Her brother was at her parents', now just her mom's house he supposed, when they got there. The drive from Toledo had been pretty much the same as the day before. They didn't talk much and what they said was mundane. It sort of bothered him, but he just couldn't take it upon himself to change it. He didn't want to get anymore personally involved with her than this. She'd asked him for help moving. She hadn't asked for anything else.
Scott helped John unload the moving van while Claire checked on her sons. He was glad her brother didn't want an explanation as to why the two of them were doing the unloading. So, evidently he wasn't a bad guy like his sister had said after all.
The stuff in this moving van was the everyday stuff they'd be using. So he and Scott placed it where Claire told them to put it. He hadn't realized until they were to the last of it that there was baby stuff in here, too. A crib among other things. At least she didn't have to buy all new stuff since she'd mentioned thinking Justin would be her last one.
The moving van she'd hired had arrived the day her son's flew in. Scott and her mom had everything put where they thought would be best. He could tell Claire wasn't too happy about that, but since she was living in her mom's house she didn't have a whole lot of control over the situation.
She'd mentioned a guest house, something he vaguely recalled they had from the times he'd come over here their senior year. He wondered why she and her boys didn't stay there. Maybe she would think about that as a possibility on her own once they'd settled in. She'd still be close to her mom that way, but she and her kids would still have some privacy, their own space.
Her youngest son's car seat was put in the backseat of her dad's car. It was a very nice Lincoln Continental that John was admittedly a little jealous of the fact she'd get to drive around in it every day. It was new, too, her dad must have bought it fairly recently so if she took care of it and maintained it she'd have a very nice care on her hands to tote her kids around to games and lessons.
"I'm sorry, I'll get you a ride home in a bit."
"It's fine. They missed their mom," he said. Her mom had offered him some iced tea, which he'd accepted. He had no doubt that her iced tea had a little something added to it, but it wasn't his place to mention it. She wasn't hurting anything and well if he suddenly lost his wife and then had a houseful of people living with him full-time he'd probably want his iced tea spiked, too.
It was interesting watching her with her kids. She clearly loved them and it was very obvious they felt the same way. Her youngest, Justin, wouldn't leave her lap. He wondered what the poor kid would do when a baby came along in a few months to take his spot on her lap. He wasn't sure he ever imagined Claire Standish sitting on the floor as she currently was listening to both of her boys tell her about their couple of days here without her. Their uncle Scott had clearly kept them busy.
"Do you mind either staying with them until I get back or I can pick them up from your house?" she asked her brother.
"I can stay."
"Thank you," she said. "I'm not so worried about Bill," she said.
"Yeah, I know. I understand."
"Thanks. He lives in Lake Bluff, so it'll be a while."
"Oh," Scott said. "Why don't I take them back to my place then, and you can pick them up when you're done. Joan will at least have dinner for them."
"Sure, thank you again. For everything."
"No sweat. I'm glad to have you back," he said, giving her a kiss before he gathered the boys up and got them settled in his car.
"Good thing he's got a car seat."
"Nice of him not to make you bring them with."
"I think he knows they wouldn't leave me alone after so long without seeing me."
"You don't deserve that."
"Not your kids."
"Well, no, but it would've been fine."
"You say that."
"You're right, I don't know how I would've reacted. Anyway, let's go. The sooner we do that the sooner they can know that you're really here for good."
She followed his instructions when they got into Lake Bluff. He was curious what her reaction would be to his house. He probably should've made arrangements to get from her mom's place on his own, but he hadn't thought much about what would happen once they got back here. She'd asked him if the lake was close, he'd said it was. He just hadn't said how close.
He told her the code to punch in to get the gate to open, wondering what it meant that she had it but Amanda didn't. He'd never had a reason to give it to her really. Claire wasn't going to show up at his house at three in the morning some night when he didn't want her there. Or he assumed not anyway.
"Wow," she said.
"You want to see?"
"I…" she sighed softly. "I shouldn't."
"Why not?" he asked.
She clearly wanted to. He could tell. He didn't have to spend time with her over the past ten years to know that she was very intrigued and excited by his house. Hell, he'd been living here for four months and he was still very intrigued and excited. There were nights when he couldn't sleep for whatever reason that he'd wander the halls, wondering if he was dreaming or hallucinating that this place was his.
"I've taken up way too much of your time already."
"Oh come on. That's why you don't want to come in?"
"You're probably more than ready to get back to things."
"Well, sure, but it's Friday night I don't have to work tomorrow. Come on," he said, opening his door. "I swear you're not bothering me."
"Claire," he said, glancing at her through his open door. "Get out of the car and come inside."
She shut the car off and got out, following him. He opened the door, turning the alarm off once he got to the panel on the wall in the kitchen.
"Yes. Everywhere in the house."
"Are you freaking kidding me?"
"Oh my God. And they're glorious," she said.
He watched kind of transfixed for a minute as she actually knelt on the ground and ran her fingertips along the wood there.
"Uh, well, they're not all that glorious. I still have a long way to go."
"You're doing the floors?"
"Yup. The house stood vacant for years I guess. The family members who inherited were cousins or something and neither wanted to sell the share to the other and neither wanted to share the house because they didn't want to split the money."
"How long are we talking?"
"Um, sometime in the early seventies I think."
"Vacant for twenty years?"
"Yup. They paid people to do upkeep. They kept the power and water on and everything. I had an inspector check every inch of it as thoroughly as he could."
"I'll bet that cost you a hefty amount of money."
"You forget, sweetheart, I work with people who do this shit for a living. A case of beer and a pizza along with the promise of sending the next gig their way, most of them will do a lot."
"That's good. So it was in good condition?"
"Yeah, the exterior was fine. The foundation and all of that. It was just the inside, years of dust and just sitting that left it rather lacking."
"How'd you even find out about it?"
"A realtor I've dealt with on other projects called me when it got listed. One of the cousins needed the money, I guess, bad health or something. So he sold his share and the other one wanted the house sold as soon as it could be sold. They'd been paying taxes and everything on it for twenty years. No one else ever had a shot at it because I snapped it up in the blink of an eye."
"Wow. Nice realtor."
"Yeah," he said.
He was kind of fudging on the details. She hadn't exactly been his girlfriend at the time. He'd worked on a couple of things over the past year or so that she was involved with. Their paths crossed, interest was made known by both of them. They'd gone out for drinks a couple of times, but it was very casual until a couple of months ago. He'd mentioned the desire to have a house one day while they were sharing a drink after work. She called him about this place a few weeks later. Somehow during the course of the closing process the casualness had turned into spending more time with her.
"How long ago?"
"Six months when it got listed. It took a while to finalize everything and close. I've been living here for four months."
"When do you find time to do anything if you work and work on this place?"
He shrugged. "I'm in no hurry. I have everything I absolutely need for now. The kitchen is functional. I made them lower their price to account for all of the updating I'd have to do as far as appliances and geez even plumbing and wiring. I knew a lot of it I could do myself or get done for pretty close to cost, but still."
"So, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and some place to kick back in."
She stood then, eyeing the hallway. He knew when she saw the turret opposite where she was standing. It allowed a ton of light into the room because of the number of windows in it. It was, even he had to admit, pretty impressive.
"You're on the lake."
"You said it was close."
"Well, it is close."
She glanced at him over her shoulder, resuming her perusal of his front yard. It was new to him, his front yard being the side that didn't face the street. He was right on the water with his own bit of beach not that he'd used it this summer or anything.
"I could sit in a chair in here for hours and do nothing but read."
"Yes. Okay, I'd probably sit in here and grade papers, but I'd still have no problem sitting in here for hours at a time."
"Huh." He hated to admit, and had no business thinking it, but he could picture it, too. He liked the idea of her having somewhere she could enjoy going, sitting in, and relaxing. He doubted somehow she got to relax much and in a few months it was going to be even worse.
"You should put something in here. A chair and a table. You'd love it! An area rug so your feet wouldn't get cold in the winter. You'd be set."
"Claire," he said.
"What? Oh come on, who doesn't find looking out over water relaxing? Open the windows on a nice day and oh my God, you could have an easy chair in here that reclines and take a nap to the sound of the water. I bet it's heavenly."
He laughed then.
"What?" she asked.
"You're entirely too enthusiastic about my house."
"I'm sorry," she said. The smile she had been giving him just seconds ago was gone. It was the first real smile he'd seen on her. Understandably given her recent circumstances, but he wanted it back. "I'll go. See I told you I'd monopolize your time."
She was going to leave?
In the back of his mind he knew he should let her do just that.
Go home to her mother and her kids and get on with her life teaching English wherever she found a job.
He had no doubt she'd find a good job at a good school, because she was Claire Standish. He didn't want her to go, though. He liked the idea of showing her around. Did she really not know that he was just teasing her? He felt like complete and utter shit for being the reason that smile was gone. He always thought she had a nice smile.
"No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I was joking. I guess it's been a while since we've joked for you to remember I'm rarely ever serious when I say shit like that. I'm glad you like it."
"Like it? What's not to like? It's gorgeous."
"You want to see the rest?"
"I really should go."
"Come on. There's some cool shit. This may be your only chance."
She laughed. "Put like that."
The upstairs was pretty uninhabitable. None of the rooms had anything in them, easier for him to work room by room that way. Eventually, he'd fill them with stuff, but as it was only him living here he wasn't in any particular hurry.
What was currently his bedroom was on the ground floor and really supposed to be a study. It had a bathroom off of it, which was why he'd taken it as his bedroom.
The basement had actually been finished way back when. It was really, really dated (even more than the appliances in the kitchen had been) but it was finished just the same.
"One last thing," he said as he led her to a door. He took a key from a hook next to it and worked a deadbolt, keeping the key as he grabbed a lantern and after striking a match lit it. There were lanterns like this one along the way, but there was no electricity in the tunnel.
"Wow," she whispered.
It was cool in the basement, but even cooler in here.
"Where does it lead?" she asked.
"Come find out," he said.
"You've been in here?"
"Yes. I promise it's safe. There are no monsters or anything down here."
"I'm not sure I was worried about monsters."
"You're not going to slip and fall."
He chuckled. The passageway curved and wound for a while. There were a few doors along the way that he hadn't bothered to look in yet. One day, he'd come down here and explore to his heart's content. He honestly had no idea if the cousins who'd owned the house even knew this was down here. From the amount of dust down here his first time exploring it he'd say no one had been down here in a lot more than twenty years. It sloped down for a bit and then there were steps leading up, ending at one final large, wooden door. He slid the key he'd used to unlock the first door into the hole of this door. It gave a creak of protest as he pushed it up and open.
"Oh my God," she said when she realized they were on his beach.
"I expect since this house is from the twenties…"
"Bootleggers," she said.
"Yeah. I'm sure the door was camouflaged somehow. Bushes probably."
"That is so cool. Have you looked into the history of the place?"
"Not really. I mean I pretty much know I will since I found this, but it's not a top priority. I guess that means I'll need to get a library card. I saw the door outside when I was checking out the grounds, but no one seemed to know what it went to. I thought maybe it was to a pump system or something to keep water out of the house."
"Right," she said. "So, how did you figure it out?"
"Well, they gave me a ton of keys. Keys for the front door and the back door and the side door and the garage and the list was endless. I swear every door in this house has a lock on it that requires a key. Whoever lived here clearly valued their privacy. The door in the basement was obviously not new and neither was the lock so I looked for an older style key."
"And you just went in there?"
"There could've been anything or anyone…"
"But there wasn't. And if there was, it was better I find out when I moved in than years later," he said with a chuckle.
"I did discover that when you shut this door once you're outside there's no way of getting back in."
"Nope. No handle. No keyhole. Nothing."
"Well, if they were bootlegging they wouldn't want anyone to be able to get in even if they did find the door."
"True. How exciting."
"I thought it was pretty cool."
She laughed then.
"No, come on, what's so funny?"
"Ten years ago would you ever have envisioned you owning this house and me being stuck living with my mother with nothing to my name?"
"You have things to your name."
"Name one. I don't even own a car."
She sighed softly. "It's not the same."
"No, it's not the same. You're right. This is a possession. A thing I own. You have kids who know you love, cherish, and will do anything for them. I never had that. Ever. I can't recall one day of my life ever sitting on my mom's lap telling her about my day. I don't remember her ever telling me she missed me or loved me. Trust me, that's worth more than ten of these houses."
"And, no," he said, cutting her off. "I never envisioned this. Not in a million years. I knew I wanted to own a house, though. Until five months ago I was living in a one-bedroom apartment. I had nothing but the necessities to get by with."
"Because I knew this was my goal. Not this house, but a house. So I saved every penny so I could buy one when the right one presented itself."
"Houses don't usually present themselves."
"I know," he chuckled. "That's probably why it's taken me ten years to buy one."
"Do you have neighbors?"
"Yeah. There are acres separating us, though. So I've never seen them. I think I know the one," he stopped, glancing from side to side. "That way's car."
"My dad's Continental doesn't really fit in here."
"Your dad's Continental fits in anywhere, sweetheart. I hope you take care of that car, Claire. It's a brand spanking new vehicle. You should get lots of use out of it if you take care of it and be able to fit two kids in car seats and a third kid in that backseat easily."
"Make sure you do. If you don't know what needs to get done, talk to your brother."
"Okay, let's get you back to your car," he said.
"Thank you," she said when he offered her his hand to help her down the stairs. They were wooden and while still secure for the most part they were pretty warped from exposure to humidity and he had no idea if water ever got down here over the years. He wasn't going to have it on his conscious if she slipped and fell, losing the baby or hurting herself.
"I might call you for that realtor's number if I get to the point of buying a house," she said when they were out by her car.
"What?" he asked.
"Well, I don't know anyone. Scott might. They obviously got you a good deal on this house."
"Oh yeah." Yeah, that wasn't going to happen.
"Okay. Or maybe I won't," she said. "Listen. I appreciate everything you did for me. You dropped everything when really you had no reason to. If I can ever repay you."
"You paid for everything on the way here!"
"Yes, but I couldn't have done that by myself. I couldn't have loaded and unloaded the truck and I would've had to explain to Scott why I needed his help."
"Claire, really, there's no reason to think you need to repay me. We're good. Just take care of yourself, find a job, and take care of your boys. And," he said, tapping her stomach lightly, "whatever this one is. That's what you can do for me."
He probably shouldn't have touched her. It was different somehow, a little more intimate touching her like that knowing she was pregnant, then sleeping in her bed his one night in New York had been. Evidently she thought so too, because she reached up and kissed him. Reaching up was a bit of an exaggeration because she wasn't hugely shorter than he was. It was one of the things in high school he'd liked about her. He always felt like a brute around girls most of the time, he'd never felt that with her.
It wasn't just a friendly kiss either. He had every intention of breaking it as soon as he processed what was going on. It took him a second because it'd been years since she'd kissed him like this. She'd kissed him a couple of times when they were hanging out, but it was friendly without any innuendo or anything behind it. She made the most genuine sound of need and want, though that it took him longer than it probably should have to draw away. And holy hell did she kiss incredibly well. Way different than the last time they'd kissed. He couldn't help but wonder what else about her had changed. Marriage had changed her. The douchebag that had cheated on her changed her.
"I," he said. He rested his forehead against hers, knowing he wasn't breathing normally and his heart was going a mile a minute. "I can't," he said simply.
"I'm sorry. I just thought…"
"No, it's absolutely not you. I can't be that guy, sweetheart. I wish I could. I wish to God I could."
"Um, well, shit, aside from the obvious fact that your husband just died and you're pregnant with his baby?"
She looked as though he'd just slapped her and he hadn't had to lay a finger on her. Tears formed in her eyes in a matter of seconds.
"Claire," he said, but it was too late. She was opening her car door and turning the engine on. He could've stopped her. He could've prevented her from shutting her door. He probably could've and maybe should've done a lot of things. He watched her drive away, though, snorting a little that she was aware enough to remember the code to open the gate without needing him to do it for her. He doubted after what he'd just said he'd have to worry about her using it again so he didn't dwell on whether he should change it. He still wasn't entirely sure he could change it on his own without the service tech walking him through the process again.
The gate shut behind her dad's car and she was gone. He stood for a minute, waiting. Maybe she'd come back. Maybe she'd realize he hadn't meant to be insulting. He really hadn't. It was the first thing that came to his mind. He wasn't quite sure what it meant that simply telling her the truth wasn't the first thing that came to his mind. He kind of thought she'd never quite forgive him or at the very least lump him into guys like her late husband if she knew he'd slept with her the other night while involved with someone.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com