?'

"Yes. I just called to tell you I got here and everything."

'Oh, right. Good.'

"Everything all right there?"

'Yeah, sure. We had some grilled cheese and soup for dinner. We watched a couple of movies.'

"A couple?"

'Yup. I let them eat while they were watching.'

"Oh," she said.

'I know they said you don't let them do that, but I'm out of my element here.'

"I know. I'm not mad, it's fine."

'Thank you.'

"I just don't like the habit. You know. Dinner, to me, should be around a table, talking, family."

'Right. I can't say I get or understand that as I've never had that, but sure.'

"I'm sorry you haven't."

'I mean, I've experienced it at your house, but it's not quite the same as what you're talking about. By the time I was Bryce's age, younger actually, I was on my own as far as dinner went most nights. You want that to be normal to them, though, and that's not bad.'

"Yes. It's so easy with cell phones and computers to lose touch."

'Tell me about it. You know I've actually had Randy trained to sniff for electronic equipment?'

"You have?"

'Yup. We can even catch the white collar kind of bad guys the two of us.'

"Have you caught any?"

'Using that skill? Uh, four that I can think of off the top of my head. It's not a hugely great skill here in Shermer, but he's one of a few around that have it. We've been rented out, though, on more than a few.'


'The training was out in Baltimore. Randy's very smart and was very young when I got asked so my captain saw it as a good investment. He gets to bill for our services. One day departments will do it themselves, but I guess until it becomes commonplace they come to us knowing we have the skills.'

"Will you do it again for the next one?"


"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that.'

He chuckled. 'I know. Obviously it's inevitable. And, yes, I would, assuming I'm still doing this then.'

"Why wouldn't you be?"

'Oh, I don't know. The potential for mouths other than my own to feed has had me thinking.'

"Oh, John. Don't…"

'I'm not making any decisions tomorrow, Princess, don't worry. I'm just saying, the thought's occurred to me that I might want to do more before I'm too old to be able to do more.'

"I see. You know there's nothing wrong with what you do, right?"

'I know that, I do. However, I know that there are positions that pay better and don't require my being called out in the middle of the night every time. Like detectives, they're on a rotation, you know. I don't have anyone to rotate with.'

"I suppose."

'Doesn't mean I wouldn't get another Shephard once he's gone.'

"Did you ever have a dog growing up?"

'Nope,' he said.

"Then how did you…"

'I have no idea. I met a handler when I was in the academy and he struck a chord with me more than any other talking head who came in there to brag about their division and what it could do for us. Does that really surprise you?'

"No, I guess not."

'I mean, I don't trust people so I think having a partner for any longer than I did wouldn't have worked out so well.'

She laughed at that.

'Yeah, see, you hear what I'm saying and know I speak the truth.'

"And you do now? Trust people?"

'I'm better than I was then, sure. I actually believe a partner would take a bullet for me now.'

"God, see, don't talk like that."

'That's the way it works. My first partner, the only one I ever had before I went this route. He was nice enough, but I just never trusted him. Not his fault. This got offered to me. I mean I applied when they put out the notice they were going to add it to the department. I haven't looked back since.'

"Is he still a cop?"


"Your first partner."

'Oh yeah. He's a lieutenant in another town now.'

"Good for him."

'I guess. I haven't talked to him in like fifteen years, and I'm still not entirely sure I trust him.'

"Maybe it was just him?"

'Maybe. I don't know.'

"Is Betsy asleep already?"

'No. She's right here. Bryce went upstairs.'

"What's she doing?"

'She's brushing Randy.'

"Oh. She loves brushing Gertrude."

'Yeah, she's very good at it. Gentle, but thorough. He's loving it.'

"I bet. She's been all right?"

'She's been fine. I figure I'll get her to bed when we hang up.'

"Okay. Thank you again for doing this."

'I understand why you want to do it this way. I probably would, too, if it was me. You do realize he may not be alone when you get there in the morning, right?'

"What do you mean?"

'Uh Claire…'

"Oh, Anne Marie. Sure. I figured that she'd probably be there since he got a single room this year."

'And you're okay with that?'

"I can't say anything. Even if I could, I'm not really in a position to cast stones, am I?"

He chuckled. 'I suppose not. Just so you're prepared.'

"I am."

'All right then, Claire. Get some sleep and if you need to talk when you're done, we'll be here. I told the kids maybe we could take the dogs down to the lake tomorrow, but we wouldn't be outside long obviously.'

"They'd like that."

'The kids or the dogs?'


'I figured it was a good idea. Even Bryce seemed okay with the idea.'

"He'll come around, John."

'Oh, I believe you when you say he will. He didn't curse at me over dinner or anything so I'd say we're doing all right for now. He just hasn't spoken to me really, which I expected.'

"I'm sorry."

'Don't worry about it.'

"I'll talk to you tomorrow then."

'I'll be here.'

She hung up then, sorely tempted to tell him she loved him but she held back. Despite what he said about people getting married after just knowing one another as long as they've been dating it still felt too soon to her.

Not that she didn't know she loved him. She just wasn't ready to say it. She wasn't sure he was ready to hear it, but his sitting at her house this weekend with her kids was probably a pretty good indication he was.

She didn't sleep well at all. No one but John knew she was here. Not even Brian, and she'd been sorely tempted to call him during one of her bouts of insomnia throughout the night. She'd decided against that, though, probably wisely.

She was very glad when it was a reasonable hour for her to head over to campus and his dorm. She very much wanted to get this over with. She didn't want it looming over everything and everyone at Christmas. Chris knowing especially would make things very uncomfortable.

She found his dorm easily enough thanks to the Internet and the map of the campus she had access to and studied last night.

College seemed an eternity ago even though it was really only fifteen years ago when she graduated. Almost sixteen now she supposed. Her twentieth class reunion would be this coming summer, in fact. Would John go with her? That was a thought for a whole other day, though.

There were people up and about, walking around so she assumed she wasn't here crazily early. She remembered being in college, though, and she never made it to the food services breakfast on weekends. She kept Pop-Tarts and stuff in her dorm room for just that reason.

"Aunt Claire," he said with a slight frown when he opened his door.

"Hi," she said. She'd practiced what she was going to say a million times on the drive up here and last night in between her intermittent bouts of sleep. Now, though, she had no idea what to say. "I was hoping I could take you out for breakfast." She glanced at her watch, even though she knew what time it was because she'd checked when she pulled up in front of his dorm. "Or an early lunch, I suppose."

"No, breakfast is fine. I, give me a few minutes to get dressed and stuff."

"Sure," she said. "I'll be downstairs then."

"Claire," he said when she started walking away.


"Is, uh, everything okay? Mom and Dad? Alex and Dee?"

"They're fine," she said.

"Okay, good. I couldn't think of any other reason you'd be here."

"We need to talk, don't we?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess so."

He came down a few minutes later, alone. That didn't mean Anne Marie wasn't in his room, but he at least seemed to realize she wasn't included today. Not that Claire wouldn't want to get to know the girl. Just not today.

He gave her directions to a place not far from campus.

"I never suspected you," he said after they'd ordered and neither seemed to know where to start.

"Well, I would hope not, that was the point."


She sighed softly, taking a sip of her coffee.

"I was eighteen. I didn't know John really, and what I did know didn't add up to him having anything to do with a child. I didn't know I was pregnant right away, of course. He had a reputation. A different girl every week, and I didn't want to be another girl that chased after him."

"Because you didn't do that?"

"Well, sure, and certainly not after someone like him."

"Someone like him?"

She laughed at that. "He was very different then. Maybe some time when your dad isn't freaking out that you know this you can look through yearbooks and stuff. He was a burn out, the guy people in my crowd went to for the good," she shrugged. "Drugs."

Was there a right or wrong thing to say? She wasn't sure.

"To say I was surprised when I ran into him in July and he had become a cop and not wanted by the cops is an understatement."

"You didn't know?"

"No. I went to college, and I had no idea what happened to him. I didn't call him, he didn't call me. By the time I realized I was pregnant. Well, I wasn't going to call him months later. He wasn't a super nice guy."

"But you were in a position to get pregnant."

"Sure. I'm not denying I wasn't deeply attracted to him. He was my first and only except for Bryce. I'd never had any desire to even kiss anyone until him. Attraction doesn't mean he's a good guy."

"He said you were at detention?"

"Yeah," Claire scoffed softly at the memory of that day. "There were five of us. He actually," she sighed. "He actually got in trouble to save the rest of our asses. He wasn't a bad guy, I could see that, but he didn't want to admit that and I didn't think he wanted a girl like me."

"Someone rich, you mean?"

"More or less. Popular. I was the prom queen and stuff. He had nothing to do with activities at Shermer High. I've thought about it over the years, wondered how things would be if I'd told him. I was so scared, though, Kyle. I was afraid he'd think I did it on purpose."

"Why would you get pregnant by him on purpose if he's as you described?"

"I wouldn't have, but that doesn't mean I didn't think he would believe that. It certainly doesn't mean he wouldn't have thought that. What did I have to gain?" She shrugged. "I don't know. My parents forcing us to get married, I suppose. You know my parents. Could you imagine?"

"They don't know?"


"How is that possible?"

"Chris and Ellen put me up at a hotel during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks down in Champaign. I couldn't tell them, Kyle. I was so embarrassed. I mean, not at having you, making the decision I made. For being so stupid. I was afraid, too, I guess, if he found out he'd feel guilty or pressured into doing the right thing even if my parents didn't try to make him marry me. I didn't want that. I didn't want him with me because I got pregnant from one afternoon with him."

"And his parents?"

"Yeah, that was the other thing. Has he told you about them?"

"Not really, vaguely said they weren't nice."

She scoffed, glancing out the window for a minute before continuing. "Not nice is an understatement. He was abused, Kyle. Physically wasn't all either. I know physical is the most noticeable, but I firmly believe it's a little easier to get over that. The emotional, though, and verbal were just as bad for him. Both of them. His parents I mean. He didn't have anyone on his side. I never met them, but he didn't let anyone get close to him. There was a reason for that."

"Were you afraid he'd be like that?"

"No. I mean, I guess maybe somewhere in the back of my mind that was there, sure. If we were in a relationship forced on him because of a baby. You. Bad things could happen. Did I think he was as bad as he made everyone believe he was? No, and that was the reason I liked him. He had it in him, but he'd just never had anyone care enough to invest in him."

"And then?"

She shrugged. "He never called. I never called. I presented your parents with the idea. I thought it was a fantastic idea at the time. I knew you'd be in good hands. I knew you'd be loved."


"I won't deny a day hasn't gone by that I don't regret my decision, Kyle. I've gone over it a million times, but Mom and Dad would've freaked out. There's no telling John would have done anything. There's no telling I could have finished college."

"You wouldn't have met Uncle Bryce."


"Does he know?"

"No! No one knows except Chris, Ellen, John, and my friend Brian Johnson. Do you remember him?"

"Sort of," he said.

She wasn't surprised by that answer. It'd been a while since Kyle had seen him.

"Would he have been mad?"

"Mad? I don't know. I wasn't willing to risk it, and it was just way too painful at the time to even talk about. I know you probably think it wasn't and think I've been lying to you for the past eighteen years, but I really did do what I thought was best for you. Your parents love you and have treated you no differently than if Ellen gave birth to you."

"I know."

"Please don't be mad at them. Adoptions aren't always open, you know. If it had been anyone else adopting you wouldn't know me."

"I get that, too."

"And please don't blame John. He never knew, so if you want to be mad at anyone about it be mad at me."

"Why'd you start dating him?"

"The same reason I ended up pregnant with you nineteen years later, Kyle. I like him."

"Love him?"

"Yes," she said.

He was quiet for a while after that.

"Did he come by the house this summer because he'd found out?"

"Yes," she said. "I told him to try to push him away. I'd just gotten divorced and I was scared to feel what I felt for him so soon."

"Are you still?"

"Yes," she admitted. "The physical works well between us. I assumed that was all he wanted from me and if he found out about you that he'd leave me alone."

"He didn't?"

"Oh, he did for a while. He was mad for a while, understandably. And please don't tell your parents what I just admitted to you."


"They probably wouldn't like to hear I'm talking to you about sex," she said with a shrug.

"Why'd you say it?"

"Because it's what got us here. I didn't know him. I wasn't dating him. I never saw him before or after that day other than to see him in the halls. I can admit that. I can be embarrassed about it, too, but I'm trying to be honest with you."

"For a change."

"You've always known you were adopted, Kyle. No one's lied to you about that. I honestly thought it was for the best. I don't know if you'd be here right now if I hadn't made it."

"I know. I thought of that. Actually Anne Marie pointed it out to me."

"I'd like to meet her sometime."


"I understand if you're mad, hurt, and whatever else you may be feeling. Betrayed? I don't know what all is in there. I'm still Claire. I love you, I love you probably more than anything."

"I get that," he admitted. "I mean, when I first figured it out I was pissed. You know? But I know you, at least I think I do, well enough you didn't do anything to be mean."


"You don't think that you ending up with him would be a little weird?"

"I think it'd be very weird, but I can't control how I feel and I don't think he'd just give up on me if I tried to pull away. I don't want him to."

"I was thinking of living with Anne Marie next year."


"Yeah. I'm not sure how Mom and Dad would react to that."

"I absolutely can't give you advice on that. You're right, they may not react well. Things are different, though. I've honestly thought of having John move in with me. How about her parents?"

"I don't know. I love her."

"Well, that's good and important."

"She's basically living with me now anyway."

"I sort of assumed that, having your own room."

"And her parents know that I do."

"And they still like you?"

"They seem to."

"Just be careful."

"John said the same thing."

"Did he?"

"Yeah. I've never talked to Mom or Dad about girls."

"You've never really dated anyone."

"I know, and that's why I don't know what they would say if I tell them I want to live with her next year."

"People do marry the first person they date."

"I know."

"Wait. You talked to John about girls?"

"I didn't go there to talk about it, no, but it came up."

"And he told you?"

"Not to do anything to make your sacrifice meaningless."

"He's right."

"I know that."

"I hope so."

"It's one of the reasons I stayed so focused growing up, you know? I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be better than that."

"And I'm glad you are. I've been so proud of you."

"You going to have more kids with him?"

"Uh, no," Claire said with a laugh. "I'm done. He knows that."

"He's okay with that?"

"Seems to be. He says he is. He said he never wanted them."

"I can't blame him I guess."

"No, but that doesn't mean he would've told me to get lost if I'd told him either. I have no idea how he would've reacted. I just did what I thought was the best thing at the time. I don't think he'd be a cop and where he is today if we tried to raise you. So please don't judge him on what he didn't even have the opportunity to do then."

"I'm not. He seems cool."

"You were kind of rude to him on Thanksgiving."

"I know. Anne Marie told me later. I didn't mean to be. It was just so weird. I didn't know he'd be there. I knew you were dating, I didn't think you were bring him to your parents' house dating, though."

"Yet you went to Anne Marie's house?"

"We've been together for over a year."

"Really? That long?"

"Yeah, we met at a dance the first week of school last year."

"What's her major?"

"Elementary Education. She wants to be a Special Education teacher, though."



"That's very commendable."

"But not impressive?"

"Kyle. It's not my place to be impressed or not. I'd tell her the same thing I'd tell you or any of my kids. Do what you love doing. I'm lucky that I'm able to do what I love and do well doing it. I realize that. However, I'd still do it. I didn't know when we put my practice out by the house I'd do well at all, but word of mouth and reputation mean something."

"That and the other houses that have animals out there that aren't dogs and cats."

"Yes," she said.

"How long are you here for?"

"I'm going home tomorrow."

"Did you want to have dinner with us tonight?"

"If you'd like. I wasn't sure when I'd be able to see you."

"Yeah, that'd be cool."

"Sure. If you guys want to see a movie or something, we could do that, too. Pick something and let me know."

"All right. Do Mom and Dad know you're here?"

"No. I figured I'd talk to you first and then talk to them. They know you know, though, and that's why I thought I should talk to you first."

He nodded simply, but said nothing.

"If you change your mind about later, just let me know."

"Yeah, sure, but I'm not going to. The situation is weird and confusing."

"It is."

"But then you've lived the past eighteen years…"

"I have."

"Anne Marie told me to think about that, how hard it must have been for you."

"It has, but I've been able to watch you grow up. I didn't see you every day, but it was more than I would've had if I'd given you up to strangers."

"I get that."

She dropped him off at his dorm then and went back to her room. She had nothing else really to do. She could go to the Mall of America, and maybe she would. Maybe she'd take them there later if they didn't pick a movie.

She took her cell phone out, saw a few texts from John but nothing alarming so she assumed he was doing all right.

'Hi,' he said when he answered.

"Hi," she said.

'Everything okay?'

"Yeah. It went all right. We're supposed to have dinner later, with Anne Marie."

'Oh, nice. I mean, that's good, right. He's not mad at you?'

"I think he's confused and hurt that he was lied to, but I think he understands. He says he does."

'You obviously love him, as his mom or his aunt doesn't matter. He sees that. If he doesn't see how much, he will eventually. It's still new to him.'

"I know. It's why I wanted to come up here, though, and talk to him. I didn't want that hanging over our heads on Christmas and I didn't want it distracting him from finals or anything."

He chuckled softly. 'He's a smart kid. I bet he can stay focused.'

"I know, doesn't mean I want to cause him any distraction. He asked me if we were going to have kids."


"Uh huh."

'I think we'd at least need to be living together for that to be on the table.'

"I think so, too, but I told him we aren't."

'Was that a good answer?'

"I don't know. He didn't say."

'I can imagine that would have been a possible deal-breaker for him and his acceptance of the situation.'

"You think so?"

'Uh, yeah. Nineteen years later we have another one?'

"Oh, yeah," she said. She hadn't really thought about it like that.

'Uh huh.'

"How are the kids?"

'Fine. They're outside playing with the dogs right now.'

"All of them?"

'Yup. Even Bryce.'

"Wow," she said.


"What did you do? Bribe him?"

He chuckled. 'Not quite. Close. I told them if they went outside and exerted some energy I'd take them out for pizza later.'

"Oh, they'd like that. You don't have to…"

'I don't have to do it, I know. I figured it'd be fun for them.'

"That's nice of you, thank you."

'Well, I don't really know what else to do with them. Outside so they're active seemed logical and it's not real cold out. Pizza seems like a good thing.'

"It is."


"Hey, John?" she said after a few minutes of silence.

'Uh huh? I'm here, I was just looking outside to make sure they were all there.'

"They can't go anywhere."

'They can get down to the lake.'

"Bryce wouldn't let Betsy go down there by herself, he knows better. I don't think the dogs would either honestly."

'I still check.'

"That's not what I was going to say, though."

'What were you going to say?'

"I think you should look into selling your house."

'Uh okay. Where'd that come from?'

She shrugged. "My heart? I love you. I want you with us."

'Huh. Maybe you should go out of town more often.'


'I'll look into it.'

"Okay," she said.

'And I love you, too.'

"I'm glad."

'I wouldn't be here at your house watching your kids if I didn't. I hope you know that.'

"I do."

'So, you going to talk to Bryce or anything first?'


'Before I look into listing my house.'

"No. I'll tell him when I bring the kids down on Christmas."

'You sure?'


'He may react…'

"He may, but you know what. I divorced him for a reason. Why am I worried about doing something to mess up his career anymore?"

'What made you realize that?'

"I don't know. Just talking to Kyle and I guess the likelihood of our paths crossing again. The fact I tried to get you to leave me alone."

'Fat chance of that.'

"I realize that, and that's what made me think about it."

'I'm glad. I guess that means I should tell Toni she had her chance, huh?'

"Ha ha."

'So, you're serious?'

"I am."

'All right. Well, forgive me if I give you a week or so to make sure.'

"I understand."

'Thank you. Have fun tonight.'

"You, too."

'I'm going to do my best. I guess now I need to try extra hard.'

"You weren't going to before?"

'Well, sure, you know, but I guess I have more of an incentive now.'

She laughed softly. "Bryce will come around eventually."

'I want to believe you. He hasn't said much to me today at all. In fact, the only time he said anything that I can think of was when I mentioned pizza.'

"Well, like I said before if you find yourself in a bind."

'I'm not calling Brian because your son is being difficult. I can muddle through.'

"All right."

'Call me tomorrow before you leave?'


'You can call tonight, too if you want.'

"I'll see how late it is."

'He's not twenty-one. You can't take them to a bar.'

She laughed softly. "I know that. I told them maybe we'd see a movie or something."

'Oh. I haven't been to a movie in years. I'm glad he's okay. For your sake. I can't deny I'd be a little bummed if he never spoke to me again, but I haven't known him his whole life so I'm glad.'

"Me, too. Do you like movies?"

'Sure, they're good and everything. I just don't do crowds of people well. I'd rather get the movie on disc in my house.'

"I can see that."


"All right. Well, I'll talk to you later or tomorrow."

'I'll be here. I may call you if the kids want to say good night later. They missed you today.'

"I'm glad. I mean, not for your sake, but a mom likes to know she's missed."

'I missed you today, too. More last night, but today, too.'

"Me, too. I'll be home tomorrow night."

'I know, and I don't have to go into work until late Monday so it's like a bonus.'

"I do have to wake up with the kids to get them ready."

'I know that. I was thinking more of you coming home for lunch before I have to leave for work.'

"Tomorrow night isn't enough?"

'It's never enough.'

"I feel the same way. It could be the years without talking, though."

'I hope not, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.'


'As long as you don't delegate me to that other bedroom we're good.'


'So if I'm not using it what are you going to do with that room?'

"Hmm. I don't know. I hadn't thought about it."

'I have a couple of ideas.'

"You do?"


"I'd love to hear them."

'I'll share them with the class once I know I'm actually out of detention.'

"That's asking a lot based on your past behavior."

'It is, isn't it? See, I need rescuing.'

"I'm not going to change my mind."

'I believe you, and I believe you aren't planning to. Selling my house is kind of a permanent move, though. So I just want to be sure. On the upside, it's just about paid off.'



"Well, that's nice."

'Yup. You don't have that issue I imagine.'

"No," she said.

'Well, then the ideas I have for that bedroom will be on my dime.'

"That's not…"

'Fair? You wouldn't do them if it weren't for me.'

"We'll talk about it."

'All right. Anyway, I really better get them inside or one of them is going to catch a cold.'

"I know. I'm sorry."

'No, don't apologize, but they've been out there for a while.'

"It's good for them."

'I know. I used to live to play outside.'

"You did?"

'This surprises you, really?'

"I guess not."

'I'll see you tomorrow.'

"You will. And John?"


"Nothing. Have fun."

'I will and I love you, too.'

"Thank you."

'You bet.'

Return to Top

***Chapter Eighteen***
Word Count: 4,064

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.

"Of course!"

"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."

"A bus?"

"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?"

"I am."

"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.

"Thank you."

"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.

"I know."

"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."

"Why not?"

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."

"And yet…"


"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."

"I'm sorry."

"You're not, but that's okay. I understand. Things got different."

"They did."

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?"

"I do."

"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."

"I'm not!"


"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?"

John scoffed.

"He's my older brother. Why?"

"A brother?"

"Yeah. 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."

"For what?"

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."

"A few?"


"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."

"She's older."


"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."

"I suppose."

"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."

"Important stuff?"

"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.

Return to Top

***Chapter Nineteen***
Word Count: 3,416

"Hello," John said.

'Hi, John, it's Toni.'

John rolled his eyes a bit. He was just about done with his shift, but that didn't mean she didn't legitimately need something. So, he had to remind himself to be nice.

"How are you today?"

'I'm good,' she said, her voice barely above a whisper. 'Are you close to being back at the station?'

"Yeah, about five minutes away. Why?"

'Well, there's a senator here asking about you. I didn't want to make him wait or send him away without checking.'

"I can see that," John said after a moment's pause. It was sure tempting to make it to where he was a hell of a lot further away than five minutes. Fuck, nothing good could come out of a visit from Bryce at the station. Claire had made it sound as if he was okay with it. He wasn't happy and was, understandably cautious if he was at all familiar with Eddie, but she hadn't said he'd said John couldn't move in or anything.

'You in trouble or something?'

John scoffed at that.

'You running for office?'

He scoffed again at that.

"No," he said then.

'All right,' she said. 'I'll tell him you'll be about five minutes then.'


He parked in front of the station instead of in the back as he normally would to come in here and finish up for the day. As much as it appealed to him to make the guy wait a lot longer than five minutes, John wasn't going to be an asshole. At least not until he had a reason to be one.

John regarded him as he walked in and spotted him, talking with his captain.

"You sure you aren't in trouble?" Toni asked him when he walked toward the desk until the other two were done talking.

"I sure hope not."

"I didn't realize you knew senators, John."

"Uh, well, I…"

"John, you didn't tell me you're moving into the old Mercer place," his captain said.

"I didn't realize I had to tell you that," John said.

"Well, no, but I assume it'd come up at some point that you're seeing someone seriously enough to move in with her and her kids."

"Evidently I was saved the trouble. I haven't completely moved in yet."

He was far from that point. He'd brought some things over to her place the week the kids were gone, but he still had a lot of stuff to think about what to do with. Renting the house furnished wouldn't be a bad idea, but he'd still have to figure out where the stuff was going to go eventually. She'd offered the old Mercer house that was on her property for him to store big things in if he needed to. He might have to go that route, but he'd figure it out.

His captain had probably just turned a somewhat friend into someone pretty pissed off at him in a matter of seconds. He'd been very careful around Toni since Thanksgiving, not wanting to give her the wrong idea (not that he thought he was) or to risk pissing Claire off over someone he wasn't interested in beyond someone he would've just wanted sex with to begin with.

"I've always liked that old house, been there many times for dinners."

"Yeah," John said. He guessed he shouldn't be surprised his captain probably knew Claire, but he was kind of in a way. "Did you or Bryce need to talk to me then?" he asked.

His captain's brow arched a bit at John calling him Bryce.

"I'm going to be living with his kids. You think I'm going to call him Senator? I don't think so."

His captain evidently had no comeback to that and Toni was glaring at him pretty intensely. So not how he envisioned this day ending. He didn't even realize Bryce was still in town. He'd dropped the kids off yesterday morning, which probably meant they'd gotten into town Saturday sometime. He assumed by the early hour he'd dropped them off that he was driving back to Springfield. Evidently not.

"Come on, Randy," he said, tugging a little on his lead before heading to where the ex was still standing. Waiting for John to go to him, no doubt.

He'd never seen him in person before.

"Mr. Bender," he said, offering his hand.

He took it, not at all expecting the guy to be polite when Toni told him who was here looking for him.

"Yeah," he said.

"He looks more like Eddie," he said, releasing John's hand.

"Yeah, I've thought that, too. Claire and Chris think he looks like me, but if they knew Eddie…"

God, it was so strange to be talking to anyone about Eddie. He, honestly, hadn't thought about him in years until Claire brought him up. He didn't know if he was still in prison, but assumed he was. He wasn't even sure if the Shermer PD knew he was John's brother. If they did it had never hindered his ability to get and keep his job.

"I think you're right. Let's hope her parents don't know who Eddie is then?"

"I don't know how they would."

"And Kyle? I mean, about his uncle?"

"Yeah, let's hope not. He's clearly a good kid."

Of course Kyle showed no signs of being a sadistic prick so her parents would have no reason to worry over anything even if they thought it was Eddie. And he didn't like the idea of his brother getting his hands on Claire. At all. He shook the thought off, not even wanting to go any further with it.

"What can I do for you?"

"I wanted to meet you."

"And you couldn't have, like, come to my house?"

"I thought this would be easiest."

"Uh huh," John said. And drive home the point that he knew John's boss and that John's boss knew Claire.

Bryce extended his hand to Randy who sniffed and then licked it before pressing his head into the palm of his hand.

"You needing to take a bus down to Springfield because of your dog makes much more sense now."

"I bet," John said.

"I don't know you, but I know your brother."

"Yeah," John said cautiously.

"I know you're a cop, but I know there are cops who excel at their jobs who do things at home that would land them in jail with the criminals they catch."

"I'm not one of them," John said.

"I catch one whiff of you harming my children or my wife…"

"Ex-wife," John said. "You better not be telling people I'm moving in with your wife!"

"Ex-wife, of course. It still stands…"

"I'm not going to hurt them. I'm not Eddie. I'm not my old man. We're good."

"I'm just letting you know, whether I'm in Springfield in DC…"

"Yeah, I get it. Is that what you were talking to my captain about?"

"Yes," he said simply.


"You going to keep asking around about me?"

"Do you have anything to hide?"

John scoffed at that. The guy was asking him that? That was ironic.

"Uh, no. No kids, no ex wives, no arrests, no activities that I'd be embarrassed if Claire found out."

"And Kyle?"

"What about him?"

"Anything you'd be embarrassed about him finding out?"

"Other than the way I behaved nineteen years ago, you mean? No. No offense, but you have a lot of nerve coming to where I work doing this shit. If you weren't a senator you wouldn't have done it."

"You're right," Bryce said. John gave him points for admitting that, he supposed.

Neither said anything, both seeming to think on that admission and what it meant.

"You actually do love her," John said, mulling that one over in his mind a bit.

"Of course I do. You don't spend fifteen years with someone and have no feelings for them."

"You never met my parents then."

Bryce chuckled a bit at that. "I guess I haven't. Why does that surprise you, though?"

He wanted to be a smart ass and ask why it surprised him he hadn't met his parents, but he knew what he was asking. John shrugged, unsure how to answer the question. Did Bryce know that John knew the things about him he did?

"I don't know. You're divorced."

"It was the best thing for all involved. Claire doesn't want to move to DC. Her business, family, and life are here. The kids probably wouldn't fare well there either, honestly. Bryce, Jr. Well, he's not one to accept change easily."

"I've noticed that."

"So, if Claire hadn't wanted…"

"Oh, perhaps it would have been an eventuality, but I wouldn't have sought it out, no."

Huh. What did that mean, exactly? Someone like Bryce in-love with her? It certainly made things a little stranger. John had just sort of assumed. Well, he wasn't sure what he'd assumed. That she'd been his beard and both had gotten tired of it.

"And this summer, calling her to come get Betsy?"

"How many days of your life have you spent caring for kids, John?"

"Uh, none. Well, a couple last month when she took a trip."

"And they knew she was going to be back in two days. Try dealing with Betsy who doesn't understand any unit of time beyond tomorrow, and even that's pretty vague to her. She wanted her mother. Try as I might, I'm not her mother."

John nodded a little at that. It was a fair point.

"I tried, too, you know. She does all of these things with the kids during the summer. Museums, zoos, parks, trips to the beach, an overnight trip to the Dells. They didn't want to do those things with me because they weren't used to doing them with me."


"Imagine your thirteen-year-old son telling you he doesn't want to go to Great America. Not because he doesn't want to go, but because he believes you don't really want to take him."

John didn't know the kids that well, but he could totally see Bryce doing that. He was the type to do whatever made anyone else happy. John had asked him the first night Claire was gone to Minneapolis what kind of soup he wanted. The kid hadn't wanted to answer. John had made him, though, because that was no way to live.

"It was your dog who was shot?"

"Huh?" John asked.

"The night we were arguing about Betsy, she hung up on me to take care of a dog."

"Oh, yeah."

"What's his name?"

"Randy," John said, not even bothering to go into the explanation of his name as he'd done with Claire.

"Well, I'm glad she could help him out."

"Me, too."

"You're done for the day?"


"I'm heading back to Springfield after this."


"The woman behind you at the desk doesn't look too pleased with you right now."

"Let's just say she didn't realize I had a girlfriend let alone one I was moving in with until today."

"And had designs on you?"

"Something like that, yeah."

"I can't say I don't understand that. Did you become a cop because of Eddie?"

"No, I became a cop because I was on a path to become like Eddie back in high school and I realized when I turned eighteen and whatever I got busted for would stick with me for the rest of my life, like Eddie, that it wasn't what I wanted. Being unlike Eddie had nothing to do with it. I just," he shrugged. "You know. No one ever stepped in to help me, listen to me, or take me seriously. I want to do that."

"Yeah, by the time you got to Shermer High I bet they'd had their fill of Bender's and knew what to expect out of your household."

"I guess."

"I'm sorry that happened."

"Yeah, whatever. It got me here so I can't dwell on it too much."

"I'll let you go. Thank you for speaking with me."

"Did I have a choice?"

"Oh, you could have avoided coming back here."

"I thought about it."

Bryce laughed softly at that, running his fingers along Randy's ears. "I bet you did. I appreciate that you didn't."


"I meant what I said here, though."

"Yeah, I get that."


"Are you okay?" Claire asked softly.

He'd never had a problem functioning before. Ever. Tonight, though, he just … couldn't. The interest was there as it always was with her. The desire sure was, too. They hadn't tried for hours unsuccessfully or anything, but he'd never had to work at getting excited before.

"Yeah," he said.



"What?" she asked.

"If you hadn't initiated the divorce would you still be married?"

"Probably," she said. "Why?"

"So, you wanted the divorce not him?"

"Well, I don't know if he did or not before I brought it up. He agreed to it the same as I agreed to marrying him when he asked."

"Oh," he said.


"And if he came back here tomorrow? I mean, if he came back and said he wasn't gay, offered to remain a state senator, or said anything in an effort to get you back…"

"John. He's not going to do that."

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

"What are you asking?"

"I don't know. You said the other day you love him."

"Well, of course I do, but the Bryce I love isn't there anymore, John. The last time we did anything together, with or without the kids was well before Betsy was born. I don't mean going to a political dinner. I mean, a trip that was fun and not some publicity thing. Or God even just a movie or the mall. I want to do things with someone. Not just my kids. There has to be more to my life than being a mom and a vet. He's still the father of my children and he's been very good to me. I am not forgetting that. I can admit I wasn't perhaps the easiest to live with in the beginning."

John scoffed at that. They didn't do much either when it got down to it, but he supposed she counted them having dinner out. He supposed, too, he should tuck that away in his memory and come up with some ideas for things to do with her. And the kids, he imagined, too. That couldn't be that tough.

"He came by the station today," he said.

"He did what? I didn't even realize he was in town."

"Obviously he is. He said he was going back to Springfield after stopping there."


He relayed their conversation to her.

"So you think because he said I was his wife that he's going to come back and ask me…"

John shrugged. "I don't know. I would."

"You would not."

"I would so if the best thing to ever happen to me was moving on. He can't get much more proof that you're moving on than me living here with you. I wager he knows I'm not using his bedroom, too."

"John. I don't know what to say, how to reassure you. I do love him. Of course, but I'm not in love with him. And I want to be in love with someone who's in love with me. He's not going to change his mind about being gay. If it worked that way we wouldn't be here right now."

"You think that makes me feel better?"

"Well, no, but he is, John. That's not going to change. I don't want to be married to him anymore."

"Would you want to be married to me?"

She shrugged.

"That's not a real reassuring answer there, Claire."

"I don't want to be married at all right now, John."

"But we can live together?"


"Why? So when you decide I'm not the same person anymore you don't have to get lawyers involved?"

She sat up on the bed then, reaching for the robe she kept by it.

"Where are you going?" he asked when she got up and went toward the door leading to the hall and not the bathroom.


"Why?" he asked, confused. It was late. She had to work in the morning.

"Because you just asked me…"

"Do you blame me? You haven't even told me what, if anything, you want from me."

"Why do I have to want anything from you?"

"Because your kids are involved here. I find it hard to believe you'd just move me in here casually."

"Well, of course not, but you're lying there asking me the question!"

"Claire, I'm sorry. He just got me thinking, you know?"

"I don't want him, John. I don't want to get married because I've spent so long being Claire Mercer, always careful what I did and said at every turn because it could affect Bryce's career or his father's, or his grandfather's reputation."

"I know."

"I didn't think you wanted to get married anyway?"

"Well, not tomorrow, but we're talking about living together. To what end? I mean, I agreed to it, but don't you even care what I might want from you?"

"Honestly, I wasn't so worried about that for now. I just knew I wanted you here."

"I want to be here. I hope you know I do, but I guess I never stopped to realize he might still want to be here too."

"He shouldn't have done that."

John shrugged. "I probably would have done the same thing if I was in his shoes."

"I don't know what you want me to say, John."

"Well, I'd like you to come back to bed."

She sighed softly, but she did after a few seconds of thinking it over.

"So, no more flirting by Toni, huh?" she said after she'd gotten back into bed.

He snorted softly. "I don't think so, no. She was not pleased."

"Can you blame her?"

John shrugged. "I never told her I was interested in her, Claire. Ever. I flirted, I toyed with the idea of asking her out, but I never did it because I knew that was a bad road to go down."


"Well, forget just mixing work and dating in general. I know other cops who've done it and it hasn't gone well. She wasn't anyone I wanted anything but a date or two with, and I knew that. So I just never pursued it."

"Oh," she said.

"I want more than a date or two from you."

"I should hope so."

"But you haven't asked."

"Well, I knew you wouldn't tell me you love me and stay the weekend with the kids…"

"You'd be surprised what some people would do, Claire. I'm not one of them, but I guess it's one of the reasons I'm thinking things over on the house before I do anything for certain. I want to be sure this is what you want. Me. Here. Because if I move in I don't plan on leaving."

"I don't want you to."

"All right then."

"I also don't want you to think I expect you to marry me."

"Well, I'd hope one day you would. I mean, I wouldn't move in here if that wasn't my ultimate goal."

"Ultimate goal, huh?"

"Well, yeah. Like I said before, Randy really likes your pool. I'd hate for him to have that taken away from him after he gets used to being able to use it every day."

"I can't blame you there."

"We could. I mean, I think talking helped that issue…"

She settled against him, kissing his chest. "This is nice, too."

"What were you going to do downstairs?"

She shrugged, drawing the covers up around her better as she got comfortable against him.

"You were going to sleep on the couch down there?"


"Jesus. Claire. Don't ever fucking do that. Okay? If you're really that mad at me that you're going to go find somewhere to sleep that's not our bed, you tell me that."


"Well, I'd want to fix it for one. And I don't ever want the kids to see that."


He wasn't sure he could put a word to it, other than they knew their parents had separate bedrooms. He never wanted them to think that was normal where Claire and John were concerned. Ever.

"Because I just don't."

"That's a mom answer."

"See, I've been practicing."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty***
Word Count: 4,169

February 2004

This was the time of day he dreaded most. Not because he didn't like her kids. As far as he could tell they were pretty decent as kids went. He didn't have vast amounts of experience with kids to compare and contrast. They were, for the most part well behaved and polite. They had the occasional spat, which was typical of siblings he knew, from his own personal experience growing up. No, that wasn't the issue at all. Bryce was still getting used to the fact there was someone home some days when he was used to coming home to just the nanny and Betsy. Most of the time he was gone by the time he got home from school even the days he started later.

Randy was the one who alerted John to the fact something was different about today. It had taken him a few weeks to adjust to being here full-time and not reacting every time a door opened in the house. He was used to it being just him and John. A door opening indicated someone who wasn't supposed to be there was around.

John wasn't sure Claire realized how close of an eye on Randy John kept. He wasn't as steadfast about keeping Randy with him today as he was in December when John started staying here every night. He still kept an eye on where the dog was, though, at all times. He was a good dog, exceptionally trained. He was, however, trained to attack if he felt threatened. He, for instance, didn't let him wander the house at night or sleep anywhere but with him. (Much to Betsy's absolute tearful displeasure on that subject.) For now. He imagined the more comfortable and adjusted Randy became that'd change.

Betsy still threw him for a loop, though, because she was at the house all of the time and there was a nanny here during the day. Plus she was different than Bryce was to him. Bryce liked him and was good to him as well as their dogs, but Betsy was all about giving him crazy amounts of attention. She petted him, brushed him, and just in general spent time with him. He just wasn't used to that.

John tried to stay out of the nanny's way as best as he could. There were some days she probably wondered why she was there since John was at the house, too. If she'd asked Claire that question John had no idea.

He was here alone with Betsy today because the nanny had needed the day off for some reason. John didn't work this evening as it turned out, so it had worked out okay because Bryce would have been home to watch her by the time he had to leave. Claire was going to take the day off from work when the nanny first mentioned it, however, John thought that was pretty foolish. He just put in to work the evening shift. Then he and Randy had been requested to go on a bust with a nearby town. That bust got pushed off until tomorrow evening, which meant John would be working a very long day tomorrow.

"Oh, hi," Bryce said when he spotted John in the kitchen.

John arched a brow at the kid because while he was still not overly fond of John they'd sort of gotten used to one another by now. So his rather abrupt greeting sort of surprised John.

"Hi to you, too. Were you expecting me to be someone else," he asked, eyes falling on Bryce. He looked a little different today. He always wore nice clothes, but John had noticed on more than one occasion he left the house in the morning forgetting something as basic as running a comb through his hair. Today, though, he looked nice.

And then he spotted the girl when she walked into the kitchen, too.


And shit.

What the fuck was he supposed to do with this?

The nanny would leave Bryce alone for the most part. She included him in after-school snacks and stuff, but her focus was on Betsy so he was left to his own devices for the most part. Homework and what not was the unspoken rule as soon as he got home. The nanny wasn't there to harp on him, though.

"Hi," he said.

In what way was she here? That was an interesting question because John knew at their age he sure as heck liked girls. He wasn't quite sure what to do with them and he wouldn't have brought them back to his house after school. That was because of his house not because he wouldn't have wanted to if he'd had a normal upbringing. Things were very different today, though, and he knew there were kids as young as ten having sex. He didn't get it, but he knew it happened. So, the girl being here for more than homework was a distinct possibility.

"Hi," she said shyly. She was kind of cute. At that awkward stage he remembered girls being at this age, not quite little girls but not quite teenagers yet.

"I'm John," he said. "Mr. Bender," he corrected. The kids' friends all called Claire Mrs. Mercer.

"I'm Tina."

"Nice to meet you, Tina. Do your parents know you're here?"


"Okay," he said. Her parents were one up on him. He'd have to ask Claire if she knew Tina was going to be here today. Nothing like blindsiding him.

"Where are you going?" he asked Bryce when he headed to the basement.

"Where do you think?"

"Yeah, all right, leave the door open, though."

"Sure," he said, as they went downstairs.

"Who's she?" Betsy asked.

"A friend of your brother's it seems."

"She's pretty."

"Yeah? You think so?" John asked.

"I like her hair."

"Ah, yeah," John said. Betsy was very fixated on her hair and what she could do with it. Hers was fairly long so Claire could put it up in all sorts of styles and braids. John wasn't sure if he had ever seen Betsy's hair not done up somehow other than first thing in the morning and before bed. And there were some mornings he woke up after Claire had left for the day so he didn't see it down then.

"I'm going to call your mom. I'll be right back."

"Okay. Crackers?"

"Yeah, sure," he said, grabbing a box of the crackers she liked before heading to the other side of the kitchen where the phone was.

He rolled his eyes as the girl who answered the phone went through her usual greeting. He always let them finish, though, because it seemed rude to him to interrupt them.

"Hi, Lori, it's John. Is Claire free?"

'Well, she's got an appointment, but let me see if she's gone in there yet.'

"Thanks. It'll just be a minute. Nothing urgent, but I have a question."

'Sure, just a second,' she said, putting him on hold.

'Is everything okay?'

"I told her it was nothing urgent."

'She told me that, but I still couldn't figure out why you'd be calling me otherwise.'

"Is Bryce allowed to have girls in the house?"

'I'm sorry?'

"A girl came home with Bryce. Tina."

'I know of Tina, but she's never been to the house before.'

"Is she allowed to be here?"

'What are they doing?'

"They went down to the basement. I told them to leave the door open, which they did. Am I supposed to go down there? Send Betsy down there? What?"

She laughed.

"I'm glad you find this amusing. You didn't tell me he was old enough to bring girls to the house."

'And you didn't like girls at that age?'

"Well, sure, but I didn't bring them home."

'They're fine. Just, yes, leave the door open and probably it'd be a good idea to check on them once in a while without making it obvious that's what you're doing. You know, go down and offer them something to drink. See if they're doing their homework.'

"Uh huh. Okay."

'Did you ask her if her parents know she's here?'

"I did. I figured that much was called for."


John glanced at Betsy who was tugging on the phone cord.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Hi to mommy."

"Betsy says hi."

'Tell her I say hi.'

"Mommy says hi. Go back and sit down."

"So just check on them? That's it? Am I supposed to call her parents and make sure they know she's here?"

'You could, but I'd hope she wouldn't lie.'

"You'd hope, but they seemed surprised I was here instead of Dorothy."

'Oh, well, then I suppose you could just to make sure. If both of her parents work, though, you may not be able to get them.'

"All right. I bow to your expertise here. I'll check on them in a bit."

'Thank you for checking.'

"Yeah, sure."

'Was there something else?'

"You are going to be home on time, right? You're not staying late to do an emergency declawing or something?"

'I don't think there is such a thing as an emergency declawing, but I'll be home as soon as I'm done and I have nothing on my schedule that should make me late.'

"Thank you," he said. He could handle this for a couple of hours. "Love you," he added.

'Wow. Thank you. I love you, too.'

"What's with the wow?"

'You don't normally say it over the phone.'

"Oh." He didn't? He didn't notice he didn't. He didn't intentionally not say it.

'I guess that's because you're normally calling me from work not from the house.'

Was that wrong? Bad? He wasn't sure. He was a loner for the most part. He spoke to people at work when it was called for, but he really didn't go out of his way to extend himself beyond that. He certainly didn't talk about his personal life. A couple had heard he was living with someone and commented or asked about it, but that wasn't through him they'd learned the information.

"There's no reason for that. I mean, I don't go out of my way not to say it or anything."

'I know, John, I'm not mad. I'm just not used to hearing you say it over a phone.'

"But you like hearing it?"

'Well, sure who wouldn't?'

Indeed. As someone who didn't think he'd heard those words aimed at him since he was maybe Betsy's age he could admit he liked hearing them more than a grown man probably should.

"I'm sorry if I've done something wrong."

'John, you haven't. I was just surprised. You're fine.'

"I'll work on it."

'John, there's nothing to work on.'

"No, there is. I know how it makes me feel when you say it to me. So, yeah, I can do better."


"I'll see you when you get home. I think Betsy's going to help me make some noodles to go with dinner later."

'Uh, okay?'

He chuckled. "She's just going to help me drop them in the water. I've got the stool there and everything."

He'd seen her do that with Betsy a few times now, so he didn't think he was doing anything wrong.

'What are we eating with the noodles?'

"I put that roast in the crock pot you had in the fridge. It's kind of a cold night, figured that'd be good."

'It will be delicious. Thank you for doing that.'

"Yeah, sure. It turns out I don't have to go to work tonight. When I put it in there I didn't know that and figured I'd save you a few steps, but that's all right. It still saves you from having to do it when you get here."

'I'll see you in a couple of hours then.'


He hung up then.

He made his way to the kitchen table where Betsy was still sitting there coloring. She was far more patient than he expected someone being at this age. Then he wasn't sure he remembered three very well and his parents wouldn't have tolerated anything less than him being patient. There was a difference, though. She just sat here coloring and stuff where John had done those things because they were expected of him, but he'd wanted to be doing other stuff.

"All right since your brother is downstairs with a friend. I'm going to go see if they need anything."

"All right," she said. "Can I have some popcorn?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll be right back and we can make some."

Bryce could make their own popcorn, Betsy not so much. They had a real popcorn popper, no microwave stuff. Though he wouldn't let Betsy open the bag by herself either because those things could burn you.

"What's your step-dad do?" Tina asked.

"He's a cop," Bryce answered.

"Oh," Tina said.

"He's not my step-dad, though," Bryce said. "He may as well be, I guess," he added. "It doesn't matter anyway. I guess you just wanted to know what he does that he's home right now. I knew who you were talking about and everything."

"Basically," she answered.

"He's still not my step-dad," Bryce said.

"I'm sorry," she said, sounding as sincere as a thirteen-year-old could be about being sorry. In John's experience thirteen-year-olds were never really sorry.

"His dog's a cop, too," Bryce said.

"Really?" she asked.

"Yeah. I think they search for dead bodies, drugs, and bombs. You know, cool stuff."

"You should have him go past Marty Schlotermeier's locker."

"We can't do that," Bryce said.

"I'm not going to," Tina said. "But why not?"

"Because he lives here! Everyone would think I snitched if he did that."

"Oh," Tina said.

They moved onto another topic, John gave them a few minutes to get into it before making his way the rest of the way down the stairs.

They were playing a game. The two of them were sitting around the table down here for things like games and puzzles. He didn't get that, but then maybe she was really just a friend there to hang out.

"Betsy wants popcorn. Do you guys want some?"

"Sure," Bryce said.

If either of them had an inkling John just overheard their conversation they gave very good poker faces.


"Yes, please," she said.

"Are your parents picking you up later?"

"Uh, yeah, my mom said to call her when I'm ready to come home," she said, distracted by whatever was going on on the TV in the background. Nothing unsavory seemed to be going on, so he left them to it and went back upstairs.

"All right, Betsy, your brother and his friend want some, too. So we'll make a whole batch."


He wondered as he regarded Betsy how his life had gotten here. A year ago he was … Well, he was a pretty miserable guy. He hadn't even gotten laid in a while because he was getting to the age getting laid just for the sake of that and nothing else just wasn't as fun anymore.

He certainly never expected to be here, though. Strange how it worked he imagined. He still hadn't come to a definitive conclusion on his house. So for now it stood empty except the furniture. Everything else was here in boxes, taking up residence in the old house. It was pretty sad as he was packing stuff up to realize that he hadn't accumulated a whole lot of shit despite being a homeowner for the past sixteen years. No pictures, no Christmas cards, no cards period, no memorabilia that wasn't from the department.

"You want to see what they want to drink while I do this? You can help me with the noodles after I've made the popcorn. Okay, Betsy?"

"Sure," she said, s. "Bryce," he called as she made her way down there.

He didn't need help with the noodles. It wasn't like spaghetti where they needed to be broken into smaller pieces or anything, but she liked dumping them into the pot. She'd liked helping him mix the spices together to coat the meat with earlier in the morning.

After an entire day with Betsy without her brother here for most of it he could admit to admiring what her nanny did every day. Granted, if he'd really needed Claire she was across the street, but little kids were hard work. The only break he'd gotten was when she took a nap on the couch – with him. That had lasted over three hours, two hours of those on her own as he'd shifted her off of him and gotten up when he woke up an hour into it.

"You want to get the oil for me for the popcorn?" he asked as an afterthought. She could reach that where it was in the cupboard and it was a plastic bottle so wouldn't break if she dropped it.

"Sure," she said. Bryce had followed her upstairs John noticed.

"Do you work tonight?" Bryce asked when he got into the kitchen.

"I was supposed to," he said.

"Oh," he said.

"Why?" John asked.

He shrugged. "I have a Boy Scouts meeting tonight."

"Oh," he said. Sometimes the dads went with their sons and hung out with the other dads. John hadn't done that to this point. "And you want me to go?"

"Sure," he shrugged, but John was guessing he was trying to pretend he didn't care.

"Well, let me talk to your mom when she gets home. Okay?"

"You will?"

"Sure," he said with a shrug. How bad could it be? "You do understand I can only be so sure to a point, right? Something bad happens and I get called into work I have to go. What Randy and I were supposed to help out with this evening got postponed."

"I know," he said.

"As long as you get that, I'll do my best and talk to your mom. Grab the container of popcorn since Betsy already brought me the oil."

"'kay," he said.

He had no idea what was expected of him at a Boy Scout meeting. If anything. Maybe he should have cleared with Claire going before he'd said he would. It still sort of bothered him that she was letting him live here with no seeming expectations of more than this. She seemed not to care, though that couldn't be accurate. He'd never in his experience encountered a woman who didn't expect something when moving in was mixed in with a relationship.

He'd ask her later. Maybe it was like the 'I love you' thing. She didn't say anything but it was something that made her feel good.

He'd also have to talk to his captain about the kid's locker he'd heard them talking about downstairs. They hadn't said what he had in it, and it could be nothing. It could also be something bad. Ten years ago he never had to worry about many bad things being found in junior highs. That wasn't the case anymore. Fuck, there were drugs being pushed in grade schools these days. It was crazy.


"Hi guys," Claire said to the dogs when she came in.

