***Chapter Twenty-Five***
Word Count: 5,290

February 1996

"You look nervous," Claire said to John.

"Because I am," he said. He turned his SUV around to go back home at least twice on the way here today, which was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever contemplated doing in his life. She wouldn't have gotten mad or anything if he decided not to do this since it was his idea to begin with. She probably would've taken him not showing up as a sign that he wasn't ready, though.

"You've taken Bill out to lunch before."

"I have, but never for this reason."

"You don't have to," she said.

"Yeah," John said. "Yeah, I do. He deserves it. He's almost nine. He's not a little kid."

"I still can't believe Justin's going to be five next weekend."

"It's kind of weird Justin and Frank having birthdays just a month apart." He hadn't really thought of that being the case until recently when she started getting ready for Justin's party. Maybe he hadn't really paid attention last year, he wasn't sure.

"At least I don't have to worry about both of them needing parties for a while."

"You're not going to have one for Frank?" he asked with a slight frown. He found that very hard to believe for some reason.

"Well, sure, but he has no friends yet other than the one or two he knows through my friends and is only one so doesn't require the same kind of stuff Bill or Justin do. Scott and his family will come, Mom will be here, of course. A few friends will be here, but only their kids."

"I see."

"And you, of course."

"I was wondering if I was included."

"That's a given."

"I'm glad."

"Go get Bill."

"Are you anxious or something?"

"A little. I mean, this not telling anyone has been killing me."

"I understand. We'll take care of that inability today."

"I've just been afraid I'd say something to someone or Mom in front of the boys."

"I know. I just wanted to be sure, you know?"

"You really thought I'd change my mind?"

"I thought the possibility might exist that you'd reconsider after thinking further about running across more of my past."

"Is that why you had us just meet Greg and Lisa for dinner last weekend?"

"Yes, kind of. I knew you didn't get the chance to really talk to them at their party. They were busy and you weren't comfortable. I want you to like one another."

"They're nice."

"They are and they're good people. I don't really care if you never want to talk to any of the other people I hang out with, but I care about your liking and knowing them."

"I know, and I will try with the rest of them."

"I know, and I appreciate it. As long as you're nice I don't really care."

"I'm never not nice!"

"I know, Princess. I'm just clarifying."

"Go get Bill. He's waiting for you."

"Oh? You told him."


"He's cool with it being just us?"

"Yes. It's not like you haven't done it before."

"I know, but it's been a while. I try not to leave Justin out."

"Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me for wanting to treat them fairly."

"That doesn't mean I won't say it."

"Yeah," he said.

He walked to the kitchen where he heard the boys talking amongst themselves. Claire's mom wasn't home it seemed. Either that or she was upstairs laying down, which she did sometimes. Understandable. He knew taking care of Justin and Frank all of the time when Claire was at class took its toll. Bill was a little different since he was in school the bulk of the day, but still it was more than she was used to not having had little kids in the house for years. John honestly wasn't sure he could do it at the drop of a hat like Mrs. Standish had done.

"Hey guys," he said. "What are you doing in here?"

"Mommy fixed me grilled cheese and tomato soup," Justin said.

"That sounds great."

"Mommy said Bill doesn't need any."

"Not today, no. I have somewhere to take Bill."

"Oh," Justin said.

He looked a little disappointed and that bothered John. He'd be starting school in the fall, so he wasn't the same kid John was completely clueless what to do with two years ago. He was still kind of out of his league, though. He wasn't really old enough yet to talk to about anything. He was fine watching a movie with him or coloring with him but beyond that he was just sort of winging it. Justin didn't seem to notice or even care.

"You ready, Bill? Get your coat and stuff."

John noticed then his coat was already hanging on the back of the chair so all he had to do was slip it and his hat and gloves on. His boots were by the door.

John listened to Bill as he talked about school for the first few minutes after they'd ordered. He debated on where to take him. He loved going to places with play areas, but John sort of wanted his attention today so he'd chosen a sit-down place instead. Bill liked them, too, because the only time Claire ever took them out to eat was with John along. She didn't eat out otherwise.

"Would you be mad if you had to switch schools again next year?" John asked.

Bill shrugged. "I'd miss my friends."

John chuckled softly at that. "I bet you would, yeah." He'd never moved in his life so he'd grown up from Kindergarten through high school with the same group of kids. Some moved away, of course, but John hadn't. He knew there were parents who wished they'd moved away, but they'd stayed.

"So, I invited you to lunch with me to talk to you a bit. Is that okay? We can do that?"

"Uh huh," Bill said.

