John woke with a start at the sound of Lofton's barking. He was pretty familiar with all of Lofton's various needs and the barks that came with them. This one was alerting him to the fact that all was perhaps not well in the house. He tried to ignore it, but the barking wouldn't stop.
"What's wrong?" Claire asked.
"You stay in here," he said. She was barely awake enough to follow him anyway.
John grabbed the baseball bat he kept near the door leading from his bedroom. He had his weapon in a safe next to the bed, but he wasn't going to take that out. It was probably nothing, a neighbor's cat in the backyard or something. He opened the door from his bedroom cautiously just the same.
"What's wrong, boy?" he whispered.
Abby was spending the night and Lofton hadn't wanted to come to bed with him and Claire while the two of them were still awake. It was John's first experience with a sleepover. He was surprised in a way that Cynthia had agreed to it because she'd been sort of different since Lizzie got home from the hospital. He hadn't spoken to her beyond mutual hellos when he was dropping Lizzie off or something since then, but he'd sensed somehow that Abby maybe wasn't supposed to come over here so much. Maybe he was just imagining things, too.
Lofton's barks grew a little softer with John's appearance, but he wasn't letting up exactly either. John made his way through the hall, checking the doors to the garage and backyard on his way to the living room. Both were locked and secure.
John followed Lofton toward the living room where he stopped at the door leading to the basement, which was closed. He usually kept the door open so the basement wasn't quite so cold. He opened the door and frowned slightly at Lofton's unwillingness to go downstairs with him. He'd stopped barking now, though.
He made his way downstairs, heard giggling and groaned softly. Had he been barking because the girls were down here with the door closed? They didn't usually come down here because there really wasn't anything to do down here yet. Shutting the door behind them must have scared him or something. He turned around to go back upstairs until he heard a voice that wasn't Abby or Liz's.
"Finally. I thought he'd never shut up." The unfamiliar voice said. Not only was it not familiar but it was also very obviously not a girl's voice.
"Shh," Lizzie said.
"Come on. If your parents aren't awake already after their dog barking they're not going to wake up now."
So what did he do? There was someone in his house who wasn't supposed to be here. Never mind the kid had evidently snuck in, not realizing Lofton wouldn't like that at all. Lofton was a sucker for routines and anything that strayed from that bothered him, rightfully so.
It was times like this he had to remind himself that he wasn't here to be Liz or Abby's friend. He wasn't here to be anyone's friend. He was here to do the right, responsible thing. He knew when she got older it wasn't going to be easy because he'd known all kinds of types of girls growing up.
The right and responsible thing, the fatherly thing meant getting the guy out of his house who was here after eleven o'clock. Without permission and probably without his parents' knowledge either.
John walked further into the basement toward the voices, not at all sure he was ready for what he would see. They were eleven, no telling the boy was, too, he supposed. He didn't sound too much older from his voice. Then again, John remembered being interested in things at eleven he'd never admit to Claire let alone Lizzie when it came to girls.
They had one of the overhead lights on and were sitting on the floor. The boy, whoever he was because John hadn't seen him before, was holding Abby's hand. He dropped it pretty quickly when he saw John standing there holding the bat, though.
"Elizabeth," he said and she gave a loud shriek that caused Lofton to run down the stairs and start barking all over again. He flipped the rest of the lights on in the area they were sitting. He couldn't smell any smoke and while it had been quite a while since he'd smoked anything but cigarettes he remembered full well what it smelled like. There were no bottles or cans on the floor so it didn't seem like they were doing anything but sitting there. That kind of baffled him, sneaking into someone's house to do nothing seemed pretty stupid to him.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Why are you in my house at eleven o'clock at night uninvited, Tom?"
"I, well," he said.
"Yeah. That's what I thought. Let's the four of us go on upstairs and we can call your parents. Both of you."
"John," Abby said.
"No, sorry, Abby, this I can't just blow off or pretend didn't happen."
