***Chapter Sixteen***
Word Count: 4,210

February 14, 1995

“Are you sure you're all right, honey?”

“I'm fine, Mom. I just have a cold or something.”

“You could stay home, you know?”

“This will probably be the last time I do something nice for me for a while. I'm not staying home.”

“All right.”

“You're sure you don't mind babysitting the boys?”

“We'll be fine. I told them they could frost the cakes we made anyway they want to.”

Claire smiled at that. Her mom had done that with Scott and her when they were little, too. On Valentine's Day they each got a cake of their own. Her mom would set out frosting, sprinkles, and other toppings so that they could each decorate their own cake the way they wanted. Scott had outgrown the desire to decorate his heart-shaped cake long before Claire ever did.

In fact, Claire sort of envied her boys being able to do it tonight. She missed being that age sometimes. The little things her mother did for her and for Scott that she didn't stop to think about as being fun or nice.

“Okay, thank you.”

She was wearing the red dress again. John had sort of asked her to since it was Valentine's Day. Tonight she would have been more comfortable in the one she'd bought for his New Year's Eve party, but she knew he liked the red one for whatever reason so she'd agreed.

Her mom had tried to talk Claire into putting her notice into the school early since she wasn't going to go back anyway. Claire didn't want to do that, though. It wasn't about the money, though having the couple weeks' worth of extra income would be nice. It was about the principle of it, she'd taken a job and they'd hired her knowing she was pregnant. She wasn't going to leave earlier than they'd anticipated unless she was in labor. What if she discovered she couldn't handle going to school with three kids and needed her job back next year? She didn't want to make them mad so they wouldn't hire her back or at least give her a good reference to another school.

Somehow over the weekend she'd managed to find a pair of red dressy flats that would go with her dress perfectly. She was very glad to have them because it was icy enough out wearing heels sort of scared her. She'd fallen on the ice in the school parking lot more than once already in the past couple of weeks. She hadn't told anyone that. She was fine, embarrassed more than anything.

She'd debated all weekend about canceling their plans for tonight. Things had been fine between them since their weekend away, but going out with him tonight just seemed so…official. She wasn't sure she wanted that. Ultimately, she'd decided not to cancel and when she'd gotten roses delivered to her at school earlier that day she was glad she hadn't. He had to have ordered them a while ago and she would have felt incredibly guilty. She'd left them there because she liked having them in her classroom for some reason. Boy had she gotten lots of questions from her students when they saw them. They were worth the questions, though, because they were beautiful. He'd chosen red ones with three white ones added to the dozen.

She'd never gotten something for Valentine's Day from anyone but Dan before. With Dan she'd always felt as though he got her flowers out of obligation because he very rarely got them for her any other day but Valentine's Day. A part of her also wondered who else he'd given something to that year. It was a very odd feeling to get some today with no emotion attached beyond genuine pleasure and surprise. She'd cried a little, which she imagined was normal. Overall, though, she'd loved getting them even if she might have preferred not getting them so publicly.

She had no idea where he was taking her tonight. He had the day off, whether he'd taken it off deliberately she wasn't sure. He hadn't said and she didn't want to feel guilty for him missing a day of work if he had taken it off specifically for the day.

“You be careful driving.”

“I will.”

“I don't understand why he can't pick you up.”

“He asked me to meet him at his house, Mom. If he picked me up then you'd scold me for going on a date with him.”

“I wouldn't scold you. I just worry you're moving too fast.”

“I'm not! I'm not doing anything fast.”

“Claire. You moved back here and within two months.”

“That is not true, Mom! I saw him a couple of times before Halloween. We were friends, you know that.”

“I do, and I worry his being your friend is clouding your judgment.”

“About what?”

“Your feelings for him.”

“Mom. He's a good man. I don't know what my feelings are yet. What would be so wrong with them if I did know what they were?”

“You don't have to be married, you know.”

“I'm not marrying him!”

“I'm just making sure you realize that you can function without a man.”

“I know I can, Mom. I admit it's new to me.”

“I just want you to be sure about him before you do anything.”

“Mom. Trust me, I'm not rushing into anything.”

“He spent the night, Claire.”

“I know he did. I'm human. I needed that that night.”

“Did you feel guilty?”

“A little,” she admitted.

“But you have again.”


“I am aware you weren't happy, you know?”

“I wasn't unhappy.”

“Your father told me you asked him questions.”

“I figured he probably had.”

“He didn't tell me why, but I suspected.”


“Because I could hear it in your voice. I'm your mother. I know when something is wrong with you even over the phone. I know when you're lying.”

“I'm not a very good liar.”

“It's not that. Mothers know these things. And, well, while your father never did those kinds of things I am familiar with what pretending to be happy sounds like.”

“Yeah. Why didn't you know then nine years ago?”

“Would you have listened?”

Claire sighed softly. “Probably not.”

“I told you that you were rushing into getting married.”

“I know and you were right, I'm not doing that again, Mom, I swear. I'm not going to stop spending time with him. He understands how I feel, what I went through with Dan.”

“And the boys?”

“What about them?”

“They're getting attached.”

“I know,” Claire said. So was she. She was starting to count on John's calls in the evening more than she cared to admit. “I'm being careful. He's not going to just disappear from our lives. He wouldn't do that.”

“As long as you remember you'll be the one picking up the pieces if he does.”

“Were you and Dad happy?”

“We had our moments,” she shrugged. “It was a different time. I gave up my life for you kids and I felt as though I got very little of your father's attention.”

“He was…”

“Busy? Providing for us so we could live in the lifestyle I and you kids were accustomed? I know those things, Claire, but that doesn't mean I wanted to be ignored either.”

“I know.”

“It got better. I think once you left and the house was empty he realized that we actually had to spend time together. There was nothing else to do.”

“You make it sound so …”

“Matter of fact? After that long it sort of was. Did I love him? Yes, and he loved me. We didn't always get along and neither of us were the easiest people to live with. I thought he coddled you entirely too much. He thought that if I had it my way you'd be sent to an all-girls boarding school.”


“I wasn't going to do that, it was just how he saw things.”

“Do you miss him?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I'm asking because you're mad at me because I'm not mourning as I'm supposed to. I miss Dan, but it's not really Dan I miss other than the security, the known, the stability. He hurt me a lot, John has made me see how many ways he did that I never thought were hurtful until I've seen a different vantage point. So, am I supposed to follow your rules and do nothing but wear black and pretend I miss him for the next few more months now? How does that help me never mind my kids?”

“I miss him every day. We were married for a lot longer and loyalty was never an issue between us so I suppose it's different. If John makes you feel good about yourself then I guess that's good.”

“He does.”

“I just worry. Your maiden name still means something.”

“I know, Mom, and I'm not doing anything wrong. We've never even kissed in front of someone.”

“Not even the boys?”


“You do what you need to do, but be careful.”

“I am.”

“I worry about you. I don't want to see you get hurt and think that that's all there is out there.”

“I know it's not.”

“I take it he likes the red,” she said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I know you and you wouldn't wear it again without a reason. You've only worn the other one you bought the once.”

“He does,” she said.

“It does look nice on you. I never would have thought you'd find a shade of red that flatters you so.”

“I know, believe me. I was shocked, too.”

“No flowers?”

“He sent them to school,” Claire said.



“How did you feel?”

“I cried. I talked to Nancy at lunch a little bit.”

“I bet you did. I'm glad he thought of you.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Well, you have fun and if you're not here in the morning I'll get Bill to school.”

“I will be.”

“I know you plan to, but this time of year anything can happen. I'd rather you stay there if it starts to storm than risk driving home as far along as you are.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Her mom left Claire to finish getting ready. She left not long after that. With her mom's words in the back of her mind she brought along a change of clothes. She wasn't going to bring it in with her, but if she needed it she'd have it. She couldn't go to school tomorrow dressed like this. Then if it stormed badly enough that she couldn't drive home chances were classes would be canceled or at least delayed.

She entered the code on his gate still not quite used to the fact that John had a house that had a gate. It was just so utterly crazy. She had to admit she loved his house and the work he'd been doing on it just made her love it more. Amanda wasn't too far off thinking that Claire might go after him for the house if she was that type of woman. She wasn't though.

She opened the door because he'd told her to go ahead and come in when she got here. She slipped out of her shoes, leaving them by the door.


“Yeah, in here,” he called. She followed his voice to the kitchen.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi yourself. You made good time.”

“The kids were happy. Mom had them occupied.”

“Doing what?”

“Decorating cakes.”


Claire laughed a little with a shrug.

“It'll probably sound ridiculous to you, but Mom has these cake tins that are shaped like hearts. Every Valentine's Day she baked two of them for Scott and me. She let us decorate our cake however we wanted to. She's letting the boys do that, well, they're probably done by now. She had tins like that for Halloween, Christmas, and Easter, too.”

“That actually sounds kind of nice.”

“Yeah? You want to go to my house instead?”

“Not tonight, no. Some other time.”

She walked toward him then and leaned up to kiss him.

“What was that for?”

“What was that for he asks?”

“Yes he asks.”

“For the roses. They were gorgeous.”

“I wasn't sure if I was going to get a kiss or a slap because of them.”

“I wouldn't slap you for sending me roses.”

“I sent them to your job.”

“Yeah, a couple of my students were very interested in how I was getting flowers today.”

“How? What kind of question is that? How else are you supposed to get flowers on Valentine's Day?”

“Well, look at me.”

“Yeah, I see you.”

“They know I'm a widow.”

“Ah. So they wonder what you're doing in your spare time that the pregnant widow is having, uh, what would your dad call me. Gentleman callers?”

She sighed softly. “I'm not sure he'd call you that, but yes, that's the right word.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told them to mind their own business and get back to work.”

“I debated, but I wasn't sure your mom wouldn't throw them away.”

“She wouldn't do that.”

“You say that, and I wouldn't think she would but I'm not sure.”

“You did fine. I won't deny I cried a little.”

“Why? I wasn't trying to make you cry.”

“I've never gotten flowers from anyone else before.”


“No! I mean, corsages for dances, but not like what you sent me.”

“Oh. Well, I'm sorry I waited until Valentine's Day, but I admit I wasn't entirely sure how they'd be received.”

“I talked with Nancy at lunch a bit.”

“What'd she say?”

“She asked me who was sending me roses, too. Ultimately, she said what I was feeling was normal.”

“That's helpful,” he said.

“What else would she say? I wasn't really looking for advice, just I like her.”

“Yeah, I know. And you know she won't judge you.”

“That, too.”

“Well, I'm sorry I made you cry.”

“It's okay. You weren't trying to.”

“No, I wasn't.”

“So what are we doing anyway?”


“I'm sorry?”

He chuckled a little, leaning in to kiss her. He kissed her much better than she'd kissed him a minute ago.

“I cooked. You didn't notice the table?”

She glanced at the dining room table then and saw that it was set with more roses.



“You shouldn't have.”

“Sure I should've. You deserve it.”

“I don't. I mean, I'm not even sure…”

“I know, it's all right. I wanted to.”

“They're beautiful,” she said.

“Beautiful roses for my beautiful date. It's just money.”

“Yeah, but…”

“You're worth it.”

His words warmed her way further than just her heart. He had a way of doing that, saying things that made her feel good inside and out. It scared her because she didn't want to react to him like this.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you for coming here. For wearing the dress again.”

“You're welcome.”

He took her coat from her and hung it in the coat closet. She regarded his kitchen. He had things on the stove and something in the oven obviously. It smelled delicious, something Italian maybe judging by the smell of the spices in the air.

“I see you got new shoes.”

“I did.”


