He wasn't sure who'd been bummed out more about Claire going back to her place, Lizzie or him. He was pretty sure his sister had gotten more than a little attached and used to having her there, too. Not to mention she was someone at least one of her friends was envious about Lizzie not just knowing but being on a first name basis with.
He left her alone for a couple of weeks. He knew she was legitimately busy with deadlines, but regardless of what she said he wasn't going to just leave her alone entirely. He couldn't do that. Well, he could, sure, but he didn't want to. Instead he wanted to prove to her somehow that it could work even if she was busy.
He showed up at her office today. Office was an understatement. He'd never really looked around before to see how much equipment and room she had. He supposed she needed it. She had people working for her now where a little over a month ago it was just her with a temporary employee paid to come in and do some of her office work a few hours a week.
He hadn't called first because he knew she'd have told him no. He had no idea what the woman's name was sitting at the reception area. From what Claire said the temp agency didn't always send the same person over every week. There was one she preferred he recalled her saying, but sometimes she went out on longer-term jobs. He imagined she probably needed someone out here, answering phones all of the time now. An answering service was fine, but he didn't see Claire letting an answering service field her calls when she was dealing with the company she was.
"Hi. I'm looking for Claire," he said.
"Can I say who's here to see her?"
"Yeah, sure, John Bender," he said.
She picked up the phone, punched a button or two, and spoke into the phone.
"Follow me," she said, eyeing John curiously. He clearly wasn't someone who belonged here from the standpoint of being one of her employees, a supplier, or anything like that. Perhaps she was curious about the bag he held. Who could tell?
"John," she said when the woman showed him into Claire's office.
"Hey," he said. "I thought you might be interested in some lunch."
"I shouldn't," she said, eyeing the bag. "Is that?"
"It is," he said, holding up the bag in question. He knew which Chinese place she loved near her office. She'd told him when they'd come down here and was talking about what all was in the area.
"Oh my God."
"I won't overstay my welcome, I promise. I figure we can eat, talk a little, and when you're done and ready for me to go I'll leave."
"Let me get some plates," she said.
He set the bag down, walking to the doorway to watch her as she went to the small kitchen area for plates. He enjoyed watching her do most anything. That had always been the case, and the reason he knew today just as well as he did years ago that he was pretty gone when it came to her.
"What?" she asked when she came back into the office.
"You have that slept-in look again."
"Yeah, I haven't been home yet."
"I will later, I swear. I'm just trying to get a little ahead."
"Is it working?" he asked.
He opened the large, heavy-duty brown paper sack that held their food. He pulled out the containers, setting hers nearest her spot on the table. She wasn't going to eat at her desk today and that was good as far as John was concerned.
"I'm not sure yet."
"You have people here today."
"I know, right? I have a staff. Like a full-time staff. I have payroll. It's crazy."
"You love it."
"I do," she admitted.
"Are things going well besides the uncertainty about getting ahead?"
"Yes. I haven't forgotten about Lizzie. I swear. If that's why you're here. I was going to see if she was free this weekend."
"That's not why I'm here. I told her you still intended to work with her on whatever you two had arranged and everything. She was admittedly a bit unhappy, but she understands. She said something about going to Field's with you in the spring. I don't know what that was about."
Claire laughed as she portioned out some food onto her plate, taking an egg roll, too. "She wants to me to point out what's mine."
"Oh, is that what she was talking about? I don't understand it I admit. Sorry."
"It's okay. I understand it wouldn't interest you."
"Everything about you interests me. Whenever you take her I'd go, too."
"Shut up," she said.
"It's your stuff. Isn't that what people do for one another? Support them when they've had successes?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Yeah, I'm not too up on it either, but it seems to me that should be the case if it's not."
"John," she said.
He held up his hand.
"Don't. Okay. Just don't. I'm not asking you for anything. Lunch. That's what we're having. We're talking. You had to know I wasn't just going to let you walk out my door."
"I figured I'd start with this, let you see that I can abide by your time restrictions."
"You shouldn't have to."
"Oh, I know I shouldn't have to. You shouldn't have to deal with wondering if when I leave for a shift one day I won't come back either. It's what people do who love one another, Claire."
"You had to bring that up. I hate the thought of it and I was only there for a couple of months. I don't know how Lizzie deals with it."
"Trust me, I'm very careful because she has nowhere else to go, but things do happen. I'm not sure she's really thought on it that hard. The possibilities, I mean."
"She's not dumb."
"I know, but she's eleven. She probably doesn't really think of the danger involved in my job."
"How is she?"
"She's good. She misses you."
"I miss her, too. She's fun. I haven't had anyone to just sit and doodle silly designs with since, God, high school maybe."
"I miss you, too."