"But Mom will…"
"Be mad? Yeah, I imagine she will. I would be. In fact I am that you thought somehow it was all right to do something like this in my house."
"Oh and Tom, don't try to leave because my dog here," he said with a whistle to get Lofton to go upstairs. "He won't let you right now until I've told him to let you."
He waited for Lizzie who to this point hadn't said anything at all. She was staring at him, too. He'd like to think she was embarrassed but he wasn't getting that vibe off of her. He knew what she was like when she was embarrassed.
"Your first sleepover and you do this?" he murmured when they were on the stairs.
She didn't say anything, which he sort of expected. She was probably embarrassed at getting caught.
He called Tom's mom first. God he hated doing it, it was a conversation he wasn't at all looking forward to. It was certainly a call he'd hate to get in the middle of the night about Lizzie, but he had to.
"Mrs. Mitchell," he said. "My name's John Bender. Your son is here at my house."
"He was here seeing Liz and Abby, which would be fine ordinarily but they snuck him in."
‘He was just in bed.'
"Well, I assure you he's here now. Here," he said, handing the phone to Tom. "You talk to your mother."
"Lizzie, what were you thinking? You know Lofton would react to anything happening in here once I've gone to sleep."
"I didn't think he'd be so loud when he saw it was me!"
"You mean you left and came back?"
"We met him down the street," she said.
"Who the hell is he?"
"Abby likes him."
"So why is he in my house?"
"Won't let her date boys yet? Yeah, I think Cynthia isn't so stupid on that point. Eleven is too young. Do you know what people would say about you at school if they found out he was here in the middle of the night? And you think not having a mom legally makes you a freak. I can assure you people thinking you're sleeping around at your age would result in them thinking that, too."
Tom handed the phone back to John before Lizzie could respond, but he knew she wasn't happy with what he'd just said. She had to know, though, somewhere in the back of her mind that he spoke the truth.
"Hello," he said.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Bender. I'll be there in about ten minutes to pick him up."
"It's not your fault, ma'am, I'm sorry to have woken you."
He hung up and dialed Abby's number.
"You," he said handing the phone to Abby, "can talk to her without my saying anything first."
John was still waiting for Lizzie to say something, but she hadn't yet. Abby hadn't really yet either for that matter. Tom was standing by the door, waiting for his mom to come get him. He could tell by Abby's side of the conversation that her mom wasn't any more pleased with the situation than Tom's mom had been.
"Mom wants to know if you want her to pick me up, too. Or if I can still stay the night?" Abby said.
"It's up to your mother. If she's okay with you staying that's fine with me. The dog will be right outside your room for the rest of the night," he said.
Tom's mom showed up a few minutes after Abby had hung up with her mom. John had talked with her for a minute, reiterating that it was okay with him she stayed the night as long as it was acceptable to her. Abby had told him earlier that her sister and brother were gone for the night, too. John guessed that meant Cynthia wasn't alone tonight and didn't want Abby home until tomorrow night as planned.
"Again, I'm very sorry, Mr. Bender."
"Well, it shouldn't have. It won't happen again."
"I imagine it won't," John said. Tom hadn't been here to see Lizzie so he doubted the kid would come back here ever again, even if he was invited.
"Oh, hello Abby," she said.
"Hi, Mrs. Mitchell."
"And it suddenly makes much more sense. I hadn't heard the name Liz before tonight."
John shook his head a little. Since it was John opening and closing the door, Lofton let Tom pass without incident. It was one of the greatest things about him. He didn't let people he didn't know out of the house. So that meant someone could theoretically break into the house, but they wouldn't get out again until John came home. John was thinking at the time he'd been told about that little nuance of Lofton's that it would come in handy in case he was robbed or something. Now, though, he was thinking as Lizzie was pushing her teenaged years it wouldn't be so bad for situations like this either.
John shut and locked the door. Claire had come out of the bedroom briefly when they'd come back upstairs, but seeming to realize he had the situation under control she'd gone back to their bedroom. He couldn't blame her, he wanted nothing more than to be there, too.
"Now, you two," he said. "I don't appreciate you trying to take advantage of me. I like you, Abby, you know I do, but you can't blow me and my rules off just because I'm Liz's brother and not her dad. You had to know I'd catch you."
"No," she said.
"What would your mom do if she knew you were holding his hand?"
"Have you been holding someone's hand I need to know about?" he asked Lizzie.
"Uh huh," he said. "Somehow I don't believe you."
"You should talk you know," Lizzie said.
"I'm sorry. What?"
"You. You've been lying to me for years."
"You said our parents aren't that bad."
"I'm not sure that's what I said, Lizzie. I haven't wanted to fill your head with bad things about them, that much is true. What does that have to do with you two sneaking a boy into my house?"
"You've let me believe…"
"That they weren't evil? Yeah. So?"
He realized then for the first time in all the years it'd just been the two of them he hadn't grabbed a shirt before coming out of the bedroom.
"No, that's not right. You made me believe they, like, just didn't want us."
"I did not. I've never lied to you about why I took you from them. You said yourself not too long ago you remember being in court, the things Mrs. Schultz and I said. If I hadn't known Claire and her dad I would've taken you with me and runaway somewhere eventually."
"But you've let me think that if I was older and they contacted me I could talk to them."
"You could. I can't stop you. They're your parents."
"You think I'd want to?"
"I don't know what you'd want to do. I've been told by social workers and counselors at your school that it'd be normal to wonder who you are, where you come from."
"They hurt you."
"Well, yeah, I've never claimed they didn't."
"But I didn't know…"
"I didn't want you to know. I didn't want to fill your head with images of things you had no business thinking about. You're a kid."
"Lizzie, it doesn't change anything. I'm still your brother who just happens to legally be your dad. I had nothing to do with you being here, though, they did that. If when you're older you want to find them I wouldn't stop you. I wouldn't help you because I have to admit I think you'd be making a huge mistake, but if that's what you need to do."
"Let's go to bed, Abby," she said.
John wasn't sure if she was mad at him or what. He couldn't help but think that Tom's mom was probably wondering what his deal was, too.
He went downstairs, shutting the lights off before going back upstairs and double checking the front door. He told Lofton to lay down in front of Lizzie's door. He'd probably wander off during the night, but he knew to watch the door.
"Everything okay," Claire asked.
"Oh, just some punk sneaking into the house to see Abby."
"Yeah, I guess they even left the house, went to meet him down the street."
"Isn't she a little young?"
"Honey, not everyone was like you. You realize that, right?"
"What does that even mean?"
"It means not everyone waits until they're eighteen to kiss a guy for the first time."
"Yes, eleven. You don't even want to know what some of the girls I knew at that age would've done."
"Is Abby still here?"
"Yeah. I suspect Cynthia has plans tonight that don't involve any of her kids being in the house."
"I don't mind if she's here. She's not going to sneak him into the house twice in one night. Besides, Lofton won't let that happen twice."
"Is that why he was barking?"
"Actually, I think it's because they went into the basement and shut the door behind them. If they'd stayed in the living room or even left the basement door open I think they would've gotten away with it."
"You didn't say that, did you?"
"No, of course not, I'm not dumb. I'd rather them both think Lofton would react that way to anyone he doesn't know coming into the house."
"Is Abby going to get in trouble?"
"You know, I really don't know. I've never known her to do anything like this before, so it's hard to say."
"Hmm. Boys can make girls do uncharacteristic things."
"Yeah? You know about that I suppose. Forget coming to see me in that closet. You could've been caught by Vernon."
"I do. It's only been one boy for me, though."
"He must be very impressive."
"Or something," she said with a soft laugh.
"I hope Abby's mom isn't too hard on her. Do you think she'll make her go home tomorrow without watching the show with us?"
"I don't know. We'll have to see, I guess. They weren't drinking or smoking down there, and I hope they wouldn't have done much more than hold hands in front of Lizzie."
"Oh God. Really? Ugh."
"Hey, you know, hormones are crazy things."
"But Liz would know that was wrong."
"Well, sure, but I think she feels weird already because of our situation so she wouldn't say anything to stick out more."
"I hope that's not true. She's smarter than that."
"She saw, by the way."
"I assumed by Lofton's barking that someone was breaking in or something."
"I didn't put my shirt on."
"Oh," Claire said. "Oh," she said again, realization seemingly dawning on her as far as what that meant. She turned to face him then, running a fingertip along his jaw. "Are you okay?"
"What's to be okay with? I just wouldn't have done it ordinarily. She wasn't happy, though. She thinks I've been lying to her or something."
"She'll get over it, John. She loves you. She's probably just hurt you hid it from her for years."
"I'm not saying what you did was wrong, just that she's probably hurt. She trusts you, you're all she's known for years. Everything you've taught her about right and wrong, not even the things you teach her here at home but by being a cop."
"Is everything okay?" Lizzie asked when they got back later the following afternoon. It was the first thing she'd said to him, or directed remotely to him, since the night before. Not even at breakfast had she said anything to him. That wasn't normal, so he'd taken that to mean she was upset with him.
Abby was still there. She'd call her mom once the show was done they were going to watch together for a ride. John had assumed that would be the case. He had no idea who Cynthia was with, he only hoped it was someone who would stick around for a while so maybe she'd get her mind off of him for a change. Guys never seemed to stick around her long, though.
The alarm at Claire's new office had gone off about two hours ago now. John had taken her out there to be sure everything was okay. She could have gone by herself, he knew that. The cop in him wouldn't allow that. Okay, the boyfriend in him wouldn't allow it either. There was no way he was going to just let her go investigate something like that without him along.
"Yes," Claire said. "Everything is fine."
"It was a false alarm. Or someone trying to get in and when unable to do so they left before the police could get there," John said.
"It sure was nice not having to drive all the way downtown," Claire said.
She'd found some office space that suited her needs a few towns over. A few towns over and close enough to the city that her employees who lived in the city didn't have a commute that was hugely out of the way. That was important to her because she knew and liked the staff she had. She didn't want to lose them now when things were looking up. She said something about them knowing what to expect from her and her knowing what to expect from them. They worked well together. He could get behind that concept. The space was a little larger than what she'd had downtown, too, to accommodate business getting busier.
Her friend who was a realtor specializing in that sort of thing got her a good deal. She got a post office box at the post office in that town as well and all of her mail from her condo was being forwarded there rather than to his house. Not that he didn't want her to get mail at his house. She was free to give his address to anyone she wanted to. He just didn't want it on any documentation. Her friend had been willing to let her use her parents' address as her permanent address on the forms. He knew that wasn't where she was.
John was being cautious. They still had a ways to go yet before a trial, but in jail people could get a hold of information if they knew how to. He didn't want Billy Joe Phillips to find out anything about Claire or her whereabouts no matter the channels he'd have to use to get it. He also didn't want it easily discoverable by his attorney that one of their witnesses was now living with one of the arresting detectives.
"Yeah, that means you're adjusting to suburban life?"
"I'm working on it."
"Hmm, anything I can do to help speed the process along?"
She smiled a little at that.
"You've done more than enough."
"I have? Well, evidently I'm not doing it right if you're not completely comfortable here yet."
"I didn't say that! I'm more than comfortable here. It'll just take me a while to get used to this being my home now. I have a house. Well, I live in a house. I haven't since I was eighteen really."
"We have a house."
"Yeah, well, it's still your house. I'm not even technically living here."
"For now. We'll change that one day. Both it being our house and you technically living here. I'm just trying to be careful."
She sighed softly. They'd argued about this. He wanted to get the mortgage refinanced and have her added to it. He knew she had her own money from the sale of her place so she wasn't going to break up with him and take his house from him. Well, he supposed anything could happen, but he didn't see her doing that. She thought it was a little too early for that. He'd given in and agreed to put it off until she felt more comfortable taking that step. He really just didn't want her to think she was just a guest here or something. She would give him money for her share of expenses, but for the time being she was he supposed legally homeless.
"Would you guys stop talking," Abby said from her vantage point on the chair next to the couch. Lizzie was sitting on the floor with her back against the couch where he and Claire were seated. John sure hoped she'd quit with the silent treatment soon because it bothered him more than he realized it might that she wasn't talking to him. The past eight years she'd always been everything he had. All that he had. Claire was here now, true, but she was still pretty much everything he had.
"Sorry," Claire said.
He chuckled, draping an arm around her and tugging her toward him. He kissed the side of her head.
Just like with the Golden Globes to catch a glimpse of Claire's dress they were watching the GRAMMY's for the same reason tonight. This year's wearer was no one star-studded or attention grabbing, she was an opera singer or something. Well, he supposed to people who liked opera she could be attention grabbing, but John knew nothing about that world. He did know that it was still Claire's name out there before her line was unveiled for the spring at Field's coming up pretty soon here.
Neither the mom nor the dad from Married…With Children won a Golden Globe this year, so Claire's dress had only been spotted briefly when the mom and dad's names had been announced. They were all hoping tonight the person wearing her dress would actually make it to the stage.
This dress was much more formal than the one for the Golden Globes, one befitting an opera star. Claire had been absolutely thrilled to design it and John was pretty sure she'd been awake for over forty-eight hours straight before she'd been happy with the result. He hated seeing her work like that because she collapsed when she was done and slept for hours at a time. She was a six or seven hours of sleep a night person normally, so the first time he'd been with her and she'd slept for eleven hours he'd been convinced something was wrong. She'd just been exhausted, mentally more than physically.
The Field's line was out of her hands and in the hands of the competent (hopefully) people who would mass produce Claire's designs to be released in a few weeks throughout their stores.
"You don't even like opera," John teased Abby.
"So. I never got to see the dress when Claire was done with it."
"I was on a very tight deadline!"
She'd had less than three weeks to design and make a dress worthy of national television and possibly worldwide publicity since the opera singer in question performed everywhere in the world. It was huge and John couldn't have been prouder of her. Lizzie and Abby were pretty excited, too. Lizzie's other friend Mary wasn't nearly as into fashion and stuff as Abby was so she hadn't really gotten into being interested in anything Claire did. That was fine with John and probably Claire, too.
About an hour into the show, Claire went to the kitchen. Lizzie stood from where she'd been sitting on the floor closer to Claire than to him and sat beside him on the couch. She settled against him, resting her head against his shoulder.
"Hi," he said, sliding his arm around her. It'd been a very, very long time since she'd sat with him like this. He'd almost thought she'd outgrown the need to. He missed it in a way, that little sister who wasn't into boys and girlie things like French braids and wanting to make her own dresses.
"Hi," she said softly.
"We okay?" he asked, kissing the top of her head much the same way he'd done to Claire earlier.
"Yes," she said. "I'm not mad at you."
"Nope, not going there. Okay? You have nothing to be sorry about anyway. We're good, Lizzie. I love you and there's nothing I wouldn't do over again because it's gotten me here today with you and this house and Claire."
"Well, I'm still sorry."
"Don't be. I have you. They have nothing. I got the better end of the deal, Lizzie."
"Thank you. I'm not going to want to contact them, you know."
"I'm very glad to hear that, but if you change your mind I'd understand."
"I won't. They don't deserve me."
"You are more right than you'll ever know. Why did Tom think I'm your dad?"
"I don't think Abby told him who you were or anything, so he just assumed."
"Huh. Well, I told you if that makes you feel better, makes you feel like you fit in better I'm fine with it."
"You do me a favor, okay?"
"I can try."
He chuckled softly because that was so a response he'd give. "I want to meet a guy before I see him holding your hand."
"I have to make sure he's good enough for you. What other reason is there?"
She laughed softly, but snuggled against him more. Claire returned to the couch, not seeming to be upset that Lizzie had his attention for the moment. She sat next to him, holding his hand and seemed fine with that.
"I can't believe she actually won," Claire said once they were in bed later that night.
"She looked great. You did very well. You have every reason to be proud because she looked worthy of winning that award from head to toe."
"Thank you," she said. "I wonder what her winning will mean."
She snuggled against him. He was getting used to sleeping without a shirt on. Even being wintertime he got so hot sleeping with her every night. And, well, their clothes always seemed to come off eventually anyway more nights than they didn't so he'd stopped trying.
"For you? It means whatever you want it to mean, doesn't it? I mean, it's certainly something you can use to advertise your company."
"No People this time, I imagine, though. They only seem to cover rock and country for the most part."
"Not as hip I suppose. I'd say glamorous, but I bet she could put Whitney Houston or Madonna to shame when it comes to glamour and class. I'm sure there'll be press. There'd have to be. I mean opera has to have their own type of publicity, media releases, and people who follow it."
"Agreed. You're just not one of them?"
He chuckled. "Not hardly."
"Never been to one?"
"What would I do with an opera, Princess?"
"I don't know."
"Don't get any ideas in your head that I need to see one. I've survived just fine to this point without it. You'll get more business anyway, I'm sure," he said, hoping to change the subject away from that. He'd go, of course, if she asked him to. He just wouldn't want to. Dinners and parties he could handle, at least those he could understand what the people were saying when they spoke. He knew he wouldn't be able to say the same for opera.
"I hope so."
"What would you do if some place like a theater, opera house, or something asked you to work on their costumes?"
"I'd consider it as long as I was still able to do my own designing. I don't think I could just do that, you're too limited to what the script says and allows."
"I suppose. It'd be steady employment, though."
"It would," she agreed. "You worried I'm not going to be able to pay my share?"
He chuckled sliding a hand along her hip and drawing her closer against him. Almost two full months she'd been living here now and he wasn't sure he'd ever get used to sleeping with her every night. Oh, he was used to it, but the novelty of having her there in his bed every night to have sex with or just hold floored him.
"Deeply. I know your type. Move in, start shirking your responsibilities, leave me with a pile of debt I can't pay off."
"Yup, that's me."
"As long as it's not those Fashion Week expenses, we're good."
She snorted. "I suppose that means I need to actually start sharing figures with you when I do things like that, huh?"
"Well, if it means we might have to mortgage the house or something, yeah."
"Well, hopefully I won't have such a huge expense this year."
"This year? You're doing it again?"
"Yes! I have to, John. I can't put my name out there and then disappear. I have to keep showing my designs, prove I'm innovative and on the cutting edge."
"If you have vacation time you could come with me. You'll have been detective for over a year by then."
"Yes. I know I didn't handle myself last year very well so you're probably thinking I'm going to come back and freak out on you again."
"The thought did occur to me, yes."
"I just really didn't think it was fair to you."
"Do you still?"
"Some days," she shrugged and he kissed her shoulder.
"I don't regret anything about being involved with you. Neither does Lizzie. We love you the way you are, distracted and busy and always creating things in your mind even when you're sitting there seemingly staring at nothing."
"Thank you. I love you both, too."
"I love this," he whispered.
"What?" she asked, sounding confused?
"Just laying here with you, you're close and we're talking."
"So no congratulatory sex, is that what you're saying?"
"Princess, that's not what I'm saying. It's just this is cool, too."
"Hadn't thought much beyond us being able to have sex like rabbits, huh?"
"Truthfully? I just knew that I liked having you here, the rest of it didn't matter."
"Don't go thinking that means I don't want to be like rabbits. In a couple of years I'd very much like to be like them when you're not on the pill anymore."
"Mm hmm," he whispered.
"I'd like that, too."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com