That day seemed like yesterday as much as it did a distant memory or a figment of her imagination. She and Andy had remained friends afterward. That was a given. He had surprised her by staying with Allison. With their help Allison had gone from social outcast to the in-group fairly quickly. It helped her boyfriend was an all-state wrestler. They had gotten married after college. Claire had been a bridesmaid. They had three children. Their oldest was just like Andy, the other two more like their mother.
She had tried to talk to Brian after that day, but they were on such different levels it was forced. She was not dumb, but talking to him always made her feel as if she was. Eventually, she had stopped trying and so had he. They continued to smile or wave when their paths crossed but that was the extent of it. Claire had no idea what happened to him after high school. She had seen him once or twice when they were home on college break but they had not talked.
It was hard to believe it had been that long. She was looking forward to seeing the three she assumed would be there from that day. She had bonded with them and considered them friends. She doubted the fifth of their group would show up. Reunions just did not strike her as being his thing. She heard the din of voices as she stepped off the elevator and walked in the direction of the hall where the reunion was being held. Twenty years.
"Claire," said an excited voice causing her to pause.
"Mimi," Claire said walking toward the other woman. They kissed one another about an inch from actual contact of a cheek. "You look great."
"Thanks. You wouldn't believe what this dress cost me, but it was worth it. You look marvelous. It must be nice to know the designer."
"Thanks. And, yes, it has its advantages." Claire had taken great care in designing and making her dress for tonight. It was formal but not too flashy. Her plan was to look tastefully stunning yet low key at the same time. The emerald green went well with her red hair and the satin felt glorious against her creamy white skin. She took to the Victorian ways of wearing gloves and a hat when she was in the sun for any length of time. This meant she had no freckles or sun spots to speak of. It was something she took pride in. "So, who else is here?"
"I just got here myself. I turned around from checking my coat and there you were."
"Here I am," she said with a roll of her eyes. Just her luck. Claire scanned the crowd for other familiar faces as she spoke with Mimi. She reached for the diamond stud but dropped her hand once she realized what she was doing. Claire Standish had always been together. She would not let anyone see a different side of her tonight.
"Oh look, there's Patsy Balburg. Can you believe how much weight she's gained? She really let herself go once she got married. She doesn't work and her children are all school age now so she has nothing to do all day. You can tell, too. There's nothing left of the cheerleader."
Claire looked in the general direction with a roll of her eyes. "That's too bad," she said simply. Were people really still this shallow? Twenty years had passed, surely Mimi did not expect everyone to look the same as they had on graduation day.
"Claire. Is it really you? I wasn't sure you'd come."
Claire turned in the direction of the voice more than grateful for the distraction. She was not going to get into a discussion that involved tearing people down.
"Allison, is that you?"
"How are you?"
The dark hair that had been a disheveled mess the day they met was cut in a cute style that framed her round face. Gone were the dark eyeliner and the style that indicated Allison had been on the cutting edge of gothic before it was an accepted lifestyle.
"I'm great. Where's Andy?"
"He'll be here later. He had a meet."
"He's still coaching?"
"Yes. High school. A college down in Carbondale is looking at him now. He went down for an interview last week. They said they'd get back to him. We'll see."
"That would be great for him. Southern Illinois isn't huge but it's a step to a bigger college."
"Have you seen John?"
Her heart skipped a beat. "He's here?" Allison smiled and Claire thought the other woman knew something she was not supposed to.
"No, but I think he's going to be."
"How do you know?"
"I was on the planning committee. I have to do something with my time while Andy's coaching and encouraging and training. He was contacted and I think he indicated he might come. Can I catch up with you later? I have to go do some of my hostess duties right now."
"Take your time. I'm going to get a drink and see who else is here." Claire walked toward the bar. She stopped to say hi to a few people along the way. Everyone wanted to know what the former homecoming and prom queen of their class was doing. She was not that into talking about herself. That had not always been the case. She had loved hearing herself talk and she had been her favorite topic once upon a time.
For dinner she sat at a table with her lifelong friend and her husband along with four others from their class. Claire returned to the bar once the meal was done to freshen her wine. She took her glass of white wine and moved to stand against a wall. She enjoyed watching people and tonight was ideal for such a hobby. There were a few people she could not place, but in a class as large as theirs had been that was not unusual. Mostly, though, she at least recognized whoever she was looking at. The band was warming up and the dinner music stopped.
Her gaze fell on a man not too far from her. She did a double take as recognition sunk in. Brian. Saying he had changed was an understatement. Gone was the geeky looking skinny guy. He was attractive. She was not the only one to take notice either. He spotted her and smiled. His smile was the same as it was that day so long ago. Shy and sincere. She wondered what he was doing now. She had read his name in a magazine somewhere, but could not remember what magazine or why he had been mentioned.
His eyes darted around the room as he talked with someone. She wondered if he knew how many heads turned to watch him. How many of the women watching him recognized or remembered him? "Hypocrites," she whispered to herself. Not that she was much better. But she at least liked Brian after that day. She respected him and knew he was not that much different than she was. No one was.
"It's either no kids or the best example of liposuction I've ever seen."
Years of practice at remaining composed and keeping her face blank aided her in that moment. Her instincts would have been to walk away. Or fall into his arms. She did neither. She took a casual sip of her wine and turned to face him.
"Do you really expect me to answer that?"
How had she missed him entering the room? It was crowded and all, but she should have noticed. He towered over most of the men present. His hair was still worn long and was pulled back in a ponytail tonight. He appeared comfortable in the suit he was wearing. And it looked good on him. She had an eye for fashion and this was not an off the rack suit.
"As if any woman would be honest about it." He was not shy about letting his eyes travel the length of her body. The dress hugged her curves, the décolleté was daringly low so he had a good view of everything she had to offer. She hated to admit it but she had designed the dress with just this in mind. She was not entirely sure what she was offering. If he thought she would blush or turn away embarrassed he was sorely mistaken. "I know the answer anyway," he said his eyes looking at her so intently she just about turned away.
He was the only person to be able to see through the image she presented to the world. She smiled and took another sip. No one had gotten under her skin like John Bender before or since that day. She was glad to know he still could. "You only wish you knew the answer. So, are you the reason Brian walked away? He's not the scrawny geek he used to be. I'm not so sure you could have scared him off."
A brow arched. He was curious and puzzled. At least she thought she saw both emotions on his face. How well did she know him anyway? They shared an intense make-out session back in high school. There had been many times over the years she had thought herself foolish for dwelling on it. On him. Let him think she wanted to talk to Brian instead of him.
It was not as if she had been crazily infatuated in him forsaking all others for the past twenty years. She had dated, seriously even. She had never found a guy she wanted to marry. The longer she stayed single the pickier she seemed to some. And there in the back of her mind was the question "what if?". What if she had been brave enough to do what Andy had done with Allison? What if she had gone with her heart?
Andy and Allison had overcome the obstacles of being from different social structures in high school. Allison's home life had not been like John's, though. She still remembered the cigar-sized scars on his forearms. She noticed after that day that he always wore a long sleeved shirt. It might have been unbuttoned with a T-shirt underneath it, but she never saw his arms exposed.
She never told anyone and was sure the others had not either. There was nothing to be gained by gossiping about John Bender anyway. No one cared. Except Claire. She cared and had hated that fact.
"I didn't need to scare him off. I think he knew better."
His eyes traveled across her face. She licked her lips as his eyes drifted to her mouth. In anticipation? It had been some time since she felt so scrutinized. It was her own fault that was the case. She did not let people get close to her. She did not have the time. She knew the instant he noticed the earring. She was confident he had seen it before but had probably not paid attention until now.
"He doesn't have anything worth saying to you anyway."
"And I suppose you do?"
"I can think of a few things worth saying."
She took a deep breath and dropped her eyes to the glass she held. The glass was shaking and it took her a moment to realize her hands were trembling. She closed her eyes and forced herself to regain her composure. She was not an eighteen year old girl. She owned an international company, a villa in Italy and property in Manhattan. She was not going to be humbled by a man.
"Can you?" Her voice sounded breathy and foreign to her. Was that really her talking?
"A few things."
"I'm not sure here would be appropriate."
She snapped out of whatever spell he had cast. "How dare you."
"How do you know I'm not married?"
"Because I know Miss Claire Standish of Standish Designs International, Incorporated. It's hard not to keep up with the life of the woman touted as the next Gloria Vanderbilt."
"I hated that article."
"I suspected you might have."
She stared at him. Impolite as she knew it was she could not help it. How did he know her so well? Even today to know how she would react to an article written about her only a few months ago.
"I was impressed."
"You sound surprised."
"I didn't think much would impress you."
"You have always impressed me." He placed one hand against the wall beside her head, bringing him in closer. She blushed then and looked away, hoping to hide the fact. "So, why haven't you married?"
"Never met the right person. Too busy to take the time to really try."
"You're not married?"
"No. I thought about it once, came close, but she wasn't the girl for me."
He smiled then. She saw kindness in his eyes. Understanding. She had worked hard to get to where she was today. She was CEO of her own successful company. Yes, her parents had helped her initially by giving her the capital she needed to get started. She had paid them back years ago. She had a reputation for being hard to work for but fair.
She did not expect anything from someone who worked for her she would not do herself. There had been times she questioned a design and had sat down at a sewing machine to put together a toile herself. She loved to sew and there were days she missed being able to create things like she did in college. It was why making the gown for tonight had been so exciting. It was one of a kind, a mish mash of ideas that had been bouncing around in her head. It would never sell, but she was not here to close a deal. Not when it came to the gown anyway.
He stepped closer having maintained an acceptable distance before now. His free hand slid to her waist. His hand was warm against her hip. There was something comforting about his touch. He tugged her closer and her hand automatically went to his chest. Her fingertips toyed with the tip of the folded handkerchief in his suit coat pocket.
"You smell terrific."
"Thank you," she said softly. She looked up into his eyes as he leaned closer. He would probably be disappointed to learn she wore basic every day Chanel. It was her favorite. Not overpowering, classic, timeless. "You do, too."
What was she doing? She had taken a hotel room for the night when her parents' house was less than an hour's drive away. So her mind had not been entirely lily white when she imagined tonight and its possible outcomes. She never imagined he would really show up. She had not believed that he would be single and come onto her this way. She had not been certain he would remember or acknowledge her.
"Do you work?" She closed her eyes regretting the question immediately.
He nodded his head and sported a sardonic smile that she recognized. He watched her intently. "I'm not a bum if that's what you're asking. And I'm not looking to acquire a sugar mommy if that's your next question."
"I don't guess you need one of those."
He gave her a cocky smile and laughed lightly. "Not hardly. Though I don't imagine you've lacked for companionship either."
Dare she tell him the truth? That it had been years since she had been involved with anyone seriously. It was a combination of her choice not to get involved and the lack of appealing men. The past couple of years had been extremely difficult on her private life. Her company began getting a lot of publicity. The beautiful and single CEO and President was in the limelight. She was attractive, rich, savvy, and very single. Those things made it difficult for Claire to determine if a man was interested in her or any number of things that could come from dating or marrying Claire Standish.
"I'm here alone, aren't I?" She decided on the safe yet telling enough response.
"So you are. The Prom queen has gone stag. Does that mean you don't have a date to take top honors on your dance card?"
"I'm afraid not."
"You do now."
"I really wasn't in the mood to dance."
"They will expect you to dance, Princess. You were the prom queen after all."
"I suppose you're right." She wanted to dance with him. She glanced over his shoulder. No one seemed to pay them much attention. There were a few glances here and there, but they were the curious glances she saw on everyone's face as they looked around the room hoping to see a familiar face.
"Thinking about the likelihood of you dancing with John Bender?"
"I'd say the odds until tonight were quite low."
"Why is that, I wonder, Princess?"
"You never asked," she replied sharply. The defensive tone in her voice was not good. She could not let him get to her.
"And if I had you would have said no. You would have been more polite about it than you might have been to another guy. I'm sure you and your homecoming court friends would have gotten a good chuckle out of the burn out thinking he stood a chance with the likes of one of you."
"That's not true. You don't know that."
"I knew enough to know that you were way out of my league."
"Only because you wanted to be." She sighed in frustration. He chose the image he wanted to present and stuck with it. She had not made that decision for him. There were abused kids who were popular and did not live the life of a recluse. "This is getting us nowhere. It was twenty years ago. What is the use talking about it like we could go back and change it?"
"Would you want to?"
"Go back and change it?"
"I don't know. Would you have been a jerk like you are now?"
"Princess, I'm not being a jerk. I'm making you think. We're not in high school anymore."
"That's exactly my point. Can't we behave like two adults without worrying about whether or not I would have gone on a date with you then? Besides, if you had really wanted to go out with me you would have asked."
"You could have asked."
"Girls don't ask guys out."
"I wasn't one to chase girls, particularly the ones I didn't think I stood a chance with. You didn't seem too stuck in that traditional outlook when you came to the storage closet."
"I liked you, okay? You got under my skin. No one had ever done that before."
"Do you regret it?"
"What? No," she said exasperated. "Of course not," she said, her tone softening. "It was one of the few things I look back on with no regrets."
He nodded and his brow furrowed slightly. "Me, too," he said finally.
She let out a breath and met his gaze. She offered him a smile as she took a sip of her wine. She hoped they were done rehashing the past.
"So what do you do? You haven't mentioned it."
She nodded. That suited him. But what he was wearing did not. She knew construction workers could make good money, especially ones who specialized in something. Everything he wore tonight, the suit, tie, even his shoes, screamed money.
"Something tells me there's more to it than that."
"You're nothing if you're not perceptive, Princess."
"Would you stop calling me that?"
"Anything you want." Her eyes widened and he tilted his head back with a raucous laugh. "The princess has a dirty mind. You're not so pristine after all. I take it back." The words were a whispered caress. The back of his hand skimmed her cheek. His thumb grazed the diamond earring. Her eyes fell closed at his touch. His hands were rough, the hands of someone who used them every day.
"I do not. You know what I do. Is it such a problem for you that I know what you do?"
"I'm a foreman, Claire. But I'm just a construction worker. I've been doing it for twenty years with the same company. As soon as I got my diploma I left. I taught myself how to run the heavy equipment and worked my way up. Soon the boss trusted me, started giving me extra work. And here I am."
"Is that going to be a problem for you?"
"Of course not. Why would you say that?"
"If you want someone more acceptable to dance with you I'm not going to waste my time. I hear Brian makes good money and he's single. Divorced, but single."
"He's divorced?" she asked, her eyes seeking Brian out of the crowded room.
"I think he was too focused on his computer business and quit paying attention to his wife."
"How do you know this?"
"Not all of us moved to New York. Some of us have remained right here. Or is it Italy? I lost track."
"I never pictured you and Brian buddies."
"We're not. I ran into him one night when the divorce was happening. We went out for cheeseburgers, chips and Cokes at Billy Goat's."
"That sounds delicious."
"I doubt you eat too many cheeseburgers, Princess. Not and stay looking like that."
"I have good metabolism."
"If you say so."
"It's probably better than what we had here tonight."
"Now that I agree with, Princess."
She rolled her eyes. As long as he knew it got a rise out of her he was going to continue calling her by the pet name. She was better off just letting it go. The lead singer moved to the microphone and the lights dimmed.
"So are we dancing or not?"
"Do you still want to?"
"Yes, I don't think I ever said I wouldn't."
"You never actually said yes so I was making sure." He moved aside, letting her step away from the wall and set her wineglass down. He placed a hand at the small of her back as they walked toward the dance. She looked at him with her peripheral vision. If he was expecting her to tell him to move his hand he was wrong.
As progressive as she was thought to be Claire did not mind a man opening her door for her, pulling out her chair, or escorting her to the dinner table. These were things that had been driven into her from the time she could walk. If not before. Manners, etiquette. All these things were a sign someone had manners. She wondered where and when John learned his.
"Is that one of your designs?"
"Well, yes and no. It's sort of a mutt."
"It looks nice on you."
"Thank you. I took ideas from different things and put them together. It was a whim."