"Me, too," she admitted.
"Tough to admit?"
"It's just so unfair to you."
"Life isn't fair or easy, Princess. So, whenever that happens. Your stuff is in the stores, include me."
"All right," she said. "This is delicious. Thank you."
"When was the last time you ate anything?"
"I had a yogurt," she glanced at the clock on her wall. "Like eight hours ago."
"Claire, you're not going to do yourself, these people you're paying, or Marshall Field's any good if you get sick or worse end up in the hospital."
"I know. I swear, once I feel comfortable I will slow down."
"Somehow I don't see that, but you need to do it."
"How are things with the case?" she asked.
He shrugged. "His attorney is being a dick. He's trying to pick apart Sophie's identification of him. He doesn't seem as concerned with you for some reason."
"Probably because beating me up doesn't carry as severe of a charge as rape."
"Well, attempted murder is pretty steep a charge, too, but you're probably right. I'm glad Sophie's all right, by the way."
"Me, too. Thank you for telling me to talk to her about that stuff."
"I'm glad they caught everything in time."
"Me, too," she said. "Your partner would never have said anything, right?"
"Nope," John said. "I wasn't supposed to either. Remember? I told you that. It violates their right to privacy or some absolutely stupid shit that makes no sense to me, but I have to follow procedure and the law same as everyone else. I just had to say something."
"Because you thought maybe I might have been …"
"Because she's your friend and I knew you'd never forgive me if I knew and she got real sick or couldn't have kids or something because of it. And because I wasn't one hundred percent sure you hadn't been, too."
"I like to think I'd have understood you were doing your job."
"Yeah, well, as long as you remember that conversation never happened we're good. You were just being a good friend, pointing out something that your friend probably hadn't thought of with everything that had happened. I'm not sure his lawyer won't find it odd that Sophie went to the doctor two months later or not." he shrugged. "So, I bet you're glad you've been paying the rent on this space now."
"Yes," she laughed. "It's still pretty small, but it's better than no space at all."
"You'll make it work."
"I hope so."
"You'll do fine, I know you will. You've worked hard and I've never known you to fail."
"Thank you. And thank you for lunch."
"You're welcome. It was okay?"
"It was delicious."
"Not the food. I meant me just showing up here."
"Yes, it was okay," she admitted.
"I'm not going anywhere, you know that, right? This isn't then. I'm not going to walk away from you or let you go over a job."
"I just, it's so unfair to you."
"You say that, but isn't it up to me to decide what's fair and not fair to me? You've been honest with me about your schedule and when you're available. So, it's not fair to me. To what? See you for dinner once in a while? It's better than not seeing you."
"Yes, but before I left we…"
"Yeah, okay, sure I miss that, but that's not the only reason I want to spend time with you. If it does or doesn't happen again for a while, I'd rather have time like this."
"You would huh?"
"Well, I mean, ideally? I'd love both, sure. I'm not an idiot. We also probably wouldn't have had sex if you weren't staying at my house, so I can step back and let things progress normally."
"Why do you want to? There are other women out there who'd probably be available every day for hours every day."
"Maybe there are. I don't want them and I don't need hours every day from you. I got by just fine in my life without you in it, finding things to do while you're busy doing your thing here will not be a hardship. I still have work to do on the basement."
"And that came out wrong. I didn't mean it like that, I'm just saying it's not as if I have nothing to keep me busy when you're busy. I have plenty, but none of my stuff comes with a deadline, so if I get to have dinner with you whatever it is I had planned can wait."
"I knew what you meant."
"Today was just a test sort of, to prove to you that I could see you for a while without monopolizing your time or interfering with your work."
"You need to eat, Claire. So don't feed me a line about how I did interrupt your day. Had you asked me to leave I would have left the food and left."
"So, maybe Friday night if you call me and let me know you're working late I can bring something again."
"Yeah. You know if you wanted to."
"I think I'd like that."
"I could bring Lizzie with me since you mentioned talking to her this weekend."
"No, I'll call her and come out to get her."
"What if I brought her and we crashed at your place Friday night."
"I don't know if I'll be home."
"Yeah, I got that. She'd be downtown then at least, save you a trip out there."
"That's too much."
"I get dinner with you and maybe breakfast, too. Lizzie gets to see you. I can't see why that's too much. Maybe you'll even go home Friday night and sleep."
"You just want me to sleep with you."
"I'd love for you to sleep with me every night, but for now I'd settle for just seeing you."
"If I came home Friday night what would you tell Lizzie?"
"You only have two bedrooms. I think logic would dictate I'd sleep with you unless you delegated me to the couch."
"No, I wouldn't, I wasn't sure what you'd say to her, though."