“Because I didn't want to break my neck walking around tonight.”

“Will you ever be able to wear them again?”

“Maybe I'll invest in a regular dress this color.”


“You seem to like it well enough.”

“I do. I could think of some other red things you could wear instead of a dress.”

“Yeah?” Her heart leapt a bit at the thought of what he'd want her to wear that wasn't a dress.

“Yeah, you know, some regular things like what you wore at Greg's cabin would be nice.”

“In red?”

“Well, yeah,” he scoffed. “Red, green, white.”


“I think I'd like you in white.”

“We are talking about bedroom things, right?”

He chuckled a little at that. “We are.”

“That's good.”


“I just wanted to be sure.”

“What's wrong with white?”

“I don't know. It's kind of…”



“Well, no offense, sweetheart, but you're not exactly the picture of vast experience so I think white would suit you just fine.”

“I should be insulted you just said that.”

“I don't mean it like that! I just mean, it's not like you've had a string of men you've had sex with. You're twenty-nine years old and you've been with two men. I think you could safely wear white.”

“Except a wedding dress.”

“Why not?”

“You can't.”

“I think you can wear whatever the hell you want to, but we're not talking about wedding dresses.” He paused, regarding her a little. “We aren't, are we?”

“No, I was just saying. There are…”


“Yeah, I know. What we do in our bedrooms is our business.”

“I know.”

“Do you?”


“Good. Speaking of…”



“It's occurred to me that we're alone and we're still standing in my kitchen. Are you feeling all right?”

“Very funny.”

“I'm not sure I was joking.”

“You have dinner made.”

“Like that's stopped you before.”

She sighed softly. “I hate that you think that's all I want from you.”

“I don't think that. I know you don't, but the past closing in on three months you haven't exactly been shy about getting right to it.”

“Maybe I actually want to have dinner with you tonight.”

“It was the roses, wasn't it?” he asked. He slid her chair out for her at the table so she could sit. She noticed then there was a box of chocolates on her plate.

“Like I need chocolate.”

“They're dark chocolate. I asked because I didn't think chocolate would be a good thing to get you, but I was told dark chocolate isn't too bad for you.”

“You asked?”

“Well, yeah. I don't know what you can and can't eat when it comes to stuff like that. I mean I've heard the whole pickles and ice cream thing, but you've never mentioned a craving to me.”

“I've never craved anything specific like that and I can eat chocolate.”

“Well, sure, but I was kind of worried you might think I was encouraging you to eat them.”

“Get fatter you mean?”

“You're not fat.”

“I know. I just feel…”

“I know. I mean, I don't and I'll never understand I know that. You look great to me.”

“Thank you.”

“So other than your kids teasing you about the flowers. How was your day otherwise?”


“Lots of hormonal boys and girls getting excited about cards?”

“Yes.” She glanced at him as he worked in the kitchen, getting their dinner together. “Did you have anyone you gave stuff like that to?”

“Nope, never until today.”



“Then you did exceptionally well.”

“Thank you.”

“One of my girls asked me why you put the three white ones in there.”


“I told her I imagined they were for my kids.”

“You are a very smart lady.”

“That was very sweet.”

“That's me, Mr. Softie.”

“Would you have gotten Amanda flowers?”

“If I was still dating her today, you mean?” He shrugged. “I don't know. I guess it would depend. The last couple of months I'd say no. The first couple of months I'd say probably with a lean toward yes.”

“Just curious.”

“I wasn't in love with her. You know that, right? I mean, I liked her and I was certainly attempting to explore what I could have felt for her.”

“I know.”

“I have no desire to explore that anymore.”

“I know.”

“I'm glad you know because the last thing I want is you not trusting me.”

“Where did you learn how to cook anyway?” she asked when he set the plate of lasagna in front of her. It looked delicious. The zucchini did, too. She'd seen a few things served with lasagna before: salad, asparagus, and even broccoli a time or two. She had to admit she'd rarely seen zucchini.

“I taught myself. It took me about a year of eating little more than TV dinners or sandwiches when I first moved out on my own to realize that I could broaden my horizons a bit or eat the same thing for the rest of my life.”

“How'd you do it?”

He shrugged, setting some bread to the table before bringing his plate and joining her. She was drinking water and he was drinking some wine. He’d poured her a small glass, which she would draw out to make last throughout dinner. She appreciated the wine because she knew he wasn’t fond of it, preferring beer.

“I tried things." Some things got thrown in the trash. Lots of things got thrown in the trash. The zucchini we're eating tonight was one of those things that went into the trash the first couple of times that I ever tried to make it.”

She smiled at that. She couldn't deny the same thing had happened to her more than once, too, when she and Dan were in their first place together. She at least had her mom to help, but she was still hundreds of miles away so wasn't hands-on help.

“Well, it's delicious now.”

“Thank you.”

His dining room was nice. They'd never sat in here before because they'd never actually eaten in his house before. Not a meal anyway. Between the sliding door that went out to a patio and the windows looking out over the lake the room was beautiful. She could imagine like the turret this would be a great room during the summer. The patio would be great during the summer, a little windy maybe but the view would be spectacular.

“We're not moving so much tonight,” he said much later in the darkness of his bedroom.

The dress had come off the same as his clothes, but nothing had happened beyond that. He'd taken his cue from her evidently because other than kissing her he hadn't tried anything. She just hadn't been in the mood tonight for more than this. She wasn't sure why. It bothered her a little that he thought that was all she wanted from him.

“No, I know.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No, it's normal. We're running out of room in there.”

“Ah, I suppose there's only so much room.”

He turned onto his side, sliding a fingertip along her abdomen. She loved when he touched her like this. There was nothing suggestive or sexual about it, he was just touching her because he wanted to and could.

“You still going to get your tubes tied?”

“I'm still thinking about it.”

“What if this does work between us?”


“What if this does work between us and I can support you and the kids?”


“I'm just asking a hypothetical. What if I could support a fourth one?”

She closed her eyes, shaking her head a little. “It's not just about money. I mean, certainly they're expensive. I just feel like I've done nothing with my adult life but be a mother.”

“I get it.”

“That's not the answer you wanted.”

“No, I expected it.”

“You'd want one?”

“With you? Yeah, maybe, you know. I'd like the possibility to be there, I guess.”

She sighed softly, leaning her head against his chest.

“We're not even officially dating.”

“Yeah, I know, that doesn't mean thoughts don't cross my mind.”

“I don't want to date anyone else or anything.”

He chuckled softly. “That is very good to know.”

“It hasn't been that long.”

“I know.”

She kissed his chest, rubbing her cheek against him there.

“I guess I could put off making that kind of decision.”

“I could afford it, you know that, right?” he asked, kissing the top of her head.

“I don't know that, but once I'm done with school and have found a job I could afford it, too.”

He laughed. “Yeah, you could.”

“I mean, I'm not saying I doubt you but it's not as if I know how much you make or anything.”

“Hmm,” he said. “I guess that's reserved for more serious points in time.”


“Well, just know I could afford it.”

“I will keep that in mind.”

“Did you have a nice Valentine's Day?”

“I did. Thank you. You certainly made it one of the nicest I've had. Did you?”

“I did.”

“I didn't get you much.”

“I don't need much. You're here.”

“I didn't even have sex with you.”

“I like this better.”

“You do?”

“I do. This I could get used to.”

“You couldn't get used to having sex with me?”

“Oh, I could, but you in my bed just to be here.”

“I see.”

“That bothers you?”



She slid on top of him carefully then and he dropped his hands to her hips.

“Just wondering if being in your bed for both is acceptable?”

“It is,” he said.

“Good,” she said, turning around then to face away from him. It was just more comfortable this way and he didn't seem to mind watching her this way either. She glanced at him over her shoulder as she touched him.

“Just waiting on you, sweetheart.”

She didn't make him wait long.

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