"You sound like you enjoy it."
"I can't imagine doing anything else. I guess all those things my mother taught me paid off."
He drew her closer still so that their bodies were flush. Her breath caught as his mouth rested just above her ear. "I'm more interested in learning about the things your mother didn't teach you."
"I'm not sure there is much Mother didn't teach me," she whispered. She knew what he meant but let the comment go.
She needed to stop asking questions and worrying about things that did not matter. Her head rested against John's chest and she sighed softly. He towered over her but instead of being intimidating she took advantage of being able to hear the sound of his heart beating as they danced to the band's version of "Fools Rush In".
"Tell me about yourself," she said.
"What do you want to know?"
"Well, I left home after high school graduation. A few years later Mom died."
"Thanks, but it's okay. She had been dead for years. It was just a matter of her body joining her soul."
She lifted her head from its comfortable place against his chest. "Was it bad?"
"Yeah," he said sincerely. She was glad she was looking at him. His response was a simple one but she could see in his eyes it was more complex than that.
"Did she suffer?"
"I don't think so. Not the day she died anyway. I don't think he ever let her forget I left her, though."
"What could you have done?"
"I ask myself that every day. There was nothing I could have done. I lived in parks for a while, sleeping on a park bench until the cops caught on and hustled me out with a threat to arrest me. Jail would have been a godsend, I thought so at the time anyway. At least I'd have a warm bed and food in my stomach. They never arrested me, though, and I knew I couldn't go down that path. I had to prove to him I could amount to something. I always intended to go back for her. By the time I was making enough to afford more than a hole in the wall studio apartment she was gone."
He looked past her now, through her. They were not even really dancing anymore, just clinging to one another as he spoke of things that probably still haunted him.
"You did what you had to do. She would like to know you're here now. That you leaving led to you amounting to something. Is he still around?"
"I think so. I drive past the house every once in a while. It's still there, hasn't changed since the day I left. Only more downtrodden and disgusting to look at. I haven't done it in a few years."
"So, how did you find the construction job?"
"One of the cops actually. He had hassled me more than once and I guess saw something in me besides an eighteen year old bum living on Chicago park benches. He had a brother. He said he saw something in me he liked. I thought he was being a pervert at the time." He laughed with a shake of his head. She could tell that he was no longer here in the banquet hall but back in that moment, reliving it. "He hauled me away in his car and I remember thinking there wasn't a damned thing I could do to stop him. I had no home to go back to. There were only a few things that he could have done I hadn't already experienced. I was already dead on the inside anyway. The brother gave me a job. Grunt work. I got the crew coffee, danishes, lunch, called home to tell the wives they were running late. I hated it but loved it at the same time. The man didn't know me and yet gave me a chance. He knew how his brother had found me. I'd never had anyone believe in me until then."
"I did," she whispered.
"Yeah, you did," he whispered in return. He placed his index finger under her chin and tilted her face up. She was not sure she could remember seeing such raw emotion in a man's eyes before. His eyes closed and she thought he was shutting her out. Until he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her.
She sighed softly, her lips parted in welcome and acceptance. He took advantage and slid his tongue into the warmth of her mouth, grazing her lower lip with it.
He tasted of coffee and peppermint. An interesting combination. He drew her closer and she felt his body – all of it – hard against hers. Her arms slid around his neck, drawing him deeper into the kiss. The band had moved on from the ballad she and John had started out dancing to onto something fast but she did not care. They clung to one another as if they were one another's life vests. Their tongues met in a dance older than time until they had to take a breath.
"I think I need to get out of here," she said softly.
He escorted her to the hallway where she went to the ladies' room and got a drink of water. She ran a paper towel under cold water and patted her forehead and face with it. She was not sure anything was going to cool her mind off. His kisses promised so much more.
She recalled what it had been like to kiss John in the storage closet. She had never kissed anyone like that before. Truthfully, she had never really kissed anyone before then. He had been at least slightly accurate in his assessment of her. She had never thought of herself as a tease but she kept guys at arm's length. She had kissed boyfriends, but not like she had kissed John that day.
"You two look cozy."