"Your mom and I are talking about getting married. She and I both thought you should know before anyone else. And since I'm the one asking her it seemed I should be the one to tell you."

"What would that mean?" he asked.

"Well, you'd live with me at my house. You'd go to school there. You'd make new friends there. Certainly you'd still come around here to visit your grandma and your aunt and uncle so I'm sure your mom would bring you here to see friends here if you wanted to do that. You'd still be able to do all of your sports and everything. Plus you'd have the lake right outside your door all summer long."

"What about my dad?"

"Well, he'll always be your dad. I've told you before it's up to you to tell Justin and Frank about him so they can at least share your memories. I'd love to be your dad, too, though. I love you, you know that. All three of you. Your mom, too."

"I love you, too."

"And I'm glad about that, really. I'll be as much of a dad as you want me to be. I'm not trying to take his place or anything, but your mom doesn't deserve to be alone for the rest of her life either."

"She likes being with you."

"I like being with her, too. All of you. I want to be with all of you every day."


"That would mean maybe your mom wouldn't be Claire Abbott anymore."

"Why not?"

"Well, she was Claire Standish, the same as your uncle Scott until she married your dad. That's just what you do when you get married."

This was the sticky part. Claire wasn't sure how Bill would feel about their mom having a different name than them, but particularly him. She'd taught kids evidently that had a hard time feeling as though they didn't belong anymore because of a name change.


"Now something your mom and I mentioned was the possibility in a year or two I could adopt you guys and you'd all have the same name again. That'd be entirely up to you, though. I'm fine being your step-dad."

"But our dad would still be our dad?"

"If I adopted you? Yes. If he was still alive certainly your mom and I wouldn't have even talked about it. He's not though, and maybe you'd like having a dad that's here now, too. Both of us. You know? That's totally up to you since you're the oldest and I'm pretty sure Justin would do whatever you wanted."

"Frank's too little."

"You're right, but that's the other thing. Frank will most likely grow up thinking I'm his dad. I have no way of controlling that. I'm going to be around him every day, taking him to school and stuff just like you guys, but you guys know there was someone before me. Frank never will. He'll just know me."

"I get it."

"So, maybe having my name would bother you for that reason because then Frank wouldn't ever have anything of your dad's. I don't know. I don't have to, but your mom and I want all of us to be a family and you guys to feel like you belong with us and at my house."

"Yes, Sir."

"And I think now I can finally tell you to stop calling me sir."

"I'm sorry?"

He chuckled. "I've been waiting a couple of years to say that, but I've always respected your mom's rules. I think since we're getting married you can just call me John."

"Would we have to call you dad?"

"Nope. You guys could call me whatever you want. The adoption would be so you guys, and your mom, are protected. Nothing more. If you wanted to call me John that's fine."

"People would wonder why, though."

"Maybe. And you'd have nothing to be ashamed of by the truth that I'm your step-dad who just happened to adopt you. It wouldn't happen tomorrow. Your mom probably would want to think long and hard on doing that, too. It's just Frank that got us talking about it at all."

"I understand."

"Can I tell anyone?" he asked after a couple of minutes of being quiet. John had kept quiet himself, letting Bill think all this through.

"You can. We'll tell your grandma next, though."

"I was really the first?"

"You sure were. If you weren't happy about it," he shrugged. He wasn't sure what he and Claire would've done if Bill had thrown a fit or something at the idea of them getting married. Then again, John wouldn't have proposed if he thought Bill would be a problem.

"I want to have a daddy again."

"I bet you do. In some ways I think losing your dad was hardest on you because you remember him most, did things with him."

"He took me to plays sometimes."

"Did he?"


"Did you like that?"

"It was fun."

"Did you see him perform?"

"I did. I was in one once, too."


"It was a Christmas show and there were lots of kids. I think they just kind of used the kids they could."

"Did you get to be onstage with him?"

"For a minute."

"Well, a minute is better than no minutes. I'll bet that was fun."

"It was."

"See, and that's something you can tell Justin and Frank about they'd enjoy hearing. Your mom can't tell them about acting with him, but you can."

"I saw him kissing someone."

"I'm sorry?" John said.

"In the show."

"He was acting then, I'm sure."

"No, they weren't onstage."

"Oh," John said, his stomach dropping a little at that.

"They didn't know I was there. There was this really old watch that was a prop and I was playing with it."

"You weren't supposed to be?"

"No, Sir," he said. "I was hiding. It was so dark backstage there were tons of places to hide. I just wanted to see it. I hadn't seen one like it before."

"No?" John asked, hoping to distract him from what he thought he saw. "Did it have a chain on it, like someone would wear it?"


"It was an older play then?"

"Yes, Sir."



"It's okay."

"Anyway, they were there. I only know it was Daddy because of his voice."

Sound reasoning, certainly John couldn't question whether Bill knew what his dad sounded like.

"You're sure it wasn't your mom?"

"No," Bill said with a shake of his head. "Mom was home with Justin. He was little, well, you know, littler than he is now. Like Frank."

"I see. Did you tell your mom?"

"No, Sir. I didn't want to get in trouble."

"For taking the watch?"

"That and for hiding. I was supposed to stay where I could be found since it was so dark back there."

"Right," John said. "Well, I'm sure your dad had his reasons, Bill. I don't know."

"She was crying."

"Maybe she was sad then," John said. God he did not want to be having this conversation with him at all. "Your dad was probably just being nice to his friend. I'm sure he worked with a lot of the same people sometimes."

"Yes!" Bill said, as if John had said something that made sense. "I'd seen her before."

"Well, then, I'm sure that's what it was."

"She was sad about losing a baby."

"Oh," John said.

"So she was sad."

"I'm sure she was. That's always sad."

"How does that happen?"

"I'm not really sure, Bill. Your mom is pretty lucky that she had all three of you very easily. Some people don't get lucky like that. I don't know why. I'm sure your dad's friend was fine, though."

"Daddy wasn't nice."

"To his friend?"


"Why not?"

"He said," Bill paused glancing at his hands. This had to be a few years ago so he was probably struggling to remember what his dad had said. He would've been five maybe? "I don't remember."

"It's okay. I'm sorry you heard your dad say something not nice. Adults do that sometimes. Maybe your dad didn't like her boyfriend or husband."

"She didn't have one."

"Oh," John said. "Adults still do that sometimes and especially if they didn't know you were there, hearing them. I'm sure he would've been nicer if he'd known that."

"She didn't like me much. She told Daddy he shouldn't have had me be in the show."

"Really? Well, then that's her problem not yours. Your dad obviously wanted you in the show and like I said that's a special memory for you." John could imagine having Bill in the show with his dad probably did change things if the woman in question was a girlfriend or something. There'd be no going out after the show because he would've been responsible for getting Bill home afterward. "And to be honest, some people, adults, aren't that fond of kids."

"Then she shouldn't have been having a baby."

"True enough," John said with a chuckle. Was he talking about the woman Claire had told him about? She'd made it sound as if it had happened a long time ago, like when they'd first moved to New York. Was this another one?

"So, we're okay?" John asked.

He really, really wanted to steer the conversation away from any other possible damning conversations he could have overheard his dad having with women. From the way Claire made it sound there weren't just one or two of them over the years. John couldn't even imagine being that bold, kissing someone else knowing his kid was around. Bill was hiding, true, but what if he hadn't been hiding and just happened to walk upon them?


"You're okay with your mom and me getting married? Living in a new house? A new school?"

"Yes, Sir. Mommy told me when we moved here I'd be switching schools again."

"Right. She planned on finding a house, but decided to go back to school instead and stay with your grandma a little longer."

"We won't be doing that anymore then?"

"No. Your mom or I will have to bring Frank to your grandma's house. Then she'd come get you guys from school and stay at our house with you three until your mom or I got home. Unless we can convince your grandma to come to our house during the day instead."


"Do me a favor, though, okay?"


"Don't tell your mom what you just told me about."


"Women don't want to hear about their man kissing someone else, friendly or not. We don't want to upset her. Right?"

"No, Sir."

"You can tell me anything, though. You know? I won't get mad or anything." Mad at him anyway, mad at his dad yes.

"Okay. When are you and my mommy going to get married?"

"Well, we haven't really decided yet. She thinks I want a wedding since I've never been married."

"You haven't?"

He chuckled. "No."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. I guess I was waiting for your mom to come back here."


"That's not really my reason, Buddy. I'm sorry. I had no way of knowing your dad would die or anything. I shouldn't have said it that way. I'm sorry, really. I just meant, I've never loved anyone but your mom. I mean I tried, I just didn't so I didn't want to marry someone I didn't love."


"I'm trying to convince her we could anytime and her or I could drop your brothers at your grandma's and you at school until the end of the school year."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. I don't want you to move schools this close to the end of the year, but I don't want that to be the reason we don't get married either. Your mom and I were going to go through all the stuff she brought back here with her from New York and what we want to take to my house. Your beds obviously will come with. Whatever else has been packed away you can look through and tell us what you want. All of it, none of it. It's up to you guys. Some of it you've outgrown I'm sure."

"We have the bunk beds."

"You do, and you can certainly use those if you want, but you'd want your own room if you're living there all the time, wouldn't you?"

"I think so," Bill said.

"Well, you guys can decide that and if you want the bunk beds to be in Justin's room and you can sleep in there when you feel like it that's cool, too. I don't think your mom cares any more than I do as long as you're sleeping in a bed. I think your mom would agree with me, though, when I say as you get older you're going to want your own room. You'll have friends spend the night or come over after school and you won't want Justin around all of the time."

"I don't even now."

John chuckled at that.

"Yeah, well, you're a good big brother."

"Do you have a brother?"

"No, just me."

"Are your parents here?"

"Yes. I don't talk to them, though."


"They weren't very nice people or parents. I haven't talked to them for a very long time. Before you were born even."

"Oh. I think you told me that before."

"You'll never meet them. You remember your friend you were telling me about? The one whose parents don't come to anything? And didn't take her trick-or-treating?"


"Yeah, that was it. Her parents sounded kind of like mine, hopefully not as mean, though."

"Mom asks me about her."



"Good. I was worried about her so I'm glad someone asks about her. Not everyone has mommy and daddy's who love them like you do. You're lucky."

"I know."

"You know, there is no hurry on deciding whether you and your brothers want my name. Even if you're fifteen and decide you want to, I'd be fine with that. And if you decide you never want to I'm fine with that, too. I mean, I'd love for you guys to, but you have your dad's name and that's important. I know that."

"You don't like your dad."


"You probably don't like his name."

John chuckled at that. "No, I don't. But you do, so I totally get why not having his name would be a big deal. It makes no difference to me or your mom, the decision is totally yours. I won't be mad or think it means you don't love me. I promise."


"And if I do something wrong you need to tell me."


"Well, yeah. I don't know what you will want from me. What you'll want me to be. So if I'm too much of a dad and you don't want that, tell me. If I'm not being enough of a dad, tell me that, too. This is new to me and your mom wouldn't tell me I don't think."

"I'd like a dad."

"I'd very much like to give that to you."

"Is your bedroom still going to be downstairs?"

He chuckled at that. Interesting question. He was surprised Bill really understood that was odd. He'd been in some houses that had a bedroom on the main floor, but it wasn't usually used as the master bedroom as his was.

"I don't know. I haven't moved upstairs because I guess I'm just used to my room being there. I haven't had any reason to have it anywhere else. Is that weird to you?"

"Well, no."


"Well, do I get to pick my room?"

Ah, John realized where he was going with this.

"I think that would be up to your mom. I'm betting she'll want the room you're thinking you want. It's a nice room and looks out over the lake. My room doesn't have many windows and overlooks my front yard. You have good taste, though."

Bill blushed a bit at that.

They finished up after that and John brought Bill back home. Claire was cooking all of them something for dinner, another indication her mother wasn't at home because otherwise Claire didn't get much opportunity to cook. Bill went off to find Justin, leaving John alone with Claire.

He slid his arms around her from behind and kissed the back of her neck.

"I love when you do that."

"Cook in my kitchen and I'll do it every day."



"Cook in my kitchen naked and I'll do more than that."


He nipped at the nape of her neck. She gripped the counter in front of her as he did that. He slid a hand up from her waist, under her shirt to touch her. She gasped softly and he groaned as she pressed into him.

"The kids."

"We'll hear them. Besides he's probably downstairs telling Justin what we talked about."

"I'm going to assume it went well," she said. He laughed softly at that.

"It went fine I think," he shrugged. "I don't know how much he truly understands, but I tried to be upfront with him and tell him I need his help knowing what he wants from me for them."

"Even with Frank?"

"That's up to you and I'll be whatever you want me to be to Frank. You know that. I don't think Bill's as protective of Frank as he is of Justin. Frank never knew Dan."

"You told him about adopting them?"

"I did. I made sure he knows I'm in absolutely no hurry. If he wants me to that's fine; if he doesn't that's fine too. I told him if he was fifteen and decided he wanted me to I would."

"I think if we have one of our own…"

"Yeah, I thought that, too, but I wasn't going to tell him that was an option. I figured laying getting married and moving was enough for today."

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"Talking to him like that."

"I love him, of course I'm going to. Your dad's not here for me to get his blessing, I figured Bill's as good as anyone."


"Now can we get married?"


"What? This is ridiculously stupid."

"It is not. We still need to tell Mom."

"We can do that when she gets home. Your brother will be here next week for Justin's party. Done and done. What else is holding you up?"


"School? I already told you if I have to drive them here every day you can't because of your class schedule I will do it. That shouldn't be a problem, I thought we established that already."

"I know, but that's dumb."

"So is you not being my wife when you want to be. And I really, really want you to be."

She turned then to face him, running a fingertip along his mouth. "You're sure you don't want a wedding."

"I want you there and whoever needs to be there so we're legal. That's all I care about. Your mom, your brother, Nancy. I don't care."

"That seems so unfair."

"To me! And it's my decision."

"But your friends."

"Oh God, Claire. I don't care."

"They're going to think…"

"What? That I love you so we eloped?"

"That I'm pregnant."

"And when you have no baby in nine months they'll know that wasn't the case."

"Or that I lost it. Or that I tricked you, lied to you, to get you to marry me. I'm sure I wouldn't be the first woman to think of doing that to you."

He winced a bit at that. There'd been one, years ago. He'd never had a condom break, but she swore she was pregnant and it was his. It was the closest he'd come to being scared shitless. She'd confessed months later when he hadn't bit and done the right thing that she was seeing what he'd do. He'd never talked to her again neither had anyone else who knew her and what she'd done. He didn't kiss and tell, but with her he told anyone and everyone who would listen.

"Fine," he whispered, drawing her against him. "I don't want to wait. We've already waited long enough as far as I'm concerned. I don't care what my friends think, but I get where you're coming from. So, fine."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"How much time are we talking?" he asked.

"For a wedding?"

"Not the kind of wedding you think we should have. I will put my foot down at the big church thing with music and rice and all that. You even said yourself you already had that, so you don't need it again. I don't want it. I just want to get married. I'd go to the courthouse tomorrow morning if you agreed to. So, I'm talking about the kind of wedding I'd be happy with having. We could have it at my place or here for all I care. A few friends. I'd be okay with that. So, how long of a timeframe are we talking?"

"A couple of months at least. We'd have to make sure my priest was free."

"So, what? A ceremony and lunch or dinner afterward? Is that what we're talking?"


"No presents? No receptions?"

"Well, lunch or dinner afterward would be a reception, but the type you mean, no."

"Give me the date and I'll be there, Princess. I still think it's ridiculous."

"And your friends wouldn't want to see you get married? See you actually do that?"

"Well, sure," he said.

"And at least during the summer we could go somewhere for a few days."

"Around my work schedule," he said.

"You have vacation. I don't have vacation days from school."

"You're right. Just to be clear, though, I'm not marrying you for my friends. I'm marrying you for me, so whether it is just the two of us I don't care."

"I understand that, John, I do," she said. She leaned in and kissed him. "Your parents can't be there."


"Shh, let me finish."


"Your parents can't be there. You have no other family. We're getting married, John. It should be a celebration. You should have people there who care about you and want to see you happy. You should be able to look back fifty years from now at the day and at least think it was special versus just another day."

"Point taken. I get it. I do. I just don't want you thinking I need it. I don't."

"I know that. It's still our wedding, even if I've done it before I haven't done it with you."

"You won't be doing it with anyone else again either."

"I have no plans to, no."

"Good to know."

"I agree."

"Where is your mother, anyway?"

"She's at Scott's house."


"Yes, he and Joan had something to do for work so she's there for the night babysitting Scotty and Maddie."


"I didn't tell you that?"

"No. So does that mean I can stay here tonight?"

"You could if you want to."

"I want."

"Well, I know what you want."

He chuckled softly.

"And you don't?"

"Well, of course I do. It's just not all I think about."

"Can I somehow convince you to make it all you think about it?"


"Tell me what to do?"

"Get the boys to bed and then come to bed with me."

"That's it?"

"For tonight."

"It's early, but I'll work on it when it's time for sure."

"Good enough for me."

"I can't convince you to go upstairs?"

"What is wrong with you?"

"Oh, you know, one hurdle down, the biggest one as far as I was concerned. I actually feel like it's going to happen now."

"You didn't before?"

He picked her up, setting her on the desk nearby. Much more comfortable than the counters here or at his house not that they'd done anything in her kitchen. They were very rarely ever alone here. He slid his hand along her thigh, pushing her skirt up.

"Well, if he'd said he didn't want me anywhere near you or them I would have had a hard time not acknowledging he had a problem with our getting married. And if he had a problem with it I know you'd have a problem with it because loving me or not, they're your kids and I know they'll come first."

"Not forever."

"Really? