***Chapter Twenty-Four***
Word Count: 7,780

New Year's Eve 1995 (Sunday)

He was a little nervous as he rang the bell to her house. He wasn't sure why. She'd met people he worked with and that had gone fine. That was different, he supposed. She'd been raised on how to be impressive in those types of situations.

Tonight was entirely different than the party they'd gone to last year. Weird how much things had changed in the past year. Tonight her mom would take Shelly home when she got back from her party at the club she went to every year so that Claire could stay at John's. He would've gladly brought her back here, but Claire didn't want him to tonight for whatever reason. The boys had spent more than one weekend night at his place since he mentioned buying some things for a bedroom at his place. They loved the bunk beds she'd picked out as well as the bedding. He had no idea there were so many different (endless) possibilities when it came to kids' bedding. She'd gone for something generic, not for boys or girls and not for young kids. He was fine with that.

"Wow," he said when she answered the door.

"You're not just saying that?" she asked, sliding an earring into the little hole in her ear that matched her dress almost perfectly.

"No. When did you get that?"

"Earlier this week."


"Mm hmm. I saw it and couldn't resist."

"Because you remember how much I loved you in the red one last year?"


He stepped toward her, dropping his hands to her hips so he could kiss her properly. The dress was almost an identical shade of red to the one he'd been so fond of her wearing when she was pregnant with Frank. It was a hell of a lot shorter than that dress had been, though. She had the legs to pull it off, legs that he loved.

"Stop," she whispered as he slid his hands to her thighs and under the hem of the dress a bit.


"Shelly's here," she whispered.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "That's a good reason. Where is she anyway?"

"Downstairs with the boys already."

"Oh, good. She has money for pizza?"


"I'm paying for her sitting costs then."

"John, it's fine."

"No, you wanted to stay in tonight. I know that."

"It's fine, really."

"I know, but I'm dragging you out again on New Year's Eve. I mean, obviously if you'd wanted to do something you'd be at the party with your mom."

"You're not dragging me anywhere. You asked me, Shelly could babysit so I'm going with you."

"Are you nervous?"

"Crazily more than I want to admit to you right now."

"Me, too."

"What are you nervous about?"

"They're my friends."

"You're worried?"

"No. I mean, yes. I don't know. What if they don't like you? What if you don't like them? What if, I don't know, I say something stupid in front of them to you?"

"You're not going to say anything stupid, John."

"Probably not," he said, but God it just really freaked him out more than he imagined doing this would. He had never introduced his friends to a woman before Amanda. Most of them liked her, but he was pretty sure most of them also knew while John liked Amanda he didn't like her in the right way. The long-term way.

"Listen, if you've changed your mind…"

"No, you're not getting out of this that easily."

"I'm not trying to get out of anything, but I realize meeting your friends is kind of a huge step."

"You should've met them a long time ago," he said, helping her into her coat.

"Why didn't I then?"

She worked the buttons on her coat. He had to admit as nice as the winter coat was she'd worn last winter he liked her much, much better in regular clothes. He'd never tell her that because he was pretty sure she'd take that to somehow mean he didn't find her attractive pregnant after all. Clearly, that wasn't the case.

"Because I don't introduce them to women I'm not involved with. I certainly wasn't going to introduce them to someone I wanted to be involved with who turned out not to want anything to do with me."

"I wouldn't have wanted nothing to do with you."

"Yeah, well, the possibility existed. I wasn't going to make a fool of myself."

She walked to the basement, calling downstairs that they were leaving. Bill and Justin rushed up the stairs to give her a hug and say hi to John. Bill gave him a bit of a wave, but Justin didn't. That was all right, though, John didn't mind. He wondered how confusing it was going to be for Justin when he got to school next year, saw other kids with daddy's and realized he was missing that. John had thought of that a few times, realizing the boy probably didn't even truly realize what was missing from his life. Frank never would really. Justin likely wouldn't remember his dad at all, Frank would have the odd knowledge that he never even knew his dad. He wondered what that could do to a kid. Of course, he'd love to fill that spot whenever Claire was ready to let him. It should've bothered him more than it did maybe that Frank could possibly think of John as his dad versus Dan.

"You never even mentioned wanting me to meet them," she said in his SUV. It wasn't a bad night out. If he had to guess he'd say it was going to stay above freezing, which wasn't a bad thing at this time of the year. He hadn't been in her house long enough for his SUV to cool off either, so he knew she was at least comfortable inside right away without having to turn the heater up full blast.

"Oh, a few have asked about you. I mean, obviously I've been doing something with my time that doesn't involve them. It's been a while since I've been able to go out on Wednesday's or both weekend nights."

"You know, I've never said you can't do something on Wednesday's."

"Claire, really. You got that out of that sentence? That I don't want to see you?"

"No, I just meant, it's not like I'm an appointment or something. If you have something you want to do… You said you haven't been able to go out with them."

"Yeah, because I'd rather spend my time with you than them. It's not an issue, really, but they've been curious what I've been doing."

"You mean they don't even know?"

"No, I guess not really."

"So, I'm showing up at a party where no one even knows I exist?"

"Well, they know you exist. I mean I've mentioned you, sure. Greg and his wife, Lisa, know about you."

"They don't know you're dating me, though?"

"I," he paused, thinking that over. "Well, again, they realize I'm doing something with my time that doesn't involve them. I guess I presume they think I'm doing something with someone."

She looked truly a little panic stricken. Why?

"Is that wrong? I don't know. I didn't rush out and tell anyone I was seeing Amanda either."

"You weren't having sex with Amanda!"

"Well, yeah, but I'll bet most of them thought I was."

"I just assumed they knew about me."

"I told you I don't share much, and until a couple of months ago I wasn't even sure what we were doing. I wasn't going to tell them about you and have you disappear or decide you just wanted to be friends."

"And between now and then?"

"It hasn't come up? Greg knows. He's probably what you'd label my best friend."

"But he knew in January."

"About you, yeah. He didn't know anything else. I mean, I never told him how physical our relationship was. I think he just assumed I was trying to give you a relaxing weekend before Frank came."

She still didn't look happy. He wasn't sure what he'd said that was so wrong.

"I'm sorry if that is somehow not what you wanted to hear. Did I say something or do something wrong? You were very confusing to me, Claire. I had no idea what was going to happen. I really didn't want my friends wondering what the fuck I was doing wrong if it ended up we weren't going to be involved."

"Wrong? Meaning it shouldn't be difficult to get the widow with three kids to stay with you?"

"I did not say that! Don't go putting words into my mouth. You had all these rules. You think I wanted to tell my friends that I was involved with someone who felt guilty every time she touched me let alone anything else? I also knew if I'd said something and you met them later you'd think they thought badly of you."

"What if I had been pregnant?"

"Well, then I guess they'd know more about you than I was ready to tell them at the time. I don't know. Would I have had to tell them right then?"

"No," she said.

"There was no reason beyond consideration for you that I didn't say anything. I did tell Greg about you being late, though."


"Because until you actually called me a few days later and told me that the negative result was in fact truly negative I was pretty scared. My instinct was to say fuck etiquette or whatever rules you feel the need to follow and ask you to marry me."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you."

"And again. You get that out of that sentence? You definitely should have told me. You should have told me as soon as you thought it was an issue not waited days to tell me so you could worry about it by yourself. That doesn't take away from the fact that I was scared! I honestly have no idea how to be a dad and the hypothetical wanting to have one with you is a little different than holy shit I may actually have to do it."

"You'd do fine."

"You say that, but your kids aren't my kids. I don't see them every day. They don't come to me with questions. I don't discipline them or anything."

"Would you?"

"Would I what?"

"Discipline them?"

"What do you mean? They're not my kids."

"Yeah, but if we were living with you."

"Well, I guess that'd be a topic we'd have to discuss when that happened. I mean I have no idea what sort of rules you'd have with regard to that. I mean, I'm not their dad and I don't want you or them to think I think differently."

"But would you do it?"

He shrugged. "Sure. I mean, I'm not sure what you're asking me."

"Because of how you were raised, would you feel comfortable doing it?"

"I wouldn't spank them, no."

"I don't spank them anyway."

"I think in general I'd default to you, not out of any fear but because you're their mother."

"Yes, but if we were living together or married you'd be their step-father. And in some ways the only dad they'll ever really know."

And that scared the crap out of him, especially where Bill was concerned. He wasn't sure why because as young as he was his memories of his dad would probably fade a bit. That was probably why, he supposed. He was the one of the three who actually had memories of their dad, someone John could be compared to and how good or bad of a job he was doing.

"Well, yeah, but doesn't that usually fall to the mom anyway? I mean, in general. If you weren't home or something and one of them shaved the cat or something. Well, I guess I'd have to deal with that."

"We're going to have a cat?"

He chuckled. "I don't know. I was just saying."

"I'd like to see a cat sit still long enough to let a young boy shave it."

"Three young boys could corner a cat pretty easily, Princess."

"I suppose they could."

He pulled over into a small parking lot and put the car in park for a minute. This late on New Year's Eve everything in the little strip mall was closed.

"Listen. I didn't withhold information from my friends on purpose. I didn't want to embarrass you. If you met them in passing somewhere or somehow I didn't want you to think they were aware anything was happening between us beyond our being friends. Certainly if someone asked me outright what I was doing with the Wednesday nights I wasn't meeting them for drinks after work I would've told them I was hanging out with you. I know how you felt about people thinking something was going on between us, and like I said I was told last year that it was fairly obvious we at least like each other. So I figured you wouldn't want that."

"I get it."

"I'm glad because trust me I have no desire to hide you from anyone."


"I'm going to assume you're joking or teasing me."

"I am sort of."

"Sort of?"

"I'm not Amanda. They met her…"

"You're not her, no, I've never said I wanted you to be. I didn't love her. I didn't even really like her. My friends could see that and they should certainly be able to see that I do really like you."

"Yes, but she's gorgeous and probably has no stretch marks at all."

"Well, my friends aren't going to see your stretch marks and if they did well I'd gladly show them my marks and let them see for themselves that not everyone is perfect. Besides you don't have many."

"You'd really do that?"

"Sure. I mean, no one would think that, but they'd sure forget about stretch marks anyway."

"Yeah, but they're not your kids."

"So that means what?"

"I don't know. That they'll think you're crazy for getting involved with someone with so much baggage?"

"Your kids are not baggage and neither is the fact that you lost your husband. It's called life, Princess."

"I know."

"You're beautiful. You're smart, and trust me when I tell you I believe you're going to be way more successful than Amanda ever would be when you get done with school."


"Because you're smart and she was not so bright. And I've seen what you can do and I know that you don't have it in you to fail. Plus, well, she was a little crazy about things. You're not."

"I'm glad you don't think I'm crazy."

"Me, too, Princess. Because I'd be in a shit load of trouble if I did."


"Because I really don't think that would stop me from feeling how I do about you."

"Me neither."

"We're okay?"

"Yes. I just didn't realize no one knew who I was."

"And your friends know about me?"

"Well, yeah, I mean, most of them do because they're friends from high school. I tell them I've seen you, gone places with you. Nancy even knows we had sex when I was pregnant."

"You told her that?"

"I did," she said.

"I'm surprised."

"I was, too. She has a way of talking, though."

"Yeah, I bet she does. She's been doing it for over fifteen years now. I bet she's real good. Probably better than the Shermer school district deserves."

"She helped you, though."

"A little."

"Well, a little is better than nothing."

"It was," he admitted. She probably could have been more helpful if he'd wanted the help, but he hadn't. His fault, not hers.

He put the SUV back in gear then and drove off the parking lot back into traffic.

"By the way, if you wanted to come out with us some night, now that you'll have met just about everybody you'd be welcome to."

"Just not on a Wednesday?"

He chuckled softly. "Any night you want to, Princess. I swear I wasn't trying to hide you or anything, I was kind of making sure you didn't change your mind and getting scared right away you were pregnant. Well, I wasn't sure how you were going to react to it even though it was negative. You never said really, but I can't imagine you weren't a little freaked out."

"I was."

"At least we don't have to worry about that anymore."

"No," she said.

He'd been more than a little freaked out, too, truthfully. She'd told him a few days later she was definitely not and he was relieved but a little bummed, too. That was an absolutely crazy mindset to have, he knew that. The last thing she needed or wanted was another kid right now.

He swore though after using condoms for those six weeks until her doctor said she'd be protected if he never had to use another one again he'd be more than happy with that. He didn't dislike the things as some guys he knew did. He hadn't known the difference until her anyway. He'd seen a couple of women before her who'd claimed they'd been on the pill or were using something, but none of them were women he trusted enough to actually believe them. With Claire he knew she wasn't rushing out to get pregnant tomorrow so wouldn't lie to him about taking them.

"Are you really nervous?" she asked when they stopped in Greg's neighborhood. They always had a huge party every year. He usually went, except last year. He'd thought the work thing was more important and, well, he'd never had someone like Claire to bring to a work thing before. He'd kind of liked the idea.

"No, well, not for the reason you probably think."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, your friends and my friends are pretty different, you know. I mean, mine kind of run the gamut as far as what they do for a living and stuff."


"I guess I wonder if someone says something wrong or whatever."

"That I'd judge you for what someone else says?"

"Well, yeah, I hang out with them."

She shrugged. "Like my friends don't say stupid things?"

"I guess I don't know."

"Your friends aren't going to say anything to make me think badly of you, John."

"Greg mentioned maybe sometime you could bring your kids over."

"He did?"

"Yeah. I told him who I borrowed that movie for."

"Ah," she said.

"His kids are twelve, seven, six and, three I think. The older one may not be interested, but I bet the middle two sure would be. They're boys, the older one's a girl."

"A twelve year old girl wanting to play with an eight and four year old boy? I doubt it."

"You'd be surprised. She's actually real good with her brothers."

"Sure, they're her brothers."

"You know what I mean. She's taken a babysitting class somewhere, too. So, she might be someone willing to babysit the kids sometime."

"It's kind of a drive."

"Well, sure, but maybe we could do something with Greg and Lisa one night. I think you'd like her. She's a nurse."

"And Greg does something with cement, right?"

He chuckled softly. "Yeah, concrete, asphalt, and stuff like that. He owns the company."


"And their oldest daughter isn't really Greg's."


"Lisa, uh, had her in college I think. The guy bailed from my understanding, hasn't ever seen her."

"That's horrible."

"His loss and obviously Greg's done fine by her. He adopted her before their second one was born. They had to hire a private investigator to try to find the guy and stuff."

"Did he?"

"Must have, Greg's her dad."

"That's sad."

"On the other hand, maybe she could've ended up with an old man like mine was. Then it doesn't seem so sad, does it?"

"Well, no, put like that. It's just sad someone would run out on a child."

Wasn't that what her husband had done to all four of them? Sure, he'd died, but she said he always drove too fast and recklessly. If he gave a shit about any of them he would've changed his habits to be sure his wife and kids had a husband and father for as long as possible. Obviously, John wouldn't be here with her right now if the guy had done that, but he still couldn't help but think the guy had when it got down to it done the ultimate run-out on his family.

He got out then, walking to her side and opening the door for her. She didn't even try to open the door on her own, so evidently she was learning that he liked doing these things for her. Sure he didn't every single time, but when they were actually out together like this he did. He knew bringing up anything about Dan tonight would be bad. Not to mention, his opinion probably wouldn't make sense to her, surely she wouldn't see his accident as him leaving them. John had more than once, though.

"So I guess I should ask you before we go inside," he said, sliding his hand to the small of her back as they walked in the direction of Greg's house. She'd never been there, but it was pretty obvious which house was theirs going by the crowd of cars in front of it and the noise coming from it.


"Last year we left before midnight. Were you wanting to again tonight?"

"I don't know."


"You do, I suppose?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. It occurred to me it might be nice to be at my place then."

"That's fine."

"Just fine?" he asked.

"Well, they're your friends. I'm not going to tell you to leave early."

"Even if you wanted to?"

"No," she said.

"I'm not sure I like that. If you're miserable and want to leave I want you to tell me."

"I wouldn't do that, John. I don't care how many times you tell me I could, it would be rude. I'll be all right, don't worry. Whenever you're ready to leave is fine."

"Okay," he sighed. "That's not what I want, though, you know?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I know that's how you were raised and maybe that's how Dan liked you to be, but I want you to tell me when you're ready to go."

"Not your friend's party the first time I've met them."

He nodded a little, supposing she had a point there. "So if this wasn't the first time?"

"Then maybe I would."


Right now wasn't the time he realized, but they needed to have a discussion about her realizing he didn't want her to do what she thought made him happy all of the time. It was nice, no lying, but he knew there were times she agreed to something because she felt somehow she had to. Her mother's doing no doubt. He didn't want that, though. Surely she'd be happier and as a result he'd be too if she knew she could speak her mind just as freely as he could.

He'd left her in Lisa's capable hands. He wasn't friendly with many women, but Lisa was one of the few that he genuinely liked and thought even if she hadn't been Greg's wife and they'd met he may have befriended her. She was just one of those cool women out there. He was pretty sure Lisa knew more about his relationship with Claire than he'd ever told her by way of Greg knowing things about it. Lisa seemed to want to talk to her, probably hoping she was nothing like Amanda. Lisa hadn't cared for her much. She hadn't said so, but she hadn't had to. Lisa was one of those women who wore their emotions pretty clearly on their faces.

He'd never brought Amanda here. He never would've. While their house wasn't a disaster or anything with four kids and the hours they both worked their house wasn't spic and span from top to bottom on a daily basis. Their basement, where the kids played in the bulk of the time, was always unorganized. No one faulted them for that because theirs was the house all of the kids wanted to come play at. After school, on weekends, sleepovers – they did it all. John wasn't sure where they found the time or how they could afford to feed all the kids that came here sometimes. And they always got fed. Amanda wouldn't have been able to stand it here, though. The lived-in type of household wasn't something she could deal with.

He didn't just abandon her or anything. He watched, made sure she at least looked like she was having a good time. He walked up to her and whoever she was talking to a few times, too. She never did the same, though, and he wasn't sure if that was on purpose or not. Obviously it must have been intentional on her part but he wasn't sure why.

He hadn't seen her in a little while, though. At first he'd assumed she'd gone to the bathroom or something so hadn't thought much of it, but she'd been gone for longer than seemed necessary for that. Greg and Lisa had designed this house themselves and knowing they liked to entertain as much as they do made sure access to bathrooms on the first floor wasn't an issue for crowds like tonight.

He found her downstairs, which he supposed shouldn't have surprised him except her kids weren't down here. There were quite a few down here, they could have brought Claire's with them but she'd chosen to hire Shelly instead. Her choice, not at all his decision to make, but he thought they might have had fun here. Then he supposed, Frank was too young and she would've had to hire Shelly for him anyway.

She was helping a little girl he didn't know open a juice box. He knew what these things were only because he'd spent time with her kids. Otherwise worlds that existed with things like juice boxes and sippy cups had eluded him.

"What are you doing down here?" he asked.

"I saw her at the top of the stairs, looking kind of confused so I came to see what she needed."

Of course she would.

"Is she okay?"

"Yes. She just didn't want to ask one of the older kids for help with the straw."

"Ah," he said, understanding that phenomenon somewhat. Justin was like that when Bill was around. He'd rather not drink the damned thing than admit to his big brother he couldn't do it without his help.

He watched as Claire grazed a thumb across the little girl's cheek, taking a tear or two away with it. She must have been really upset if she was crying about it. Then he'd heard Greg say that girls were just that way sometimes. Their youngest was a girl where the middle two were boys so John felt his friend would know what he was talking about.

Claire held the box for the girl so she could take the first couple of sips without squeezing it too hard. John learned that trick the hard way, getting grape juice all over one of his shirts one day because he'd just handed the thing to Justin who squeezed it immediately upon getting it. He didn't always do that, but evidently there was some sort of unspoken sign an adult was supposed to pick up on to know when a kid was going to do something like that. John didn't know these signs, but evidently Claire did.

"Hi John," Beth said.

"Hey, Beth, I didn't know you were even here."

"Yeah, Mom and Dad kind of told me I had to be."

"Ah," he said, walking over to the couch. At twelve she probably had something else she'd rather have been doing tonight. "They wouldn't let you have anyone over?"

"No one I wanted to have over."

"Oh," he said.

He remembered now Greg telling him about a boy Beth liked in one of her classes. Greg had no idea how to handle the situation and John had absolutely no tips to offer his friend. What he knew about teenaged girls was next to nothing. And the things John did know about teenaged girls wouldn't soothe Greg's fears so he'd wisely kept quiet on the subject of teenaged boys being interested in his daughter.

"Is that your girlfriend?"

"Yeah. Her name is Claire."

"She seems nice. I didn't know who she was when she came down here to help Alyssa."

"She is nice," John said, watching Claire help the girl – Alyssa – find some girl toys she could play with. It was mostly boys down here, so not too many willing to play dolls with her. Dolls were something Claire had none of at her house. The closest she came were some stuffed animals the boys had, but not the same thing at all.

"Your sister is in bed already?"

Greg's youngest would probably be the perfect age to play with Alyssa. She was the reason they had any girl toys because by the time Greg and Lisa moved in here Beth had outgrown her younger toys. Since they just had the boys at the time they'd donated them to a daycare or a church nursery or something. John couldn't remember. They just hadn't wanted to move a bunch of toys they no longer needed and have them collect dust here, too.

"Yes," she said. "Her kids aren't here?"

"No. Maybe some other time. You have your hands full tonight as it is."

"She has a baby, though, doesn't she?"

"Yeah, he'll be a year in March."

"That would've been kind of fun."

"He's walking already," John said. Now that she mentioned Frank, he noticed there were no babies here tonight. Alyssa and those about her age seemed to be the youngest.

"Really? That's early."

"Yes, so his mom has told me."

"Not so fun then," she said.

John chuckled softly at that. He walked up to Claire then once she seemed to have gotten Alyssa settled with some things to keep her happy and busy. Claire took his hand which he happily gave her.

"Everything all right now?"

"I think so."

"She wants her mom," Beth said, having followed John. Maybe she'd play with the girl for a little bit. "She doesn't know any of the other kids here."

"Whose is she?" John asked. He couldn't say he'd ever seen her before. She was pretty cute, so John thought he'd remember her if he'd seen her before.

"I'm not sure. Someone's date, I think."

"See?" Claire said. "And you wonder why I didn't want to just stick Bill and Justin somewhere they didn't know anyone."

"Yeah, but she's younger than Justin, isn't she? And as you can see there are plenty of boys for them to play with."

"Yeah, I guess," Claire said. "I'll feel more comfortable next year bringing them." She didn't sound completely sure about that, but it was a start anyway.

"Good night, Beth," he said, leading Claire toward the stairs.

"Good night."

He understood, but he also thought it was a good excuse for whatever reason not to bring her kids here.

"Admit it, you're just a sucker for a little girl."

"Well, that's true," Claire said. "Little girl tears are the worst."

He leaned down and kissed her, lingering maybe a bit longer than he should have since there was a roomful of kids on the other side of the wall.

"What was that for?" she asked.

"I have to have a reason?"

"Well, no, I guess not. You just surprised me is all."

"Kissing you is a surprise?"

She shrugged.

"Because I haven't since we got here tonight? That's for you not for me."

"You're sure it's not because one of your ex-girlfriend's is upstairs?"

"What?" he asked.

"You heard me."

"I did. I don't know what you mean."

"You do, too."

"I don't!"

"I know the look, John. The look someone has on their face that says they know more about the person you're with than other people in the room do. I saw it more times than I can count over the years. I just wasn't expecting to see it here tonight."

"Claire, there is no one I've gone out with here tonight."

"You're positive? Because I swear to God I will go ask her, John."

She'd do it, too. He knew that because she'd tolerated dishonesty for so long she wouldn't again from him.

"I didn't go out with her. She's not an ex-girlfriend."

"You're lying."

"We were drunk! It was a weekend."

"You were drunk the entire weekend?"

Well put like that, no. "Claire."

"Yeah, see."

"See what? It was like eight years ago! You were married and at the very least pregnant if you didn't already have Bill. How is what I did at that time wrong?"

"She still likes you."

"She's here with someone else! So am I for that matter."

"As if that would stop some people."

"It would stop this people." He shook his head and stepped away from her a bit, bracing himself against the wall behind him. "And you don't believe me. Do you? Somewhere in there you think I'm going to do that to you, too."

"You stood up there with her feet away from you, from me, and didn't bother saying anything to me."

"What the hell was I supposed to say? I haven't seen her in a couple of years at least and I don't think she likes me. Since I don't think that and I certainly don't like her or think about her I wouldn't have any reason to warn you. I told you about Amanda being at the party we went to last year, so clearly I'm not trying to ambush you or something."

"A little warning about someone you've had sex with might have been nice."

"You really want me to do that? You want me to tell you every time we encounter or might encounter someone I've been with? Are you listening to yourself, Claire? I mean if that's what you want me to do, I'll do it, but I tend to think it's one of those things that what you don't know can't hurt you. If it's full disclosure you want," he shook his head slightly. "Well, if that's what you want we may as well leave and just forget about this right now because you'd end up leaving me about midway through your sophomore year anyway."

"I just wasn't expecting it."

"I've known most of the people here since I started working. That goes back to your freshman year of college. Through them I've met people at things like this party tonight. I had absolutely no reason to not go home with someone if they asked. I've never denied I enjoyed being single."

She snorted at that.

"Don't. Don't do that. I've done nothing to deserve that. I've been honest with you. Maybe too honest about my feelings, but I can't help that. It's how I feel and I'm not going to lose you because I don't tell you how I feel. You initiated sex with me, I didn't. You have other male friends. You could've gone to one of them."

"No, I couldn't have."

"Why not?"

"I told you! I loved you! Even though I didn't want to admit it to myself. There was no one else I would have gone to for that."

"And that's the only reason? Despite the fact you've admitted to me you weren't sure I'd be good there wasn't something in that head of yours that told you because of my experience you knew I'd go to bed with you? That at least you would've gotten sex out of the deal?"

"I didn't know you would. I really didn't. I expected you to tell me to get the fuck out of your house."

"I would never have told you that, Claire. Honestly, if you'd come to me when you were married I probably still wouldn't have said that."

"I wouldn't have."

"I know that," he said with a chuckle. "I'm just saying, I don't think that would've stopped me. Even knowing how much you would've hated yourself afterward I don't think I could have said no to you. God I hated him. Do you know that?"


"Dan. I didn't know him, obviously, so my hatred of him was completely irrational. I had a job, a good job, I had an apartment, and a car. I was all set to go to your house over the summer and ask you out. Then I heard you were involved," he shrugged. "Needless to say I didn't go over to your house."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not built that way. You were involved. I didn't go after chicks that were already spoken for and ones that I liked, which amounted to one by the way, scared the shit out of me so I certainly wouldn't have done it."

"I liked you, too."

"I'm glad you know I was talking about you, but clearly you liked him as well. Fuck did I hate him, though. You went back to school and I think I was out of control for a while. It really bothered me."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "Sometimes I think on that summer, wondering if I'd been assertive, pursued you, made you think twice about him."

"I don't think we'd be here today."

"I think you're probably right," he agreed. "I wasn't ready. Marriage, kids, or even just a house. I know it bothers you that I have the experience I do and I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault."

"I can honestly say that even if she and I were both single it wouldn't happen again."

"Thank you."

"Did you and Dan go to parties like this?"

"Sometimes. Sometimes he had to work. The show must go on, even on New Year's Eve."

"I suppose," he said not having thought on that. Things like theatre were completely foreign to him. He honestly couldn't say he'd ever seen a play outside of the one or two he'd been made to see at Shermer High.

"If he worked I'd take the boys, or just Bill before Justin, to someone's house who was doing something. I think once we had people over."

"Just once?"

"Yes, I swore I'd never do it again."

"Why? I'd think with kids it would be the easiest way to go about it."

"You want me to invite my boyfriend into your house?"

"Oh," he said, scowling at that thought. He stepped up to her again, sliding his arms around her. She let him so she couldn't be too mad at him anymore. "I'm sorry. I honestly didn't pay her any more attention than I paid anyone else here tonight. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, but I'm not sure what we can do about the situation. You hang out with my friends and I want you to, the boys, too. You're going to encounter women who look at me like that. I can promise and assure you that any look they give you doesn't come from any knowledge of me going on over two years now."

"I know," she whispered.

"Do you? Because I can assure you I am not crafty enough to juggle two women. I have my hands full with you. How much time do you think I have in a day? Your husband's job perhaps offered him opportunities mine doesn't."

She scoffed at that.

"What?" he asked.

"I've seen the way women react to construction workers."

"Sure, I won't deny that's true, but I'm not one of those guys out there on the side of the highway. I also learned before I was twenty not to pick up chicks anywhere near a work site."


"Because they come around again!"

"That must have been awful for you."

"Well, yeah. This one, I swear she sat in a parking lot for hours waiting for me to take my lunch. I didn't want to take it because I didn't want to sit with her while I ate my sandwich."


"I had absolutely nothing to say to her before or after we'd had sex. I wasn't going to pretend to be interested in whatever she had to talk about and not even get a blow job or something out of the deal."

"I bet she would've done that in her car if you'd asked."

"Sure, and every guy I was working with would've known! No thanks. I don't think I ever did that again after that."

She was quiet after that and he wasn't sure if maybe he'd said too much or something wrong. He glanced at his watch, noticing that the room with the kids was starting to get pretty quiet. The TV was still on, but the busy sounds of kids playing and being active were almost non-existent now. They'd been standing here that long, which also meant his friends were probably wondering where they'd gone off to.

He kissed her, and she kissed him back so that was good. She wasn't mad about what he'd just said. It was a weird situation because she knew what he'd been like so if he never talked about anything she'd probably be more suspicious than if he did. He didn't know. He slid his mouth to her ear, closing his eyes at the smell of her perfume there. She always wore something different when she got dressed up like this. He wasn't sure what it was. He always forgot to ask, but he loved it on her.

"Let's go home," he said.


"Forget my house," he said. "If we leave now we can be back at your place before midnight. I'll drop Shelly off, you can heat up a pizza or something, and we'll watch stuff on TV with the kids."

"You'd do that?"

He shrugged. "Sure. I mean you're not having a terrible time. Other than whatever look you're seeing, which I don't see by the way. You're more comfortable down here than up there though," he said. "That tells me you want to be home with your kids. So, let's go."

"You'd really do that?"

"What part of let's go are you not understanding, Claire? I'll go start the truck and when I come back in we can say goodbye to Greg and stuff. I'm not trying to make you have a bad time, really. And if bringing you somehow inadvertently made you remember some bad things. I didn't intend to do that. I can't tell you how sorry I am, really, that anyone here tonight made you feel in the least bit uncomfortable. I wanted you to have fun, a good time, so you'd want to come back. I don't want you to think that there's going to be an ex-whatever everywhere you look."

"I know," she whispered.

"So, I'll go start the truck and come back down here I suppose to get you. You can call Shelly if you want to tell her we'll be on our way."

She slid her arms around him and kissed him. Not a quick one either. He groaned softly as she parted her lips, sliding his hands along her hips to touch her thighs which he'd been itching to do since she answered the door wearing the dress. He'd touched them plenty without the dress on, sure, but there was something very exciting about her dressing like this for him. And it was for him, he knew that. Sure she liked looking good he wasn't stupid enough to think otherwise, but he knew things like the length of the skirt were for him more than for her.

"What are we waiting for?" she whispered.

"I'm waiting for you to tell me you want to go."

"No, that's not what I meant."

"Huh?" he asked.

"I don't want to wait to marry you."

"I'm sorry?" he asked, sounding incredibly stupid but he had to, positively be hearing things.

"I know you heard me."

"Are you drunk?"

She laughed softly. "No, I'm quite sober."

"How did we go from you thinking I was somehow deceiving you about my previous relationships to you wanting to marry me in a span of twenty minutes or so?"

"You were willing to take me home."

"Well, of course I am. How else would you get there?"

"No, I mean, you're willing to take me to my house where we won't be alone instead of your house where we will be knowing Mom's going to babysit for the night."

"I want you happy, Claire. Your kids make you happy."

"You make me happy."

"I'm glad to hear that. I wonder sometimes."

"You do. And I'd love to try for a daughter with you."

"Now that I like the sound of."

"Not that I don't want to wait to marry you?"

"Oh, I love the sound of that."

"Do you?"

"God yes, Claire. I'd marry you right now if I could."

She laughed softly, kissing his jaw.

"Take me home."

"That's what I've been trying to do! You're distracting me with talk of marriage and babies. It's your fault."

"I'm sorry. Not my home," she whispered. "Yours."

"You're sure?"


"You realize it'll be our home?"


"Amanda was right then, huh?"

"That I was after your house?"


"She had me pegged."

He kissed her again. "Jesus I wish the basement wasn't full of kids," he whispered.

"Hmm, you're that anxious?"

"I've never had sex with a woman who told me they wanted to marry me before."

"That excites you?"

"Because it's you, yes."

"I'm sure we could find somewhere to pull over on the way if you really wanted to. You have those tinted windows. No one would see."

"I do," he agreed. He'd never appreciated having them for that reason before. It'd been a long, long time since he'd had to have sex in a car.

"How many women have told you that they want to marry you before?"

"Before? Let me see," he said. "It's hard to count that high."

"It is, huh?"

"Yes, you know, guys like me we're not so good with the math. I can count to one easily enough though."

"Before me?"

"There is no before you. Now can we go?"

She laughed softly. "Yes. I'll get our coats."

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