John slid an arm around her when she approached him just as he was finishing a conversation with someone. She wondered who he knew here tonight. She could not recall who his friends had been.
"Yes, well, John's had too much to drink I think," she said glancing at him. He blew her a kiss and she felt herself blush. What in the hell was she doing getting bothered? They were doing nothing wrong. There had been an attraction between them twenty years ago and it was still there today. They were responsible adults, both in a position to act on that attraction without worrying about complications. They would not be the first or the last to rekindle a romance at a class reunion. They were not rekindling more like initiating but she was trying not to think past tonight.
"I'm perfectly sober, Princess. Did you want me to be drunk?"
"No, of course not."
"I think the lady doth protest too much."
"I think you might be right." His friend's cell phone rang and he pulled it from the waistband of his slacks. "Excuse me," he said and walked away.
She took hold of his hand resting at her shoulder and kissed the back of it as she turned to face him. "Hi," she whispered.
"You don't really think I want you drunk?"
He nodded his head and she started to protest, but his definitive "no," stopped her. "I don't drink anyway."
She nodded in silent understanding. He did not need to explain further and she was not going to ask him to talk about more painful topics tonight. She glanced toward the room and sighed. "I really don't feel like going back in there."
"Then don't. Who says you have to?"
"No one I guess."
"You've already got your honorary crown," he said. She reached for the tiara on her head. Jason Thielen has been her king and they were reunited on the dance floor for the first – and last – time since Prom.
"Yes. Just what every girl wants."
"I always thought they did. A diamond tiara."
"Yes, because they're so practical and go with everything."
"I'm sure with your fashion know-how you could pull it off." He chuckled. "So what now, Princess?"
She nibbled on her lower lip, regarding the entrance to the room. "I have a room upstairs."
"Yeah. I didn't feel like having to worry about driving if it was too late or if I'd had one glass of wine too many." Or if I decided to take you home with me.
"Very responsible of you."
"I thought so."
"I wanted to see Andy."
"You keep in touch with them, don't you?"
"So call tomorrow and arrange to see them. Something tells me you're not crunched for time while you're here."
"You assume too much."
"I didn't mean it as an insult, Princess. I just meant that I'm sure you're company is running fine without you and an extra day to tend to things won't hurt."
"You're probably right," she said placing her clutch evening purse under her arm. "Would you care for a nightcap? I've got some wine in my minibar as well as the little bottles they charge an arm and a leg for."
"I thought you'd never ask."
"Me, too," she whispered and walked in the direction of the elevator that would take them to her room.
"By the way, I bet I do know what every girl does want."
"What's that? And please don't make it disgusting." She pushed the UP button and waited for the elevator to arrive.
He laughed lightly and reached into his pocket. He pulled his hand out in a fist, palm down. "Wanna guess?"
"I couldn't even begin to." He turned his hand up, opened the fist and Claire got tears in her eyes. "You kept it?"
"I kept it," he said taking the mate to her diamond earring between his thumb and index finger. He held it up to the light and they both looked at it before their gazes closed in on one another. "I thought about pawning it, but no one had ever given me anything like this before. So I decided to keep it around. A reminder of better times."
She reached up and kissed him. "I'm glad you did."
They stepped into the elevator and Claire pushed the button that would lead to their floor. Briefly she thought on the fact she had not said good bye to anyone. They would figure it out. She watched as John shed his suit coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves a bit, draping the jacket over his shoulder.
She could not help but stare. The scars were still there. They were not as bad looking as they had been. Or maybe she just remembered them looking worse than they actually did. But there were so many of them. The intake of breath she took gave way to what she was thinking and she lowered her gaze to her feet.
"Don't be. I've got plenty more."
"It's none of my business."
"Princess," he said backing her into the wall of the elevator, an arm going around her waist. "I suspect you're going to be seeing a lot more than the scars on my arms tonight."
She blushed again, though her gaze did not waver from his. "Yes," she said boldly. There was no question now as to what or why she had invited him back to her room.
He brought both hands in front of her face, pulling the earring's back from the post. He slid it into her ear, fastening it. "Together at last," he whispered as he leaned into kiss her.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com