"Well, I think I can behave myself for a night with you so we could leave your door open. I've sort of had the birds and the bees talk with her because she's at that age. "
Claire laughed softly.
"I think I might have paid lots of money to hear that conversation."
"Yeah, talk about out of my element. And as much as I would have liked to I couldn't rely on one of her friends' mom's to do it for me."
"You're not sure how she'd react, I take it."
"You know, I don't know. She likes you and she knows I like you, but I'm not sure she's thought through what it could potentially mean. I thought about talking to her about it while you were gone."
"I'll bet you're glad you didn't."
"Did you really think I'd just go away?"
"It wasn't a test, was it? I mean, you do know I'm not that guy anymore, right?"
"I do, and no it wasn't a test. I'm just trying to be fair to you."
"What about being fair to yourself? You deserve to do more than just work all day, every day."
"In a few months I can think about that."
"Okay, so for the next few months we do this. I bring you lunch once in a while, maybe dinner once in a while, Lizzie and I could stay at your place one of my nights off, and maybe once in a while I can talk you into leaving your office here and stepping outside like a human being for a while to a movie or even just a walk."
"And you're okay with that?"
"It beats the alternative, which is you not in my life. Again."
"I still think it's not fair."
"Let me worry about what's fair and not for me. Besides didn't you mention you're going to have parties, dinners, and stuff like that to go to?"
"Yes," she said. She eyed the Chinese takeout container, but pushed her plate aside so she was obviously done. There was enough left between his and hers that she'd have at least one more meal. Most likely she'd get two more out of the leftovers. He'd ordered something she liked, too, knowing he was going to let her have the leftovers.
"Well, don't you like need an escort?"
"You want to go to parties with me?"
"And again, isn't that what people involved do for one another?"
"I guess it is. I just wouldn't have thought you'd want to. You'd have to wear a tuxedo or a suit might be acceptable for some things."
"I own a few suits, probably not as nice as what you're talking about but I can fix that. And, hey, I have an in with someone who has an eye for fashion so you can be sure I won't show up looking like a bum or in a blue Armani."
She laughed softly. "Steve Martin was funny in that."
"He was," John agreed. "Then Steve Martin is funny in just about anything."
He helped her close up the containers of food and rice, placing them back in the bag. She had a refrigerator in her little kitchen area. He knew that because she'd told him when they came here to pick up her stuff before.
"You know I still look at my dining room and wonder what in the hell I'm going to do with the table and all of that room now."
"I did kind of take over and make a mess, didn't I?"
"You're welcome to make a mess there anytime. As you saw, Lizzie and I aren't hosting dinner parties very often."
"What about your friend? Your old partner?"
"Pete? Sure, but we don't usually use the dining room table. I honestly am not entirely sure why I bought it, other than I had a dining room it seemed logical to put a table in there. Something normal, you know?"
"Your parents didn't have a dining room table?"
He scoffed. "My parents wouldn't have known what a table was for. Their laps were their table for so long I don't even remember ever sitting down to dinner with them."
"I'm glad you do it with Liz."
"Me, too. It's important, I think," he shrugged. "During the summer it isn't such an issue, but now that she's back in school sometimes breakfast or dinner is the only real time we have to see each other. We don't always talk, sometimes we just eat and go on to do our thing. She knows I'm available, though, and that's crucial."
"It's important for you, too. You need interaction with more than just your employees and clients."
"I could maybe be talked into using it if you thought you could spare a couple of hours some evening and have dinner with us."
"I'll try. Thank you for lunch, John, really. I hadn't looked at a clock since before the sun came up I don't think."
He stood when she did, carrying the bag of food while she took the plates. He set the bag in the refrigerator while she rinsed off the plates and put them in a dishwasher.
"A dishwasher? That's new, isn't it?"
"Yes. I figured it was better than people leaving coffee cups and stuff piling up in the sink."
"Especially since I'd be the one washing the dishes most likely. I hate washing them at my condo let alone here."
She reached up and kissed him lightly, surprising the hell out of him.
"Thank you again," she said.
"You're welcome again. I'll do it again tomorrow if it gets me another kiss out of the deal."
"You know you don't have to buy me lunch or dinner when you come."
"No, you're a good cook."
"Hmm, now I have to cook and bring you food?"
She laughed a little, sliding her arms around him. He did the same, letting her hug him as tight as she wanted.
"What am I going to do with you?"
"I'm not sure. Why?" he asked.
"It'd be so much easier…"
"Yeah, life isn't supposed to be easy, Princess. I figure this doesn't work between us this time it's not going to be because I walked away or was an asshole."
"But I am?"
"I didn't say that. I'm just saying that I'm not going anywhere. I'm willing to make an effort as long as you are, too. I know you're busy, but even simple things like hugging me are nice. I'm not asking you to drive out to see me every day so long as I know I'm wanted here."
"You need to talk to Lizzie," she said.
"Well, if you're going to come spend the night with me once a week I'm not going to sleep with my door open every time. I can see for a while to let her get used to it and everything."
He chuckled softly. He lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her, and found himself immensely relieved that she was kissing him back. Kissing him back like before the trip not after it, as if she wanted to kiss him.
"I'll see what I can do," he said. "Maybe I can work it out so she spends the night with Mary, Abby, or Chris one of my nights off."
"You have to talk to her, John. If we're going to do this, she needs to know. That's not fair to hide it from her."
"I know. I just dread it."
"Nothing to be sorry for. She teases me about Cynthia liking me, but I'm just not sure she's thought the whole process through of what it means if I have a girlfriend."
"Is that what I am?"
"It's what I'd like you to be, yeah. Is that a problem?"
"No, no problem."
"If I'm going to be buying suits and renting tuxes, I'd better get a girlfriend out of the deal."
"I have to…"
"Get back to work. I know. You took longer than I thought you would, honestly. I'm glad."
"I needed it, so thank you."
"I'm sorry. What was that?"
"Yeah, yeah. Don't go getting big headed about it or anything."
He slid a thumb along her lower lip. "Call me later?"
"I don't know when…"
"Oh, I don't care when. Just at some point it'd be nice to know that a thought of me crossed your mind."
"I can do that."
He lowered his mouth to hers again.
"Any thoughts for dinner on Friday?"
"I don't care."
"Okay, I'll surprise you then maybe with Lizzie's help."
"You really need to stop calling her that."
"Yeah, I know, old habits are hard to break. She's still my kid sister, you know?"
"Yes, but if you've had that talk with her she's not really a kid anymore."
"Don't remind me. I may call you one day in a panic. I've heard it can start as early as now."
"I'd help, though I'm not sure I'm going to be much better."
"Thank you. I mean, at least you're a girl, that has to be a vast improvement over my knowledge," he said very relieved at the offer.
He was glad the social workers were out of their lives now because he was pretty out of his element with pre-pubescent-close-to-pubescent girls. Well, unless you counted chasing and kissing them, but he doubted that counted for much.
"Where are you going?" he asked when she followed him out.
"Walking you to your car."
"Wow. Are you sure that's safe? Have you seen daylight recently? With your red hair and fair skin you might combust if it's been a while."
"Very funny. I did yesterday. And I will go home at some point today to shower and get some sleep. You noticed that couch in my office?"
"There's a blanket and pillow for it. I take naps there sometimes."
"Well at least you're sleeping, that's better than I figured you were doing."
She leaned up and kissed him again once they were at his car.
"Thank you again. I'm glad you came. I planned on calling when I got caught up, but I do feel better."
"I'm not sure I should be glad you feel better after you made the decision you did, but I get it."
"I'll see you Friday."
"You know where to find me at any rate," she said.
"I'll talk to you before then."
"That'd be nice. I don't expect hour long phone calls or anything."
"I know. Say hi to Liz for me."
"I will. Should I tell her we're coming here Friday or not?"
"It's up to you. If you want to surprise her that's your decision."
"I'll think on it. She would be surprised to pull up here."
"You know she could invite Abby to come along."
"If it's okay with Abby's mom any way to spend the night downtown, but I bet they'd both like to see everything now that I actually have things here going on."
"I'll see. I'm not sure how her mom would feel about that."
"Yeah, I know, she likes you."
"No, I mean, that may be, but that's not why I'm not sure. I'd have to tell her we'd be staying at your place."
"You think she'd be bothered by that?"
"I don't know. I've never asked her if I could bring her daughter to spend the night at my girlfriend's house. You realize something, though, right?"
"If Abby comes with us, you're taking Friday night off."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I'll probably need you to save my sanity."
"Oh come on, Abby comes over all of the time."
"During the day and I know she's going to go home eventually."
"Deal," she said.
"Yes. I may bring some work home with me, but you have a deal."
"I could always tell her mom I'll be sleeping on the couch."
"Abby would tell her you didn't."
"How do you know?"
"She likes you, she's going to ask where you slept."
"I suppose you're right."
"Yes, I am."
"We could both sleep on the couch."
She laughed softly, shaking her head. "I don't think so. Just let me know so I know who to expect, but I have to go."
"Thanks again for lunch. And dinner, too, I guess."
"Yeah," he said just as he was about to get into his car.
"It was good to see you."
"You, too, Princess. I'd be fine with not going two weeks without seeing you again, though."
"We'll work on it."
"That's all I can ask for."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com