"Mommy," Betsy said, running up to her. It was, Claire had to admit, her favorite part of her day.

"Hi sweetheart. Did you have fun with John today?"

"Uh huh."

"Good. I'm glad. I'm going to let the dogs out and go change before dinner. Okay?"

"Already out."

"Oh, they were?"

"Uh huh," she said.

"Okay. Well, then I guess I'll wait for a bit then. Is your brother's friend still here?"

"No," she said.

"Oh, all right." She was kind of curious who the girl was. Bryce had mentioned her once or twice, but she hadn't realized they were friendly enough for her to come to the house after school.

"You go on back downstairs then. I'll come get you when I'm changed and we're ready to eat."

"Okay," she said.

"What are you doing up here?" Claire asked him when she found him in their bedroom.

He shrugged, glancing at her as she worked the buttons on her blouse. Randy was on the bed with him. He clearly hadn't been sleeping, though.

"The kids were all down in the basement. That Tina's mom picked her up about ten minutes ago. Dinner's ready. I figured you'd be home soon."


"I thought it'd be fun to watch you change."

"Oh," she said. He chuckled softly and she knew she was blushing.

"Yes, oh. And I figured it would be the only time I could ask you about this Boy Scout meeting business."

"What about it?"

"Bryce seems to want me to take him."

"Oh. You don't have to."

"He seems to want me to. What's it mean?"

"Mean? It's the Boy Scouts."

"I know that. What do I have to do?"

"Nothing. You'd take him and pick him up."

"That's it?"

"Yeah. You might be stuck there for a little bit afterward, and they might try to recruit you to help."


"Bryce could never go…"

"Ah," he said.


"Will Betsy be a Girl Scout?"


He snorted a bit at that.

"I suppose you weren't?"

"Uh no. I had a neighbor who was, did the whole bit I'm pretty sure. Tiger, Bear, Webelos, or whatever the fuck it was called. I was envious as all hell so I stole this rocket he'd made with his dad."

"John," she said.

"Yeah, well, I was nine, you know and it was just one more way I stood out as being incredibly different."

"What did you do with the rocket?"

"Put it on the railroad tracks behind our house."

"That's terrible."

John shrugged.

"And now look where I am. Ironic, right?"

She set her blouse in with her pile to go to the cleaners on Saturday before hanging her skirt up.

"I can take him."

"I can do it. He asked, so he must want me to."

"Maybe so. Bryce did with Bryce Jr. when he was younger, but once we got past that first year it sort of fell to me."

"Like everything else, huh?"

"That's not uncommon. There's a lot more Scout mom's."

"All right."

"Yeah, you already have a Scout mom."

"I know."

"Just reminding you," she said.

"Maybe Bryce is trying to get rid of me, pawn me off on someone else's Scout mom."

She joined him on the bed, unhooking her bra and setting it beside them as Randy moved to the floor almost immediately at that. She kissed him and he groaned as she pressed against him. She loved hearing his reaction to her. She was still so very new at doing this. Undressing in front of him was a huge step let alone initiating anything.

"Do you want someone else's Scout mom?"

"Not a chance in hell."

"Show me," she whispered, reaching for the waist of his jeans.

"Yeah? Now?"

"Uh huh."

"I mean, sure, you know, whenever you want. I just wasn't expecting…"

"You keep talking and someone's going to come up and knock on the door."

"Yeah, right," he said, getting the picture clearly evidently. He took over then, peeling her panties off after he'd shed his jeans.

He seemed to know exactly what she needed just now, too, which was really just him. She'd half expected to come home to him packing up after being stuck with Betsy all day. She certainly hadn't expected him to make dinner and see after Bryce and his friend, too.

"Thank you," she whispered, kissing his chest and shoulder when they'd finished.

"You're thanking me? You came onto me, remember?"

"I know, but you could've said no."

He scoffed. "I'd never say no to you. Not in a million years."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"Betsy took a nap with me today."

"She did?"

"Uh huh."


"I can understand why you had two more of them."


He shrugged. "It was pretty all right. I fell asleep there, too, for an hour or so. I woke up and she was so still, just lying there, her arms stretched out around me. It was…"


"Yeah, it was."

"Enjoy it while it lasts. She'll probably do that a little longer than Bryce did, but sooner or later she won't want to snuggle anymore."

"She's like a furnace, though."

"Yes, she's warm."

"I thought for a minute she was feverish or something."

"No, she's just naturally warm."

"Yeah, I figured that out."

"You took her temperature?"

"I did."

"Without waking her up?"

"No, after she woke up. I'm not that good."

She laughed softly. "I'd beg to differ with you."

"You make me good, but thank you. Now, are you going to get dressed again so we can eat and I can do this Boy Scout thing with Bryce?"


"Thank you, by the way. You coming home, wanting me is never a bad thing."

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***Chapter Twenty-One*** Word Count: 3,604

February 14, 2004 (Saturday)

"What is wrong with you?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said with a shrug. He could tell it wasn't nothing, though. Relationships may be new to him. Well, this kind of relationship was anyway. He knew when there was something the matter, though.

"Claire, come on. You're not a real good liar."

"I just worry about the kids, I guess."

"They'll be fine," John said. "Bryce didn't seem mad about being stuck babysitting Betsy so that we could go to dinner anyway."

Oddly since he'd taken Bryce to the Cub Scouts meeting things had been sort of okay between them to where he didn't think having to stay home to babysit his younger sister because of John was a problem. Because he was fairly sure if he'd been asked back in November if he could babysit Betsy so that John and his mom could go out for a romantic dinner he wouldn't have been happy at all.

"So I ask again. What is wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing's wrong."

"Claire, if you don't want to go out tonight…"

"No, I do."

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing. It means I do want to go. I didn't realize staying home was an option."

"Well, of course it's an option. I'm not making you go out tonight. I mean even jerks like me know they're supposed to take their girlfriend's out on Valentine's Day. If you don't want to go, though. Well, we can stay here."


"Wait. Before you say anything. Before this turns into something weird or where I do or say something wrong that I don't realize I'm not supposed to do or say that thing." He closed the distance between them. "This is for you," he said, reaching into his suitcoat pocket for the ring he'd bought. It'd come with a box, but he'd decided to forego the box. If she saw a box the size a ring would come in she'd likely be very disappointed with its contents since he hadn't gotten her that type of ring.

"I've never bought one of these before and had no idea what you'd really like. Well, I had ideas on what you'd really like, but they are way out of my price range. So," he said, drawing the ring out of his pocket. "I went with what I thought would like nice on you that I could afford. It did make me rethink the renting my house thing, though."


"Well, because if I wasn't paying my mortgage every month on an empty house I could afford better than this," he said.

"You have no idea what to do with it, do you?"


"You could put it on me."

"I wasn't sure that wasn't a gesture reserved for those other types of rings."

"No," she said. He took her hand then, and slid it onto her finger. He'd taken one of the rings she had in a jewelry box so that he could get this one sized to fit her. It was one he'd seen her wear over the past six or seven months just not often to where she'd miss it if it was gone for a few hours. It was one that he knew fit her, though.

"So, it's all right and everything?" he asked once she drew her hand away from his.

"It's beautiful, but you knew I'd think that."

"No, no I didn't. It occurred to me what I like and what you like are very probably polar opposites."

"But you liked it for me."

"Well, yeah," he said.

It was nothing earth-shattering, but he'd liked it. While picking out the ring to bring with him to size this one to he'd glanced at her selection. She didn't have a crazy amount to choose from, but there were a few there. Looking through them had given him a bit of a complex. Especially when he'd found what was likely her engagement ring. Yeah, there was no way in hell he was every going to afford something like that without donating a kidney or something first.

He'd gone with a rose quartz ring in the shape of a rose. Cliché as all hell since it was Valentine's Day, but he'd liked it. It was different and nothing that would be confused for more than what it was. There were a couple of diamond flecks in the rose, but he hadn't bought it for those. He wasn't sure either of them were ready for her to be wearing a ring that would be confused for that.

She was crying now he noticed. Not the reaction he expected. Nope.

"Claire? You don't like it?"

"No, I do. It's beautiful, but I can't accept it."

"I'm sorry. What?" Was he in another universe where they hadn't been living together for the past couple of months?

"I don't want you to get me a gift like this because you think you're supposed to."

"Well, I'm supposed to do a lot of things, like probably be married to you before living with you. However, I'm here doing just that. I don't do things I don't want to do, Claire."

"Yeah, but if we weren't living together…"

"I'd still have gotten it for you."

"Yeah, but John."

"Claire. Come on. I mean, if you don't like it we can go back and get you something you do like. You don't have to be coy or anything with me. I realize it's not in the same league as the stuff Bryce bought you, and I'm sorry about that in ways you will never imagine."

"That's not why," she said, wiping the tears away from her cheeks before giving him the ring back.

"Then what?"

"I just don't think it's a good idea."

"It's a gift. I didn't realize you had a choice in whether it was a good idea."

"John, can we please not fight about this tonight. I wanted to go to dinner with you and have a nice time. I really didn't want to get into this tonight."

"Get into what exactly? You couldn't have known I bought that for you because I left it at my house until last night."

"No, I didn't."

"Then what? I'll say it again, if you don't like it you're not going to hurt my feelings. I mean, I picked it out and everything, so yeah I guess I'll be a little bummed if you don't. However, I'll get over it if there's something else you'd rather have."

"No, there's not. It's absolutely beautiful because I know you actually went to some effort to pick it out for me. I'd love it. Really."

"Okay. Then what's the problem?"

"You're not going to let us go to dinner, are you?"


She sighed and walked towards the second bedroom in the master suite.

"You're leaving?" he asked confused.

She didn't leave. He would've heard the door leading from that room to the hallway open if she had. Was he supposed to follow her? What? And what the fuck did Bryce's room have to do with anything? She came back a couple of minutes later.

"This is why it's not a good idea."

He swallowed hard as his eyes focused on the thing she was holding.


Absolutely fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

"You said…"

"I know," she whispered.

"You weren't?"

"I was!"


"I am. I mean, I took it out once I took this test and saw it was positive, but I was."

He frowned, though, still trying to follow her train of thought. And to focus on the part of this conversation that wasn't instilling the fear of God in him right this very moment.


"Okay, that still doesn't explain why you won't accept this," he said, holding his palm out with the ring in it.

"Because you don't want kids!"

"Well, yeah, but I'm here with your kids. I mean, maybe I don't do right every time, but I try. If you're worried about something like that."

"No, I'm not."

"I cleaned up after Betsy the other day when she threw up in her bed."

"But that's not…"

"The same? I suppose it's not, but clearly I'm signing up for the step-dad gig by living here."

"Yes, but…"

"You don't want it?"

"No! I'd never."

"Okay. So what's the problem then?"

"You don't want it."

"Well, I don't want Captain Wilson as my boss either, but I go to work and do my job every day anyway."

"This is not a job, John. This is the…"

"The rest of my life. I know that. I mean, I don't know, but I can grasp that's the case. That still doesn't explain why you don't want this."

"I do want it."

"You sure aren't acting like it. You're going to give me a complex if you don't take it and leave me so scarred from this experience I'll never want to buy you anything again."

She laughed softly at that.

"And, you know, one day soon I'd like to think I'd buy you the kind that the pushy woman at the counter was trying to interest me in."

"I bet she was."

He chuckled a bit at that. "I probably need to wait until after I'm not paying a mortgage and you to live here."

"John, I…"

"Okay, if that wasn't in play would you have accepted it?"


"Then take the damned thing. What the fuck am I going to do with it if you don't accept it?"

"Yes, but my parents and Kyle…"

"Yeah, I hadn't thought on your parents yet, but Kyle did cross my mind. I think, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk to him about this one."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because I'm the reason he was raised by your brother and his wife when it boils down to it. He's not going to hate you. He may, though, hate me. I don't expect to have a close relationship with him or anything. I have no fantasies in my mind of that sort of thing, but I want to be sure he understands today is very different than then."

"I can see that."

"So, please. Wear it. Okay? It'll make me feel a little better about the situation."


"I don't want your brother or anyone thinking I bought you the ring because of that bit of news. And because I'll like knowing you're wearing it before you're showing so guys like the one who brings his rabbit in don't continue to hit on you."

"I'm not sure a ring…"

"I don't want to hear it!" He absolutely did not want to hear about a ring that isn't an engagement ring not being a deterrent to guys like that. The weird part about it was she really didn't do anything to get the attention. She just got it. "Just let me feel better. And I'm calling a doctor, by the way, to ensure this doesn't happen again."

"John! My doctor…"

"Not your doctor. A doctor I said, to arrange it so I can't make any more of them."

"Yes, but that's permanent."

"I said I didn't want any. How much more permanent can I get with that opinion?"

"Yes, and you wonder why I don't want to…"

"Fuck. I didn't say I won't accept this one, however, clearly whatever your doctor put you on isn't fool-proof. I'd rather not be a fool again a year from now."

"I can get my tubes tied."

"Nope. I'll do it. No reason to get all invasive for you. I have time off accrued already, so I'll do it and take a few days off."

"Yes, but if you do that now people will know we weren't even trying."

"So what if they know? And who am I going to tell I'm getting that done? No one is who. You. Kyle maybe so he knows it won't be happening again. I get vacation, I'm allowed to do with it what I want."

"I know. I just…"

"I'm not going to schedule the appointment for tomorrow. Just letting you know I'll do it so we don't have to worry about this again."

She took the ring then and he exhaled a bit sharply at that.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"Yeah, sure. I just felt incredibly guilty taking it…"

"I can see that."

Fuck. A kid. A kid he was absolutely responsible for. Bryce, Jr. and Betsy he'd be an influence on if he had his say about anything, but ultimately he knew he wasn't their father. And their father was going to be a very active part of their lives. Granted, if he won the election in November he'd be a lot further away, but he knew that wouldn't stop Claire from letting them see their dad.

This, though, was going to be completely on him.

"So I guess I should ask you if you still want to go out for dinner with me."

"Claire. I make no promises I'm going to be enthusiastically happy or ecstatic about this. I mean, I assumed your doctor knew what he or she was doing when she said that it would be a reliable option."

"Sure, because up until six months ago I didn't have to worry about getting pregnant in like fifteen years. And at that time I wanted to be so birth control wasn't a factor."

"Did you tell her that was on the table now?"

"Yes. I made sure it was a reliable alternative to the pill."

"Obviously not that reliable."

"I guess not."

"So, yes, to answer the question I want to go out for dinner with you. This doesn't change that."

"It changes so much."

He shrugged, sliding his arms around her. He kissed her, sighing a bit as he did. He never thought he'd get to a point or find someone he enjoyed just kissing with.

"I can't deny I don't know there's nothing one hundred percent. If I really wanted to be diligent about preventing it I could have kept using condoms."

He regarded her a little differently than he had when he'd first come into the bedroom to find her dressed and ready for their night. The dress was very nice, but was definitely not a dress she'd be able to wear as she got further along.

"What?" she asked.

"You don't look pregnant," he said.

"Well, I wouldn't yet."

"Do you feel pregnant?"

"That's why I took the test."


"I know what I feel like when I'm pregnant. I was late, but my doctor told me that may happen so I didn't think anything of it."

"Late. How late?"

"Uh. Like six weeks now."

"Over a month late?"


"Jesus. And you waited until now to tell me?"

"Well, I didn't know! Again, she said it could happen."

"Well, that can't be very good. I mean, people wouldn't know they were pregnant and…"

"Well, the pill isn't one hundred percent either and people have continued taking it not realizing they were pregnant."

"I suppose."

"Betsy is going to …"

"Probably be very excited and then not so excited when she's no longer the baby in the house. I remember hearing about Kim's reaction to me countless times over the years."

"Yeah," she said softly with a laugh.

"And Bryce, probably won't be too thrilled."

"No," she agreed.

"Neither will your family."

"I know. I can handle them this time, John."

"Well, I'm here with you this time, so yeah."

"And if my father…"

John scoffed. "We'll talk to him. If he still insists then we'll do that, afterward."

"Why afterward?"

"Because I know you and a small wedding or not you'd want a nice dress."

"Yes," she agreed.

"And I think we have enough to worry about the next few months without worrying about being married thrown into the equation. I told you that's my ultimate goal, wouldn't have moved in here if it wasn't."

"I know."

"I'm a little worried that's not your ultimate goal truth be told."

"Oh, one day, yes."

"You know, our marriage wouldn't be like that marriage, right?"

"I do."

"All right. Just making sure. I don't want a showpiece."

"Who's Kim?"


"You said you heard about how Kim reacted to you."

"Oh, my sister. Eddie didn't give a shit. While he probably did, but he was pretty demented from the get-go from what I can piece together. Kim, though, she didn't take too well to having a baby come after her I guess."

"Was she mean to you?"

John shrugged. "Nothing that I can remember, but I heard stories growing up. You know, stuff kids do to their baby sibling. Take my bottles away and claim they didn't know what happened to it."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "It was what it was. Like I said, none of us had a very good example to feed off of. Tom was probably the one who got out the most unscathed. Mom and Dad were so busy with us that they stopped paying him much attention. He followed the rules."

"Unlike you and Eddie."

"Yeah. Kim did, too, for the most part. Follow them, I mean. She has no cigar burns anyway."

"I'm glad to hear that. Sorry you have any, but glad to hear she doesn't."

"Yeah, me, too. And yet she clearly didn't get out unscathed," John said with a shrug. It had bothered him growing up that his dad had picked on Kim. A couple times he'd taken the blame for something so that Kim could skate on their dad's wrath. A lot of good his chivalry had done him. She still turned out to be a pretty shitty person.

"What are you thinking?" she asked.

"You're sure you want me around a kid? I mean, a baby? You have no qualms? No doubts?"

"No," she said.

"Why not? I've admitted two of the four of us siblings are losers. I can't honestly say the oldest one isn't. I just know he got out and he's not in prison. I was one step shy of being one myself."

"But you're not and I see the way you treat Randy. I see the way you treat my pets and my kids even if you're unsure what to do with them. I have no doubts, John."

"Just making sure, I guess. I would I think if the situation was reversed."

"Well, let's be glad it's not reversed then."

"You know what I mean."

"Have you checked on your brother?"

"I've looked for his name," he said with a shrug. He could admit that to her without feeling ashamed. "Not extensively, but I've checked. Sure."

"And nothing?"

"Not that I've found. I haven't dug deep or anything. I figure if he wants to rekindle our brotherly bond he knows where to find me."

"What if he thinks the same thing?"

John shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I was nine when he left. I figure if he gave a shit about me he'd find me. For all he probably knows I don't remember having an older brother. He might also think that I was taking after our old man and Eddie and stayed away."

"I suppose."

"Can we go to dinner and get away from this conversation?"

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to tell you this tonight."

"Not that conversation. I'm not mad about that. I meant my family. Believe it or not, I don't like thinking about them."

"I understand."

"And probably not at dinner or tonight, but we will be talking about when exactly you planned on telling me about this turn of events."

"When I got used to the fact that I really was?"

"I think six weeks is long enough, don't you?"

"I didn't know until I took the stupid test!"

"And hid it from me, in the bathroom of a bedroom you know I never set foot in. Like I said, we'll talk about it some other time. Just know we are sometime."

She sighed softly, but she hadn't taken the ring off again or anything so she couldn't have been too mad at him.

"Your brother's going to freak out."

"I know he is," she said.

John chuckled softly. "He needs to learn to not be so uptight."

"Well, I can't really…"

"Yeah, I get he did you a favor in a huge way. Really, he did me a favor, too. You know?"

"I do."

"All right, let's go eat," he said, hand at the door knob.

"Wait," she said.


She settled her hand over his and he couldn't help but think the ring looked nice on her. She probably didn't do that deliberately, use that hand but he noticed it just the same.

She leaned up and kissed him then.

"What was that for?"

"I realize I didn't thank you."

He scoffed softly at that.

"Don't. Please don't act like it's no big deal to you or to me. It is a huge deal. Do you know the last time I got something from someone I didn't give birth to simply because they wanted to get me something? I can't tell you the last time."

"Yeah, well, it's Valentine's Day."

"I would have been perfectly content with the roses you bought me."

He'd had them sent to her office. He'd given the kids some little boxes of chocolates. Bryce hadn't seemed to care about his, but Betsy had been thrilled to get the little box.

"Well, no offense, but I'm living here with you, you deserve better and more than roses."

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Two***
Word Count: 7,107

Easter Weekend - April 2004

John groaned softly at the sight of a car on the driveway. He was so not in the mood for company tonight. Not that he was even here for most of the night to care. He'd left the house before four this morning. Considering it was going on midnight now, he was exhausted and ready for bed. Claire hadn't mentioned company coming over before bed last night. Bryce didn't know anyone who drove yet, so that left someone who knew Claire. That meant he'd at least have to make an appearance so he didn't appear rude despite the fact he'd been gone for eighteen hours.

First, though, he needed to make sure Randy was comfortable. He'd sprained his thigh tonight John was pretty sure. They were off for the rest of the weekend, which would give him time to rest it before they had to be back at work Tuesday. (He got Monday off in lieu of today for the holiday weekend.)

"Easy, Buddy," he said when he opened the door for Randy, letting him out of the car once he was in the garage. John kept the lead on him going into the house not certain who was here. He didn't want Randy rushing to investigate what was merely company. Judging by the way he was limping even going from the car to the door leading to the house, John supposed he wouldn't be rushing anywhere. Still it was better to be safe.

Cooper had gotten lots of sprains and strains over the years. Chasing down suspects seemed as though it would be fairly easy for a dog, but there were always risks in pursuits like that. Even on pavement there could be a hole or dip in it enough to cause the dog to lose its footing.

The house was quiet except for some activity in the basement, which surprised John. Claire didn't do much entertaining in the basement. Once in a while she'd go down there to play pool or something, but it wasn't a usual practice for her.

"Stay," he said, removing the lead before opening the door to the basement and heading down the stairs.

"Oh, hey," he said, regarding Bryce and Kyle sitting on the couch playing a video game of some sort.

"Hey," Bryce said.

"Hi," Kyle said.

"I didn't realize you were in town," John said.

"Yeah, Easter weekend."

"Oh, right, I suppose," he said. Like he had any clue about things like Easter weekend. He imagined it was like Christmas and Thanksgiving, though, and a holiday kids would come home from college for if they could.

"You just getting home?" Kyle asked.

"Uh, yeah."

"Wow," he said.

"Yeah. I've been gone since about three thirty this morning."

"Come on, Kyle," Bryce said.

"Sorry," he said.

"You guys want anything before I head up to bed? I need to have Claire look at Randy real quick."

"She went to bed a few hours ago," Bryce said.

"Did something happen to Randy?" Kyle asked.

"Just a strain I'm pretty sure, but since I have a vet handy I may as well be sure."

"You want something Bryce?" Kyle asked.

"Uh, yeah, sure a Coke. A pizza maybe?"

"Sure," John said. "I can throw one in the oven for you guys. Hey, Kyle, why don't you come on up when you have a minute and pick out what you want since you're Bryce's guest and all."

"Sure," he said.

John went upstairs, chuckling softly at Randy sitting almost exactly where he'd left him.

"Sorry, buddy, you can lay down I'm going to be up for a little longer yet," he said. Randy did just that on the floor in the kitchen. A little gingerly, though, so John knew the thigh was bothering him a bit.

John grabbed a couple of Cokes from the fridge and turned the oven on. The temperature would be the same regardless of the pizza toppings.

"You just got home today?" John asked when Kyle joined him in the kitchen.

"Nah, last night late. I dropped Anne Marie off at her house first."

"Oh," John said with a nod.


John shrugged. "I guess I've never paid attention enough to notice you come over here much. Usually Bryce goes to your house, doesn't he? I guess I never even knew what kind of car you drive until tonight."

Kyle shrugged as he went to the laundry room where the deep freeze was. Clearly, he knew his way around the house comfortably enough. He came back a couple of minutes later with a pizza in his hands.

"Well, Bryce and I have always been friends. More than just cousins."

"Right," John said.

"But I realized after his mom came…"

"Yeah," John said, cutting him off. "You realize no one knows that. Right?"

"I do. Yeah. After that, though. I realized, not only is he my friend, but he's. Well, my brother. And Betsy's my sister."

"Yeah," John said, not really catching where he was going with this.

"I've never really had that before, I guess. I don't know how to explain it." He shrugged, taking the cellophane off the pizza and setting on the pan.

"I kind of get it."

"Good, because I'm not entirely sure I know how to explain it."

"You like that feeling?" John asked him.

"Yeah, well, you know. In a way."

Huh. He'd never stopped to think that Kyle might see Bryce Jr. and Betsy like that. And the kid Claire was going to have now would be his full brother or sister. Would him coming to grips with having half siblings already pave the way for him accepting a sister or brother in a few months' time?

"Listen. If you have a free bit of time this weekend," he handed Kyle a business card. "My cell phone number is on there. Give me a call. An hour, maybe?"

"Yeah, sure. Other than church and dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's Sunday I don't have anything going on."

"Not going to Anne Marie's?"

"Probably tomorrow."

"Maybe on your way there?"

"Sure," Kyle said. "I was going to head over there after I woke up and everything, so probably around noon."

"Okay. Breakfast?"

"Sure," Kyle said. "I'll have to explain to Bryce why I'm not eating it here."

"You're staying the night?"

"Yeah," he said with a shrug.

"All right. Well, you don't have to eat anything."

"Okay. Sure," he said, naming a restaurant John knew of well.

"I hope Randy's okay."

"He'll be fine. He just exerted himself a little too heartily when one of our suspects tried to get away."

"Oh. He chased him?"


"Did he catch him?"


"Good job, Randy," he said.

"Yeah, he knows that already."

Kyle laughed softly. "I bet he does."

"I'll put the pizza in the oven, but I'm going up to bed right after that. So, here take the timer down with you. I'll tell you when to start it."

"All right, thanks."

"Sure," he said, handing the timer and the Cokes to Kyle. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Yeah," Kyle said. "Sure."

"I'll probably leave first so no one thinks that's weird or anything."

"I get it."

"And your parents are all right with you staying here?"

"What can they do? Say no?"

John shrugged at that. Probably not say no, no, but that didn't mean they'd be thrilled either.

"All right, just make sure there isn't going to be any trouble on Sunday. Claire wouldn't like that. I wouldn't either truthfully."

"No, shouldn't be. It's not that out of the ordinary for me to stay here."

"All right then. Night," he said.


He set the pizza in the oven once it was done heating up and went to the stairs again.

"Pizza's in the oven, you two. Make sure you guys turn the lights off when you're done down there. And don't forget about the pizza. I don't really feel like getting woken up in an hour from the smoke detectors going off."

"We got it, John," Bryce said.

"Thank you. Come on, Randy," he said after shutting the basement door. He stopped by Betsy's room on his way to his room. There'd been a couple of times Gertrude had been shut in there and hadn't appreciated that fact. So, between him and Claire, whoever was the last to bed always checked to be sure.

She turned to look at him when he opened the door.

"Why aren't you asleep?" he whispered. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were both in here, which could have accounted for her still being awake so late. Doubtful, though.

"Mommy said you couldn't give me a kiss."

"Why not?" he asked, puzzled.

"I'd be sleeping," she said.

"Oh," he said, letting Randy follow him in there. He got her all tucked in the way he'd seen Claire do it more than a few times now and she settled in under the covers. He leaned in then, giving her a kiss.

"Night," she whispered.

"Night. Next time, though. You go to sleep. I'll come in and give you a kiss, awake or not."


"I do."

"'kay," she whispered.

"Sleep well and then you can have breakfast with your cousin tomorrow."



"'kay," she said again.

"You want the dogs in here?" he asked. He brushed a hand over her forehead, grazing her cheek with his thumb before he straightened upright and stepped away from the bed.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Mommy let them out before she went to bed?"

"Uh huh," she said.

"All right. Night," he said again. He checked to be sure the nightlight by the door was on before he left the room, closing the door behind him and Randy.

He opened the door to their room, letting Randy go in first so he could make sure Betsy didn't follow him out or need anything before he went to bed himself. She didn't seem to, so he stepped through the doorway.

"You must be exhausted," Claire murmured from their bed.

"I am."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Me, too."

"I missed you this morning."

"Did you now?" John asked.

"I did."

"Huh. Sorry to hear that."

"Did you have a good day?"

"It was all right. Say, can you take a look at Randy's leg while I get ready for bed?"

"He wasn't shot again, was he?"

"No, but I think he strained or sprained something maybe. He's just walking kind of delicately on it after he'd helped catch our suspects."

"Oh. He did?"

"He sure did. He came out of one of those old underground cellar doors and made a run for it. Randy darted right after him like he was shot out of a cannon. It's beautiful to see, honestly, unless you're on the receiving end of it I imagine."

"I can believe it," she said, pushing the blankets away. She was wearing a nice nightgown tonight.

"I guess you did miss me this morning," he said, regarding her.

"I did."

"Well, let me catch up to you then and I'll make up for not being here."

"I'll hold you to that."

He chuckled a bit before heading into the bathroom. She was already busy looking at Randy's leg.

"Did you know Kyle was going to be here this weekend?" he asked later.

"Yes. I mean, I knew he was going to come home for Easter, sure."

"And you didn't think I maybe should know that?"

"I assumed you knew, John, I'm sorry."

"Well, I asked him if he wanted to meet me somewhere before heading to Anne Marie's house tomorrow."


"So, I'll leave for a while."

"I understand."

He slid a hand along her arm, to her hip, and over to her abdomen where he traced her belly button with a fingertip.

"What are you thinking?" she asked.

"Just wondering how you're feeling."

"I'm fine."


"Yes. Honestly."

"I worry about you staying up so late."

"It's not that late!"

"I know, but you were up early today."

"Not as early as you."

"No, but I'm not pregnant."

"I'm fine, John."

"I trust you, but I'll wake up with the kids in the morning just the same."

"John, I'm perfectly capable."

"Oh, I know you are. I don't doubt you one bit. That doesn't mean you have to. So, I'll do it."

"You just like watching cartoons with Betsy."

"There is that," he said with a shrug.

She laughed softly, turning onto her side. That was the sign he looked for that she was ready to go to sleep every night. He'd never stopped to realize that there were things like preferred and better sides to sleep on. He settled in behind her, sliding a hand along her hip as she shifted until she was comfortable.

"Feels nice," she whispered.

"You feel nice," he whispered, kissing her shoulder.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. I made up for being gone this morning when you woke up?"

"You did."



"All right," John said once everyone was done with breakfast. "Betsy you go downstairs with your brother and Kyle while I go make sure your mom's awake."

"Why?" Bryce asked.

"I have to leave for a while."

"Is Randy going to be okay?" Kyle asked.

"Yeah, Claire said he'd be just fine. Maybe an extra day or two of limited movement. We'll see how he is Tuesday."

"Good," Kyle said.

"All right, Betsy. Let me see your hands before you guys go downstairs."

"Not sticky."

"Yeah, well your brother will get mad at both of us if we missed some and it gets on those game controllers. So, just to be sure," he said, leading her over to the sink where he could clean off her hands with the cloth there.


"Yeah, go ahead. Be careful on the stairs," he said. She was okay on stairs, but he was worried she'd get excited at going down there to hang out with Bryce and Kyle and lose her footing.

He let the dogs back in before heading upstairs.

"You are awake," he said.

"I am," she said. She'd clearly gotten out of the shower. She was dressed, but her hair was still wet.

"The kids are in the basement," he said, sliding his arms around her and kissing her neck.

"Betsy, too?"

"Yup," he said, finding her shoulder and kissing there, too.

"All right."

"I'll be back in a while."

"John. I understand."

"Thank you. When I get back, if Betsy's napping…"

"I will possibly take you up on that."

"Only possibly?"

"If you call me when you're on the way home maybe better than possibly?"

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Uh huh," she whispered, groaning softly as he found her neck again. He never had a problem with the way she reacted to him doing things like this. Recently, though, even simple things like kissing her neck like this put her in the mood. He took advantage of noticing that and kissed the spot often.

"Love you," he whispered, drawing away.

"You, too."

"After I've talked to him…"

"I guess it's time we tell other people. I'd feel comfortable doing that now."

He moved a hand higher up along her abdomen, running his thumb along her there. "I swear to God if your father comes at me with a gun or something we're moving to Mexico."

"We are?"

"I'm not leaving without you."

"I'm very relieved to hear that."

"I bet you are."

She laughed softly, turning to face him so she could reach up and kiss him.

"I'll hold off putting Betsy down for her nap as long as I can."

He wasn't holding his breath on that, especially with Bryce home. He loved that she wanted to, though. Betsy wasn't old enough to have a clue, but Bryce at almost fourteen sure was.

"We have to tell him next, you know," Claire said.


"Yeah," she said.

"How did you know…"

"What you were thinking? I just did."

"I figured he'd be next. You could tell him after you put Betsy down and I'm on my way back."

"I could."

"Up to you. Maybe you don't want him to know before dinner Sunday."

"I'll think about it."

"Are you worried?"

"I'm worried what their father may think."

John exhaled a bit at that. "Yeah, well, again, if he puts pressure on you with legitimate statistics that show us not being married somehow negatively impacts his campaign we'll talk."

"I'm not too worried about it."

"All right. The dogs are in and were out for almost an hour so they should be good for a while."

"Thank you. Is Randy okay?"

John shrugged. "He seems all right. I watched him a bit when the kids were eating breakfast. He wasn't out there running or anything. He wouldn't go near the pool, almost as if he knew he shouldn't."

"Yeah, it's not advisable, the water adds extra resistance and pressure that isn't good for healing sprains."

"I'll be more careful letting him out. I wasn't even thinking about that."

"He'll be fine, John."

"Thanks. Again."

"You don't have to thank me."

"This is your home…"

"And you and Randy live here. Of course I'm going to look after both of you the same as I would my kids and my own pets."

"Well, thank you just the same."

"You're welcome."

He grabbed his wallet and a jacket from the closet before heading downstairs.

"You leaving?" Kyle asked when he shut the fridge. He was getting Betsy a cup of juice, which was very nice of him to do. He supposed he was used to it, though, with DeeAnna.

"Uh, yeah, some things to do," he shrugged.

"I'll see you later then."

"Yup. Bye, Betsy," he said, setting his hand over the top of her head. "You be good for your brother and cousin. Okay? Mommy will be down in a minute. She was just finishing getting dressed."

"She slept late," Betsy said.

"She did. I like when she sleeps late on Saturdays because she doesn't sleep late Monday through Friday."

"Oh," she said.

"I think I've gone beyond what she understands. See you later," John said.

"Yeah," Kyle said.

He was a little early, but not too bad where their waitress would get pissed off at him for taking up a table for an hour before Kyle even got there or anything. It was Saturday, so the place was busy and he'd had to wait for a while anyway.

Wait and wonder just what exactly to say to the kid. He tried to think about it from his perspective. How would he feel if he was on the end of news like this. He just couldn't do it, though. Certainly his parents had been young enough to have more kids after John if they'd wanted to. Why they'd had four to begin with was something John would never understand.

"Sorry. Bryce wasn't too thrilled I was leaving him for a girl."

"Yeah, well, he's had a girl over to the house a few times now, so don't let him fool you that he doesn't understand."


"Yeah," John said.

"Huh. He hasn't said anything."

"He's thirteen. From what I can tell, they do their homework, play games, and hang out."

"Did you have girlfriends when you were thirteen?"

"No," John said simply.


"I had girls I hung around with, but no."

"Why not?"

"Well, girlfriends tend to expect you to take them out on dates, spend money on them, and look fairly presentable when you're around them. None of those things were accomplishable by me so there was no point."

"Yet, Claire…"

"Yeah, no one's ever said love is logical. I've never claimed she's logical either for that matter."

He slid his hand to his wallet, palming it before he flipped it open.

"Not sure Claire told you she gave this to me," he said, gesturing to his picture.

"No, she didn't."

He had a school picture of Bryce's in there now, but that was it. Kyle seemed to notice that, too.

"Things between you and the girlfriend going all right?"

"Yes," Kyle said.

"Claire said you both had dinner with her the weekend she was up there."

"She did. Claire said she could come with."

"Of course, and she meant that. I know Claire wants to know her. Well, any aspect of your life you're willing to let her in on."

"I know."

"You're okay with all of this?"

Kyle shrugged as their waitress set John's food in front of him. He hadn't eaten breakfast that morning, so he was hungry. Kyle had, but it was a few hours ago and he remembered being an eighteen year old kid. Always hungry.

"I don't really have a choice, do I?"

"No, I guess you don't."

"We're fine. I wouldn't have gone over there last night probably if we weren't."

"I suppose not, but that's not why we're here actually."


"Well, kind of, but not totally. No. I wanted to make sure you aren't mad at me. You seemed mad at me when we saw you on Thanksgiving."

"Listen. I'm sorry I said those things. I was mad, I guess. Confused. I don't know. So I said whatever came to mind to piss you off."

"Yeah, well, it takes a lot more than that to piss me off."

"I suppose."

John took a sip of his Coke, staring at his food for a minute.

"You came over to the house because Bryce and Betsy are your half brother and sister, didn't you?"

"Yes," Kyle said. "Bryce and I have always been pretty close. We've always had common interests, games and whatever. Alex does, but not the extent we did growing up."

"Claire's mentioned that, yeah."

"But, yeah, I guess it occurred to me that Betsy was my sister and maybe I should see her, too."

"Well, don't feel obligated to do that. I mean, it's nice, and I know she likes you."

"She likes you, too."

"Yeah, well, she grows on you."

Kyle laughed softly at that.

"Listen, Kyle. I've had this conversation with you in my head for almost two months now, and none of the ways comes out sounding right or as if I didn't spend two months rehearsing it. So, I figured I'd just lay it on the table for you."

"You're getting married, aren't you?"

"Uh, well, eventually, I hope so. Yes, but no."

"Then…" Kyle said, pausing as he watched John. "Oh," he said. "Really? Claire said that wasn't going to happen."

"Believe me, she told me it wasn't going to happen either."


John chuckled at that. "I wanted to talk to you about it," he said, ignoring the question. "Since it's kind of my fault we're where we are today, I wanted to be sure you understand that now is so much different than then."

"I get it."

"Because as much as I'd love to sit here and tell you that had Claire told me … Well, I make no promises we'd be sitting here today. I make no assurances you'd be at college doing what you're doing. I mean, I'm sure you would've gone to college, but I can't honestly say we'd be here. Me a cop. Your mom a vet. You at U of M."

"I get that."

"Because try as I might to deny it since she told me back in July, my first instinct would've been to marry her."

"It's not now?"

"Yes, it is, but I'm in a much better place than I was when I was eighteen. You're together, but surely you went to high school with kids, guys or girls, who were not that. Part of that was my upbringing, a good chunk of that. However, there comes a point when you have to take responsibility for yourself, kid and living at home or not. I didn't do that until after I graduated. Shermer is a good suburb with very good schools. I didn't have to thumb my nose at the stuff, but it was easier for me to stick out as a rebellious prick than as the Bender kid who everyone felt sorry for."

"When will she have it?"

"Your guess is as good as mine there. She told me on Valentine's Day and said she was like six weeks along. So, nine months from Christmas I guess."

"Are you cool with it?"

"I'm scared out of my mind. I can admit that freely. To you. I don't know the first thing about babies or kids, certainly not about being a dad. I had a piss-poor example on his best days."

"You seem to do all right with Betsy."

"Yeah. She's three and already potty trained. I hear they don't come out that way."

Kyle laughed at that. "No. I changed more than my share of Alex and Dee's diapers."

"I bet you did, and your parents were lucky they had you."

Kyle shrugged.

"I also wanted to take the opportunity since you chose to talk to me about your relationship with Anne Marie. Well, I wanted to drive home the point that no form of birth control is perfect."

"I get that."

"Good. Because she wasn't lying to you when she said we weren't going to have any. Unlike a lot of people out there I haven't felt as though my life was missing out on anything not having kids." He paused, realizing how that sounded. "Not that I wouldn't have…"

"It's all right. I get it. You didn't know about me, you don't have to explain yourself."

"Just don't want that coming back to bite me in the ass later."

"So, what does Bryce think?"

"Bryce doesn't know. No one knows, but us. And you now."




"Because believe it or not, Claire cares what you think. How you feel. And so do I even if I haven't watched you grow up the past nineteen years. We didn't deliberately do this, but we realized it might bother you so wanted to talk to you first."

"Why are you talking to me and not Claire?"

John shrugged. "Because if I hadn't been a fuck up twenty years ago you probably wouldn't be sitting across the table from me growing up thinking Claire was your aunt."

"You don't…"

"Know that? You're right, I don't, but if I'd had my shit together like you do Claire probably would have at least told me she was pregnant. Shit together or not if she'd told me I don't think we'd be sitting here this way either."


"Not for very good reasons, I assure you. So, Claire was probably very right in not telling me. I would have probably seen it as a chance, you know, to prove that I could be better than my old man. I wouldn't be a cop, probably not anyway. Everyone's life would've been pretty different. Who knows what your grandparents would've done if she'd shown up pregnant. Pull her out of college? Doubtful, but they could've. Pull her out of University of Illinois and made her go somewhere closer to home? Possible. She wouldn't have met Bryce. Who knows where she'd be. Or you."

"I can see that."

"I think she's going to tell Bryce when I'm on my way home. She's going to put Betsy down for her nap after I've called to tell her I'm leaving."


"He's probably not going to be thrilled and will probably tell you."

"Should I say I know?"

"I think you probably shouldn't, otherwise he'll wonder why you knew and he didn't."


"I haven't talked to Claire, but I imagine one day when he's older maybe he can know. He's just coming around to me as it is, throw that into things and I think we'd be way further behind than where we were when I started."

"I think you're right."

"I wasn't sure how you were going to react until you mentioned stopping to realize that Bryce and Betsy are your half brother and sister. I realized when you said that you may react better than I was giving you credit for."

"You thought I was going to be mad?"

"The thought crossed my mind that you'd think we want a kid now but didn't want you then."

"My dad is going to freak."

"Likely he will. That's between Claire and Chris, not you. Everything Chris has done has been for you, don't ever lose sight of that."

"I know."

"Any questions for me while we're here since the next I see you she'll certainly be showing so everyone will know?"

"Not really. You answered most of them. Why don't you want to get married now?"

"I do. I mean, I would, but I know your aunt. She'd want some sort of wedding, even if it was just you guys as guests. You know, family. That would mean a dress and pictures, whatever. She wouldn't want to be pregnant for that."

"I suppose."

"And well, I guess I don't think getting married because she's pregnant is the right thing to do. I wouldn't have moved in with her and the kids if that wasn't on my mind, though. Forget doing that to her, I wouldn't do that to a little girl set that sort of example. Will we get married as soon as the baby is born? I have no idea. That's kind of up to her. I'll have been living there for a while by then. Maybe she won't want to. I don't know."

"Why wouldn't she?"

"Because she went from being divorced for a few months to seeing me, a guy she'd had a kid by and who in a roundabout way was the cause of everything she's done until now. She married Bryce because she knew he was secure, stable. Something I absolutely wasn't back then and something she I think probably wanted because she'd gone through that."

"I remember their wedding."

"Do you?"

"Yeah, kind of. I was a ring bearer."

"Oh yeah, I saw a picture of that over the summer. You were pretty cute."

He laughed at that. "That's what everyone said."

"I think ultimately we will, yes. I just don't know how soon she's going to be ready for that formal of a step. I think living together gives her some sense of," he shrugged, pulling some money out of his wallet to pay for their food after the waitress set the bill down. "Control over the situation? I think it scares her that we fell into a relationship as quickly as we did and that we liked one another as much as we did back then."

"Does it scare you?"

"Yes. I can admit that, but I'm not afraid of it. There's a difference. I've kicked my share of tires, though. Not that she's a tire, but I've never been married or anything so I've had twenty years to decide what I want. I didn't really want anyone but her. Maybe I didn't compare everyone to her or spend the past twenty years wishing she was single or anything. Honestly, I hadn't given her a huge amount of thought in years. Since high school? Yes. I read the papers when she got engaged to Bryce and married and stuff, but deep down she was the only person who ever gave me a chance to show I wasn't really an asshole. I wanted that, I guess. Someone who saw me, not John the cop or John the homeowner, but just John Bender warts and all."

"How did you become a cop anyway? She said you did some things…"

"Well, luckily I didn't get in trouble for those things I used to do back in high school. I graduated and tried working for my dad for a while, but I hated every second of it."

"What's he do?"

"He owns a garage and junk yard."

"Oh," he said.

"I'll tell you where it is, but you have to promise me something. Don't ever go around there."

"Why not?"

"Because Claire thinks you look like me. I think you look like my old man and older brother more. You show up there, he's going to know."


"And believe me when I tell you he's not a nice guy and not someone you want on your bad side. I don't want him finding out about you, Claire, or anything."

John pushed up the sleeve on his shirt, exposing the scar he'd shown Claire and the others that day at school. "This is just one of many souvenirs I have thanks to life at the Bender's growing up."

"Oh," he said.

"Anyway. I took a look around my old man's crappy garage and knew I could do better. I wasn't stupid. I pretended to be because it was what everyone expected out of me after a while. I did some stupid things that I was fortunate not to get caught doing while I was over eighteen. Then," he shrugged. "I don't know. I wondered what it might be like to be one of the guys who helped put people like my old man and brother away."

"Your brother?"

"Yeah. Eddie. He's been in prison for years now."

"Huh," Kyle said. "For?"

John chuckled. "Claire asked me the same thing. Your uncle knew him growing up and asked Claire if Eddie was my brother. His list of arrests and crimes is hard to keep track of. You name it."

"Does he ever try to contact you?"

"No, he knows better. It'd be a cold day in hell before I ever lifted a finger to try to help him get out sooner than the courts deemed appropriate."


"Because he deserves to be there."

"Is that part of the reason Claire didn't tell you?"

"No. She didn't even know I had siblings. She knew my dad was an asshole, but I'm not sure that played a role in her not telling me. I truly believe she thought I wouldn't give a shit. She thought she meant nothing to me. That that afternoon hadn't meant shit to me."

"Did it?"

"Yes. Contrary to what she believed I hadn't done that before that day. I hadn't wanted to let anyone close enough to me to do that."

"How'd she do it?"

John shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I take that back, I guess I do know. She told me to stop antagonizing the assistant principal. It wasn't just that she said that. She looked at me. I don't know. I didn't know what to do with it either. I knew falling on my knees and worshipping her like every other guy at school did wasn't the answer. So I did nothing."

"Yet. I'm here."

"You are."


"I'm not sure love can be explained. You know? Your mother says she fell in love with me from the minute I walked in the doors of the library that day. I'm sure I'm the last guy she ever expected to feel that way about, too. So, I'm not sure I can tell you how other than it is what it is."

"And I'm going to have a brother or sister now."


"Are you excited?"

"I am. I'm probably going overboard on the spoiling her, knowing she did it completely on her own with you. I like when she sleeps in. I like helping with Betsy when I can so that she can go to sleep thirty minutes earlier. I hate that she's at work lifting and moving animals around that she probably shouldn't be doing."

"She did it with Bryce and Betsy."

"I know that, and that's what stops me from saying anything irrational and stupid like telling her to quit. Sadly, I can't afford that so I couldn't tell her to do that anyway and she likes living where we live."

"You don't?"

"I like living where she is, yes."

"I thought of staying up in Minneapolis this summer."


"Yeah," he said.


He shrugged. "Get a job, an apartment with some friends."

"Anne Marie?"


"Talk to your parents. Don't spring it on them."

"I know. I just, now, though."

"Oh," John said. "Well, she wouldn't have it until like September so you'd be gone by then anyway."

"I suppose."

"And you can come home on a weekend."

"Yeah, you're right," he said with a shrug.

"I know you're welcome at your house anytime, but you are at our house, too. You might want to clear it with your parents first though."


He shrugged. "They're your parents. You don't want them to think this baby changes anything."

"It doesn't. I mean, not really, but it'll be related to me."

"Yes. Just talk to them. That's all I'm saying, be upfront with them. Just wait until Claire's told everyone to do it."

"Is she going to this weekend?"

"I'm not sure Easter Sunday dinner is the time to announce that, but she's getting to the point she has to soon so I don't know. And you do what you need to do for you this summer. If you have a job and a decent place to live then present it like that to your parents."

"I just worry…"

"They may not like it, you're right. They probably won't, but they're not going to disown you or anything over it. They'll adjust and get over it. Come on, really? Look at what they did for Claire and you think they're going to get upset with you over living with a girl?"

"I suppose not."

"Just, please, remember what I said here today about no protection being one hundred percent."

"I will. We will. I mean. We know."

"Good. And we're okay?"


"I don't want you saying something at dinner on Sunday."

"I won't. I said I was sorry. I just. Can you see it at all from my perspective?"

"I can. I do. I mean, not really of course, but sure I get it. I hope you've had some time to go over our conversations and realize I did the best I could to not lie to you given the fact I'd just found out about you myself."

"I do."

"We'll see you on Sunday then."


"Is Anne Marie coming?"

"I don't know yet."

"I'm glad you've had her through this, someone to talk to. I'm not a real talkative guy."

"Me neither. Not really."

John chuckled a bit at that.

"Well, I'm glad you have her to talk to. Everyone needs that. Just know you can call me anytime you need to, too. Claire, too, I imagine, but I just said me because I'm not a part of your family if you need to talk about anything to do with them."

"I know."

"All right."

They walked out together, John going to his car and Kyle going to his. He dialed the number for the house once he was in the car.

"Hi," he said when she answered.


"I'm on my way back."

'Okay. How'd it go?'

"Fine actually. Good. You know. Considering. I mean. I wasn't expecting a hug or anything. He didn't tell me he never wanted to talk to us again, so I figure that's a win."

'Good,' she said. She didn't sound as relieved as he thought she'd be, though. Especially considering the way he'd acted toward John at Thanksgiving.

"Is that not what you wanted?"

'No, it is. It's just I told Bryce and Betsy.'

"Oh. Betsy, too?"

'Yes. She's very excited for a little sister.'


'I know that she doesn't get to choose. She's three, she doesn't get that.'

"Oh, right. Well, that's good, though. Right?"

'Yes. Bryce, though didn't take it so well.'


'I think he's not going to talk to either of us for a while.'

"Oh. Sorry."

'It's okay. I sort of expected it.'

"Well, hopefully he'll come around soon. Is there anything I can do? Bring him ice cream? A game?"

'I'm not going to bribe him into talking to us or accepting he's going to have another brother or sister. He doesn't really have much choice. So, he'll deal with it on his own.'

"No, I guess not. Well, I'll be home soon."

'We'll be here.'

"I'm glad to hear that."

'Randy's fine, by the way. He's been with Betsy most of the morning.'

"He's a traitor."

Claire laughed softly. 'Maybe he's like his handler and just likes us Standish women.'

"There might be something to that."

'Plus, you know, she brushes him and plays with him way more than I do.'

"That's because I distract you from it."

'There is that.'

"I'm not apologizing for that."

'No, but that's what led to Bryce being mad at us.'

"Point taken, but I'm still not apologizing. He just doesn't like knowing for sure you and his dad won't get back together somehow."

'I suppose.'

"He'll be fine."

'Well, I figure if you can handle it he can too.'

"I'm not sure if that's a compliment, an insult, or a joke.'

'A little of each?'

"When are you due anyway?"


"Kyle asked me that and I had no clue what to tell him. You said like six weeks and I can do the math to around Christmas, but beyond that. What? Nine months?"

'Late September or early October.'

"Okay then. Good to know so I don't look like a clueless idiot to anyone else asking."

'Who else are you planning on asking you?'

"Uh, I don't know off the top of my head." He paused for a second. "Is that your way of asking me if I'm even going to tell anyone?"

'Well, I don't know who you'd tell.'

"Thank you. What the fuck does that mean?"

'I didn't mean it that way, John. I'm just saying, you know. I'm not sure who you'd say anything to. It's not like we have to announce it to the world.'

"Okay," he said. "I imagine my captain should know so he can prepare for me needing some time off."

'Ben won't give you a hard time about that, will he?'

"No," he said, shaking his head a little that she knew his captain by first name. "Of course not."


"I'd take it anyway. You realize that, right?"

'I know.'

"Good. I mean, I can't take six weeks like you could, but I should be able to take a chunk off."


"All right. I'll see you in a while then."

'Yes. I'm glad your talk with Kyle went well.'

"Me, too."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Three***
Word Count: 4,976

"Quit fidgeting, Claire, and just tell me why you invited me to dinner," her mother said from across the table. Claire took a deep breath as she adjusted her napkin on her lap. Or fidgeting as her mother called it. She wasn't really fidgeting so much as she was trying to avoid this conversation. She'd meant to have this conversation with her on Sunday, but had chickened out.

"Well, I had something I needed to talk to you about and didn't want to do it in front of Daddy."

She still wasn't sure how her dad felt about John so she didn't want to tell both of them at the same time. She figured her mom knowing was a good start and she could find out how her dad felt about John from her mom.

"You're pregnant again you mean?"

"I'm sorry. What?"

Her mother shook her head and Claire was sure she was doing an absolutely horrible job of hiding her surprise. She shouldn't be surprised she supposed. She was completely and utterly amazed she made it through her first pregnancy without her mother finding out. Her mother knew all sorts of things Claire was coming to realize as they both got older. They were never going to have a close relationship, but they got along better now than they used to. It was her mother and Claire's childhood that was the final reason Claire had made the decision to divorce Bryce. She remembered too well growing up with a drinker in the house and didn't want her kids exposed to that any more than they already had. Hopefully Bryce was young enough that there was no permanent damage. The nasty things that had come out of Bryce Sr.'s mouth had been aimed at Claire for the most part none of the kids. She didn't want that to change though.

"I know you by now, Claire. Don't you realize that? So, I already know you are pregnant."

"Okay. Well, yes, I am. That was what I wanted to talk to you about. I was going to tell you on Sunday."

"When are you due?"

"The beginning of October."

"You're going to have a miserable summer."

"I know," Claire said. The idea of being eight months pregnant in August did not appeal to her very much, but she didn't have much choice in the matter. She'd had a say in when she tried to get pregnant with Bryce and Betsy. She'd avoided the summer altogether with Bryce and Betsy since they were both born in May. (Bryce Jr. had not been at all happy when it looked like Betsy could be born right around the time of his birthday. She'd been a nice little sister even then, though, deciding to wait ten days after his birthday.)

"You're feeling well?"

"I am. Yes. How did you know?"

"Like I said, I know you. I know what you do and don't eat."

Claire sighed softly. "Your scalloped corn," Claire said.

"That was one tip off, yes."

Claire loved her mother's scalloped corn. No one else was as fond of it so it wasn't something her mom made for every holiday. She'd made it to go with the dinner on Sunday for Easter. Unfortunately, scalloped corn was something she couldn't eat anytime she was pregnant. She had no idea why as the ingredients in it by themselves were fine. Together, though, they made Claire nauseous every time she was pregnant.

"Are you excited?"

"Yes," Claire said. Now that John knew and was himself pretty excited a couple of months into it she was letting herself feel that way, too. She'd been so afraid the past couple of months that he'd change his mind or come to the conclusion she'd done it on purpose. He'd come home one day last week with a Cubs onesie so she knew with that he was really okay with her being pregnant.

"And is John?"

"Yes. I think he was very surprised at first."

"You weren't?"

"Well, yes, of course. I mean, I wasn't trying to get pregnant, Mother."

"I understand."

"I hope you do. I didn't purposely…"

"That seems to happen to the two of you, doesn't it?"


Her mother laughed and Claire was left for a second time absolutely shocked by something her mother had said in a span of about ten minutes.

"Oh come on, Claire. Don't insult me."

"I'm not trying to."

"I'm your mother. I know you haven't always been pleased about that fact. I know I wasn't the world's greatest mother." Claire scoffed at that. Compared to John's mother, of course, Claire had nothing to complain about. "Again I know you. I know, for instance, that you wouldn't have let yourself get involved with someone so soon in college enough to go home with him for breaks your freshman year."


"I also have eyes and can see that my oldest grandson resembles John who you went to high school with. And that Christopher and Ellen had no desire to become parents before the age of thirty yet suddenly there they were doing just that."


"At least he's involved this time."

"I didn't tell him about Kyle."

"He knows now?"



"Does Daddy know?"

"No," her mother said.

"Why not?"

Her mother shrugged, taking a sip of her drink. It was dinnertime so her drink of choice was gin and tonic. If they'd met for lunch she would be drinking a scotch. Why she had such particular habits Claire wasn't sure. Her morning drink of choice when Christopher and Claire had been growing up was vodka because there wasn't an odor to it.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"What was I supposed to say? You would have denied it. I couldn't force you to tell me. I've spent the past nineteen years seeing my grandson regardless."

"I assumed…"

"I think that's one of the reasons I never said anything. If you found out I knew and would have helped you. Well," she shrugged, taking another sip of her drink. "I knew you felt guilty as it was I didn't want to add to it."

"You're saying you would have supported me having a baby?"

"I wouldn't have been at all happy about it, but of course. Your father and I aren't monsters, Claire. Likely we would've pulled you from U of I and sent you to Northwestern or University of Chicago, but we would've made it work."

"I just assumed."


"I was so embarrassed, Mother. You really had nothing to do with my decision. By the time I knew I was going to have him for sure it was really too late to say something to John."


"I don't know. It took me that long? I wasn't going to hunt him down four months later and tell him that he was going to be a father."

"I know enough about him to know that you were probably thinking clearly with regard to that whether you want to think so or not."

"I know. I didn't know how he'd react, and I absolutely would not have wanted his parents involved."

"I remember his mother."

"You do?" Claire asked. That surprised her.

"Sure. Elementary school she was around some of the time," her mom said. She ran a fingertip over her tumbler then and Claire wondered if John's mom and Claire's mom had ever gotten drunk together. They couldn't possibly have, except her mother didn't let just anyone know about her drinking habit, especially back then.

"I guess I don't remember that," Claire said instead of asking the question she really wanted to know the answer to.

"You were young and you weren't friends with him, so why would you?"

So why did her mother remember his mother?

"Are you going to get married?" her mother asked.

"Why does everyone assume that?"

"It's a natural assumption."

"I guess so. I imagine one day, yes."

"Do you want to marry him?"

Claire sighed softly. "I do," she said. She hadn't admitted that to John outright. "I don't want him to ever think I got pregnant to that end, though. He thinks we should wait until after the baby comes so we're sure of where we are."

"Do you agree?"

"Yes. I just got divorced a year ago. I don't want to get married again right now."

"I understand. Does Bryce now?"

"I told him, yes."

"He still loves you, you know," her mother said.

"Not in the way you mean, no."

"He still loves you, Claire."

"Please don't lecture me, Mother," Claire said.

"I'm not lecturing, just telling you to be easy on the man who is the father of your other children and who ensured you are able to live very comfortably."

"I know that."


"Are you going to tell Daddy?"

"I sort of have to, don't I?"

"Yes," Claire said. "What does he think of John?"

"He hasn't said much. He's a policeman. What's there bad to say about that beyond the danger his job presents?"

"I guess nothing," Claire said.

"Just do me a favor please, Claire."


"Before you make a permanent decision be sure it's what you want."


"Not the baby, Claire. Marriage. It's a different lifestyle. Bryce was a public servant, but not at all in the same way."

"I know that, Mom."

"It's not just you that you need to be concerned about. Bryce, Jr. and Betsy are going to get more and more attached to him."

"Yes," she said.

"Do you want them to experience that loss, too?"

"You're already killing him off. Do you hear yourself?"

"I do, but you need to think about the kids, too."

"I am. I'm not going to avoid marrying someone because his job is risky. That's absurd and wouldn't teach Bryce or Betsy anything positive at all."

She glanced at her phone, saw it was John and debated about ignoring it but realize it was a great way to get away from her mother for a minute before she said anything stupid. Her mother could still push her buttons all these years later especially when she'd had a couple of drinks as she had today.

"I'll be right back," she said, picking up the phone. "Hello." She didn't miss her mother's disapproving look. John knew where she was and what she was doing here. He wouldn't be calling if it wasn't something remotely important.

'Hey,' he said.


'Are you just about done?'

"Yes. Why?"

'Good. Call me when you turn onto the road to the house, okay?'


'Princess. Just please.'

"Yeah, sure," she said. "Is everything all right?"

'I'll explain when you get home. Everyone's fine. No one's split their head open or anything. Just call me before you actually turn onto the road. And keep your doors locked.'

"Okay," she said.

'I have to go. Okay? But don't forget to call. Before you turn onto our road.'

"I heard you."

'Just driving the point home.'

"Yeah, sure." She hung up and walked back to the table.

"Claire. You live with him. You don't have to drop everything to take his calls."

"Mother. He knew I was here with you so wouldn't have called if it wasn't important. That's why I answered. And I have to go."

"Is everything all right?"

"I don't know. He says it is, but he told me to call him before I turn onto the road leading to the house so I have no idea."

"Be careful, Claire."

"I will," she said. "Thank you for dinner."

She didn't feel as though she really resolved anything, other than she had a real bad way of keeping secrets from her mother. Jesus. She'd known about Kyle all along and Claire hadn't had a clue. Not once did she get the impression her mother was aware of the situation.

She tried not to be paranoid as she drove home. Something had to be going on or he wouldn't be telling her to call him from the road, which she did right about where she'd seen Randy get shot. God was that really almost nine months ago now? It seemed like yesterday.

He and his captain, Ben, were at the gate to let her in.

"Pull into the garage, Claire," John said when she'd stopped on the driveway and gotten out of her car.


"Princess, please, just pull into the garage."

"Yeah, sure. And then you're explaining to me what's going on. Why is Ben here? And why are you wearing your vest?"

"I will explain it all when you get inside."

"Why are there people in my backyard?" They weren't all wearing uniforms, but she got the distinct impression they were all cops of some sort. "Wow," she said, stopping short at the man standing in her kitchen who looked eerily like John.

"Right?" John said.

"Who? How? What?"

"I'm going to go check in outside while you fill her in. Good seeing you, Claire," Ben said.

"You, too. I think."

"So, this is my brother Tom," John said by way of explanation. "He's an FBI agent as it turns out."


"Unexpected? Yeah. I thought that, too. Kind of ironic, too, isn't it that the oldest and youngest kids chose the lines of work we did while the middle two went to the other side."

"It's nice to meet you," Tom said.

"You, too. I mean that, really, but can you please tell me what's going on now? Ben's here, and clearly not socially. Your brother is an FBI agent. I'm guessing that's who the people outside not in police uniforms are."


"Our brother, Eddie, escaped."


"In one of his letters to his lawyer recently he threatened to harm me," John said.

"Okay," Claire said.

"By threatening to harm you and Bryce."

"Oh my God. The kids. Where are they?"

"Relax. They're fine. They're downstairs with some officers. Not that Bryce, though."

"I'm confused."

"That's why the FBI is here. He threatened a senator, one who's running for the US Senate."

"Bryce doesn't live here."

"Clearly, Eddie's thinking isn't completely clear or he assumed, rightfully so, that by coming here he'd get Bryce back to Shermer."


"We found evidence that someone has been in the woods out here, camping," Tom said.

"Eddie was a master at survival. He could probably go to Siberia with little to nothing and find some way to make a fire out of icicles."

"Out here? For how long?"

"That's hard to gauge. You have a lot of woods out here and he'd likely move around, looking for ways to get onto your property here," Tom said.

"The lake," she whispered, glancing outside. The officers and agents out there made a lot more sense now.

"We're going to keep a few posted here until he's caught. John will be here, too, of course."

"I'm confused. How does harming Bryce hurt you?"

"I can't explain the way he thinks. The only thing I could come up with is that you'd blame me if the father of your kids was hurt or something."

"How would he even know you're with me?"

John shrugged.

"People in prison have lots of time on their hands and I hate the fact that they have access to resources, but they do. I did file a change of address with the post office. Who knows if he got a hold of that somehow. I'm a cop. Who knows if someone passed along information to him."

"That's crazy!"

"Tell me about it."

"Aren't you a little old to be a field agent?" Claire asked, regarding Tom a little closer now. She didn't think agents stayed in the field into their fifties.

"Claire," John said.

"What? I'm sorry. How do you know that he's not working with Eddie somehow?"

"Uh, Princess. Have you seen the agents outside?"

"It's all right. It's a valid question. I'm not a field agent, but when I heard the name involved," he shrugged. "I decided perhaps a trip home was called for. I assumed, honestly, John would be in the same boat as Eddie."

"Yet you made it out."

"I did. Am I proud of the fact that I never looked back? No. By the time I'd landed on my feet," he shrugged. "Kim was already out of the house, Eddie was already getting into trouble, and John. Well he seemed as if he was okay from what I could tell."

"Okay?" Claire asked in disbelief. She saw the evidence every night of just how okay he wasn't.

"When I left the house our parents hadn't moved to physical abuse on me. They were abusive to one another, physically and verbally. I just wanted out of there, they hadn't ever hurt me. I didn't know, Ma'am. It wasn't until I found out John had become a police officer and read some of the things about him that I learned anything."

"Yet you stayed away? He's been a cop for over fifteen years."

He shrugged, glancing at his feet for a minute. "Guilt? What was I supposed to say? I figured he'd never forgive me or look at me just the way you are right now. I guess I chickened out. I don't know."

"Claire," John said, sliding his arms around her.


"I love that that's your knee-jerk reaction, defending me and wanting answers. It is what it is, though. You know? I'm not upset about it so please don't be either. Two of the four of us got out of there and have led functional lives. It's nice to know I'm not the only one, you know?"

"I just."

"Look at me," he said, sliding a finger under her chin. "I love you. I love every damned thing about you from your red hair to your toes, even when you won't be able to keep polish on them in a couple of months."

"You could…"

"And I look forward to doing that for you."

She snorted softly at that.

"I love how protective you are of not just your kids, but me, and yes their father, too. It's okay, though, really. Let my brother and me focus on finding Eddie and worry about what happens after he leaves later."

"Oh," she said.

"And, well," he said, dropping his hand from near her face to her abdomen. "It'd be nice if this baby knew someone from his or her old man's family. Don't you think?"

"Yes," she said.

"I'm going to go check on everyone downstairs for a bit," Tom said.

"How did dinner with your mother go?"

Claire laughed softly at that. "Fine."

"What's the laugh for?"

"Not only was she not surprised and already know I am pregnant."


"Evidently she's known all along about Kyle."



"Huh. Well, that's good, right? No more secrets?"

"Dad doesn't know."

"True. Well, I'm in no rush to tell him, but I'm glad you talked to her and cleared the air. You have to feel better."

"I guess."

"Are you all right now?"

"John! There are officers walking around my property. How all right do you think I'm going to be?"

"Okay. That was maybe the wrong question. Are you calm now?"

"I guess."

"I'd like you to go upstairs and pack a bag for you and the kids."

"John. I'm not leaving."

"I'm not asking you to leave. Yet. I may, though. We're the Shermer PD. We don't have the manpower to camp out at your house day in and day out. Tom is going to have to pull his people eventually, too, if he's not caught quickly. Bryce, however, is a senator who is deserving of that kind of protection around the clock."

"I'm sorry. You want me…"

"Don't put words in my mouth. I'm not sending you there right now, but yes if it gets to the point your safety is an issue. Not even Ben could justify unlimited man hours to protect you when Bryce isn't staying here."

"I know," she said.

"So, you go do that so it's ready. That'll give me piece of mind, knowing you guys are ready at the drop of a hat."

"You know we have a panic room in Bryce's bedroom, right?"

"I didn't know that. And that's great, but that's not a long-term solution. Does Bryce, Jr. know how to get in there?

"He does."

"Good to know. I'm sending Randy with you, all right. Yours are down with the kids." They weren't watch dogs, weren't trained to attack, but they'd protect the kids. Claire knew that. John had worked with them quite a bit since living here, too, so they weren't useless as far as protection went.

"Yeah, sure," she said, surprised at the difference in Randy here at the house simply based on a command John gave him that he'd never done before here. He wasn't the cute, fuzzy, loveable pet that Betsy cuddled with right now. He was a trained police dog, on alert and set with the task of escorting and protecting her.

"I'll check on you in a bit. I'm going to go see what's happening outside. You stay inside, though. Don't come out to talk to me, Ben, or anyone else on the force you may know. If we need you, we'll come here."

"I know. I won't."

"You need me, you call or text me."

"I get it!"

"Thank you. You may want to think about the practice on Monday, too."

"Okay," she said.

"And hey," he said, hand on the door.


"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

He shrugged. "That I'm the cause of this shit."

"You're not the cause of this. Your brother is, John. You didn't make him do this."

"I'm still sorry."

"Just catch him so I don't have to go to Bryce's."

"I have no intention on sending you to his house for any reason ever."

"I love you, too."

He chuckled softly at that before heading outside.

She glanced behind her when someone knocked on Betsy's door. Betsy was the most time consuming one to get things together for. Thank God she was completely potty trained now. Diapers and Pull-Ups were one less thing to worry about.

Randy hadn't left her side, which she imagined was how he was supposed to act.

"Am I interrupting?" Tom asked.

"No," she said. "John's outside, though."

"I know that. I actually came here to talk to you."

"Oh," she said.

"We're going to catch Eddie."

"I believe you will."

"Me? Or John?"

"I have every faith that John will, yes."

"That's good."

"How so?"

He shrugged. "I heard the way he spoke about you before you got home when we were briefing him about the situation. I'm glad to hear the feeling is mutual."

"Of course it is."

"I understand I'm going to be an uncle in a few months."

"Uh, yeah, you are."

"And that I already am?"

"How could you possibly?" What? Did everyone know?

"Relax, I don't know what you're thinking, but I can sense it's not good. Probably along the lines of how I know that. John told me – in confidence - because I asked him if there was anyone else Eddie could possibly go after."

"He can't possibly know about Kyle."

"We've sent someone up to his school, just to be safe."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. I was just checking on you really. Making sure you're all right."

"I sense that Randy would see to that to his last breath."

"I meant inwardly."

"Oh, well, what can I say?"

"John thinks that you may tell him to leave because of this."

"He said that?"

"He didn't have to. I know the feeling well. Our sister found me years ago and the woman I was dating at the time took one look at her and thought for sure that any apples that fell from my family tree would all be rotten."

"I'm sorry to hear that. That you dated someone shallow enough to believe that. I knew John was different a long time ago, but he didn't want to admit he was."

"It makes a difference. I'm just letting you know he may a bit more uncertain now than he was a little while ago. I don't know him, but I know people and I know how to read faces. When he found out it was Eddie I could see that he thought it might be too much for you."

She wasn't sure what to say to that. She didn't know this man, John's brother or not.

"Well, I'll let you finish what you're doing. Your kids are fine, but I'll go back down with them. Your son is quite the gamer."

"He is."

"He'd get along with my sons. Maybe one day I could bring them here to meet their cousins."

"Very possibly. So you're going to come back?"

"If you and John are willing to let me."

"That'd be up to him."

"It's been a while since I was married, but I remember very well my wife was the one who ultimately made the decisions. So if you're against it, John…"

"We're not married and I wouldn't stop John from having a relationship with his brother if he wanted one."

"Even thinking I could've done something?"

"You know, I'd love to blame you. I've been thinking about that while I was up here packing things. You're right I was furious with you at first. That lasted the time it took me to get things together for my son. There are a ton of people to lay blame at their feet right here in Shermer without extending my anger to you. Teachers who saw the signs and said or did nothing for years. An assistant principle who made it his life's mission to harass John. It's easy for me to say you should've come back and checked on him, but there were people who were here and knew who did nothing. So, how can I blame you when you weren't even here?"

"Thank you."

"Yeah, sure."

"If you need anything."

"John won't be outside that long, will he?"

He chuckled softly. "No," he said. "I don't imagine his captain is clueless enough to make him stay away from you right now. Even if he was friends with your ex-husband."

Claire rolled her eyes at that, going back to setting some things aside for Betsy just in case. Both kids had clothes and things at their dad's house, so she didn't pack more than enough to get them to their dad's house if they had to leave suddenly.

"You're a policeman. Why do they have to be here all night?"

"Because I can't do the work of all of them."

"I know. I just don't like the idea that there are people in my yard."

"That's what you get for living in a fortress that has one side offering access to anyone."

"It's never been a problem before."

"Yeah, well, hopefully it won't be a problem now either."

"You'll catch him."

"I don't think I'll be able to eat or sleep until I do."

"So, it really surprised you we have a panic room?"

"Surprised me?" he shrugged. "I suppose not. I'm surprised I didn't notice I guess."

"How much investigating of Bryce's room did you do?"

"None, which was foolish, I suppose."

"You had no reason to," she said.

He shrugged. "So, your mom knows," he said after a while. The kids were asleep. The house was empty except those humans and animals who lived here after what seemed like hours to Claire.


"I'm glad. Personally, I think your dad should know, too, but I can understand why you're not ready for that yet."

"No," she said. "Tom says he wants to bring his boys out here sometime to meet their cousins."

"Yeah? That'd be fine, I guess. I wouldn't mind or anything. I'm not holding my breath either that he goes back to DC after this trip and forgets about me."


"It's fine. I know what's what. I know he didn't really forget about me, but I'm not going to lose sleep or count down the days until he comes back. If he does, great, I'm all for it. Bryce, Jr. maybe not as much, but certainly Betsy's young enough she'd view his kids as their cousins."

"True," she said.

"All right. You need to get ready for bed, Princess. You've had a long day."

"You're not coming?"

"I'm going to lay down with you until you fall asleep, but then Randy and I will go back downstairs."

"Too bad you don't have anything of Eddie's for Randy to smell."

"He's not a bloodhound, but can pick up scents. Actually a couple of officers went over to the old homestead to ask Mom and Dad if they had anything of Eddie's."



"And they did?"

"They did. They probably have some of Tom's stuff, too, truthfully. World's best housekeeper's they weren't, and Dad didn't throw anything away."


"I'm going to give it a try."

"Please be careful, John."

"I will, sweetheart. I'm not going to go after him alone."


He watched from the bed as she got ready for the night. She joined him eventually, straddling him. He settled his hands against her hips. He loved when she did things like this, sitting on his lap with no thought of sex coming out of the deal. A few months ago she wouldn't have done it so he took that to mean she was not just more comfortable with him being here full-time but with them.

"Besides I have something to make sure I come home for at the end of my shift for the first time ever."

"The baby's not here yet."

"I wasn't talking about the baby, Princess."

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***Chapter Twenty-Four***
Word Count: 2,909

June 2009

"If you need anything you know how to get a hold of us, right?" Claire asked Bryce.

"Yes, Mom," he said rolling his eyes. "We'll be fine. Besides, Kyle and Anne Marie are going to be here, too. You always seem to trust them even if you think I'm too young."

"That's only because Kyle is five years older than you."

"Yeah, whatever," Bryce said. "It's not like I don't know how to call the police if something happens."

"I am the police," John said. "You do remember that, right? I mean I know you've been gone most of the year."

"Yeah, but I'm not going to call you if something happens at our house. I mean when it was your brother…"

"Randy and I still helped catch him. I worked extra hard because I wanted to make sure you all were safe."

"I know that."

Now he knew that. John had no doubt that five years ago Bryce thought John only cared because it was his brother making him look bad to Claire. They'd come a long way since then and Eddie sure was never going to bother them again because he wasn't going to be escaping again anytime soon. And, yes, John took a little bit of pleasure knowing that while he wasn't the officer that had put the cuffs on Eddie, Randy had gotten a nice bite out of him during the pursuit of him.

Bryce was home for the summer after finishing up his first year at Georgetown. Claire missed the hell out of him, but his father enjoyed having so much access to him for the first time in years really. She just hated that he was so far away and not knowing how much Bryce, Sr. was drinking these days.

"It could be worse. Your uncle Tom could be here, too." Bryce actually liked Tom well enough. John and Tom weren't ever going to be best friends, but Tom had come out a few times since that first trip he'd made. He brought his two sons with him, too, who got along with Bryce and Kyle real well due to their gaming interests.

"I don't understand why you're having a class reunion now. Everyone else's parents' I know had twentieth reunions not twenty-fifth."

"Well, the perks of your mother being the prom queen. She said she thought it would be great to do one at twenty-five years instead and the planning committee went along with it," John said. "Just like they did back then."

"It wasn't like that," Claire said.

She had not wanted to go to the reunion just having had a baby. Yes, sure, months would have gone by, but she still didn't want it. She wasn't vain exactly, but most everyone she knew was done having their babies. She and John had gotten a huge scare about three months after Taylor was born. She had switched to a diaphragm for a while afterward since they knew John was going to get a vasectomy at some point soon. They'd thought for a while she'd gotten pregnant again. She hadn't been, but John wasted no time after that scare getting that done so they wouldn't have a scare like that again. So, when the reunion planning committee had gotten together she'd brought up the subject of doing a twenty-fifth reunion instead. They'd gone for the idea, and here they were tonight.

"You just didn't want to go having had my baby out of wedlock."

"That is not true at all!"

Yes, sure, the thought had crossed her mind that people would talk if they showed up together with a baby and not married, but that wasn't really the reason she'd thought of the idea.

"Relax I know that's not the reason why. Whatever you want to say or think to convince yourself that if anyone but you had made the suggestion we'd be going tonight. I assure you if Brian had made the suggestion we would have had our reunion back in two thousand four as we were supposed to."

"Maybe you're right," she said.

"I love you, you know, but you know damned well I'm right."

"You like nice," Kyle said.

"Thank you," she said.

"You know, maybe he meant me."

"Well, I'm sure he did because you do, but I can say thank you for both of us. Can't I?"

"Good save, Princess. Let's go then before I change my mind about doing this."

He had no desire to go to the reunion, but he didn't have a whole lot of choice since they were married now. Bryce, Betsy, and Taylor had had a blast bouncing back and forth between Grandma and Grandpa's house and Uncle Christopher and Aunt Ellen's house the two weeks after they'd gotten married and went on their honeymoon. John had never been on a cruise before so that's what they'd done and it had been fantastic.

"Let me get my purse and I'll be ready."

"Sure," John said. He pulled his wallet out of his suit coat pocket and handed some money to Bryce.

"What's this for?"

"You're going to have Caitlyn over when we leave, aren't you?"


"Yeah. I know your mom says no girls in the house when we're gone, but I'm pretty sure you bribe Betsy with Hello Kitty stickers to not tell on you. Kyle's here and I know Anne Marie will be coming over. I'm not a moron. So, buy yourselves some pizzas, just order something that will agree with Betsy and Taylor, too. Even if it's just half only cheese on one."

"Yeah, okay," Bryce said.

"Thank you," he said. "And if I haven't said it since you've been back, I'm glad you're back."

"Thanks," he said.

"You're welcome, but it's true. I'm not saying it to be nice. I missed you."

"I know," Bryce said.

"I'm glad you're able to spend so much time with your dad, though."

"He said you were cool with it."

"Of course I am. Have I ever given any indication I was out to stop you and Betsy from seeing him?"

"No, but I just figured when Taylor came along…"

"Yeah, no. I don't have a good or close relationship with my father, so I'm glad you have the chance to spend time with yours even if it means we don't see you."

"I know."

Bryce had stayed out in DC for a couple of weeks before coming home. His girlfriend lived here, so it surprised John that he hadn't come home as soon as classes were over, but maybe Bryce wasn't as serious about Caitlyn as Kyle had been about Anne Marie at this age.

"Ready," Claire said.

"I'm waiting for you," he said, eyeing her. God she was beautiful. Taylor had Claire's hair and a better texture to go with it (so said her mother, John knew nothing about hair textures to know). Betsy wasn't as fond of Taylor right now as when she was first born. Competition he imagined. They got along all right and everything, but every once in a while Betsy was bratty as hell.

He breathed deeply as they pulled into the garage of the hotel the reunion was being held at.

"If it's a terrible time we can bail and go to a bar or something, right?" John asked. He knew there was no getting out of this. Claire wanted to show off that she actually had a husband that she loved and who loved her in the right way this go around. He supposed he couldn't blame her for that.

And, yeah, okay, he couldn't deny he didn't relish the idea of walking into the ballroom and seeing the look on a number of people's faces from their graduating class. Not just because he'd ended up with Claire either, but because he wasn't dead in a ditch before twenty or in prison.

"I don't believe it," a voice John hadn't heard in twenty-five years said. "They let you into these things?"

Claire gripped his hand tightly. It didn't matter how old he was or how many years he'd been working as a cop, the guy still got under his skin. Claire knew it, too, which was why John had never attended one of Bryce's parent-teacher conferences during high school with her. He went to band concerts and stuff, sure, but the one-on-one shit, no.

"Principal Vernon," John said simply. How this guy had gotten to be a principal John didn't know, but somehow he'd gotten the job and been able to drop the assistant part of his title that had been there for years.

"And you?" Vernon said, glancing at Claire. "You went from a senator to this piece of trash."

"Hey," Claire said.

"You leave her out of whatever your issue is with me. I'm not here to pay you any disrespect and if it's failed your notice I've been protecting and serving the city of Shermer for over twenty years now. That includes you," he stepped forward a bit, releasing Claire's hand. "You might want to think twice before pissing off a cop there, Dick. The tables have turned a little bit and I could be the one making your life a living hell if I wanted to."

"You can't harass me. I'd eat you and your badge for lunch if you did that. I'd see you in court, too."

"You're right, that would be illegal. Contrary to your skewed perception of me, I haven't broken the law in a very long time. So, you're right, I sure can't, but that doesn't mean I can't pull you over for every incomplete stop or improper lane change from now until the end of time."

"You're so full of shit, Bender. You couldn't pull me over without just cause. You're not a traffic cop, even I know how that works. You're just a glorified dog walker with a gun."

"Who helped find one of your grandkids if I'm not mistaken. I bet you thought my services were pretty important then. Maybe instead of holding a thirty-year-old hard-on for hating on me you should worry about your own home and what goes on there. Maybe if you paid as close attention to that little kid as you seem to my life after all this time he wouldn't have come close to freezing to death where the glorified dog walker was needed to find him."

John didn't bother arguing with him that traffic cop or not, if a cop saw something illegal traffic-wise or not they could stop you. John had never had to do it, but there'd been a couple of times he'd seen someone obviously speeding, knew there was a cop up ahead a bit and called it in on his radio.

"I don't know what you could possibly see in this jerk. I expected way more from someone like you," he said. He glanced behind them then, and must have seen someone else more important or more deserving of his wrath because he stepped away without another word. Either that or John had struck a chord with Vernon about his grandkid. It'd only been later John had realized who the kid was he and Randy had helped find, because it was Vernon's daughter's kid. It baffled John that someone could stomach sex with Vernon, but whatever floated their boat. He got that many would say the same about Claire as far as ending up with him, so he tried not to judge the woman too severely.

"God, I hate him," John said. "Twenty-five years and I'd still like to bash his head in."

"It's okay," Claire said, kissing him.

"Yeah, easy for you to say, Princess."

"Hey," she said, settling a hand against his cheek. "He's a jackass. Don't let him win. You deserve to be here just like anyone else. You also deserve to be married to me. You have earned and worked hard for everything you have. Very few people who we're going to see tonight can say the same thing. Vernon's just jealous because you actually got out and did something with your life."

"Yeah," he whispered.

"I remember when we first saw one another again you mentioned that you'd been offered advancement, but liked what you do."


"I remember, too, right before Taylor was born and there was an opening for a detective you were thinking about applying for."

"I know."

"What did I say?"

"Knowing that I like what I do was more important to you than any bump in paycheck that being a detective would bring."

"I meant that. Your job has the same risks as any other police officer. I know this. The days you spend at the schools I don't worry as much when you leave as the others, but I still worry. School kids can be scary these days."

He chuckled at that.

"There's a reason you and Randy are requested by other police departments, ones that have their own K-9 units but need additional manpower. Not only are you good at your job, both of you, but you're a good team. That's because you're loyal to one another. As much as I hate to think it, I know you'd take a bullet for him just as soon as he'd take one for you. That's more than most people can say about their partners."

"I know all of this, Princess."

"I'm just reminding you of what you have. Everything you've accomplished on your own, through your own hard work. You have one-up on Vernon and have for years. You like what you do. He's a miserable old man now who's hated his job probably for as long as he's been doing it. That's his problem, not yours. You're just one of the people he elected to take his misery out on because you were an easy and vulnerable target. He knew your parents weren't going to do shit to him."

"Like I told my parents…"

"And you just made my point for me."

"Yeah, I guess I did."

"I love you."

"Thank you."

She reached in, kissing him.

"Do I have to remind you how much fun it is being married to me?"

"Uh, no, the evidence of that is at home waiting for us to get back."

"We weren't married when she happened."

He chuckled softly, kissing her again.

"Come on. Brian will be here, likely others who know you will be, too. Not only are you not that guy anymore, John, they're not those same kids we went to school with."

"Some are."

"You're right. Some are. I haven't talked to them in years either because of it."

"All right. I just, fuck. If he's talking to me that way after this long…"

"I know. I mean, I don't, not really because I only saw it that one day. I know he wasn't fair or nice to you. I know he rode you harder than most anyone else. No one else is going to do that."

"I want to believe you know what you're talking about."

"Let's go get something to drink."

"Best words out of your mouth yet."

"And in case I forget to mention it later, thank you for coming with me."

"I wouldn't let you come without me."

"You gave Bryce money for pizza, didn't you?"

"Yup," he said.

"Enough for all of them?"

"Yes," he said with a shake of his head.

"Including Caitlyn?"

John chuckled softly.

"Don't you dare tell him I told you! He trusts me and thinks he can confide in me about things."

"I'm not going to tell him anything, but I know she's going to be there."

"And you're all right with that?"

"He hasn't seen Kyle since he got back from school so I know his first instinct isn't going to go off with her when he just saw her like three weeks ago. Besides Kyle's not going to let him go up to a bedroom with her."

"Valid point. You do remember he could get into just as much trouble with her elsewhere in your house, right? Remember when we first started dating?"

"I do," she said, and she didn't even blush at the admission.

"I don't think they're having sex yet anyway."

"I hope not! They haven't been dating that long."

"Relax. I didn't say that to get you all worried, I was just saying from what he's said I don't think they're there yet. He hasn't said so, I'm not sure he would say that to me. He'd probably talk to Kyle. I sure hope if he does that Kyle passes on to him what I told him. Regardless. They will or they won't. You can't stop them."

"I know that."

"Look, there's Andy. Let's stop talking about the kids – all of them - for a while and enjoy being amongst adults even if it is these adults."

"Very funny."

"I know, right?"

He dropped his hand into hers as they walked further into the room.

"And, Princess?"


"Thanks for dragging me along. Only for you and because I love you to the depths of the ocean and back that I'm here."

"Anytime. And I know."

"I guess there's one thing I can be grateful for about tonight, besides everyone knowing I'm the luckiest guy in our class that is."

"Oh wow. This must be good. What?"

"There will be no thirtieth reunion."

~The End~

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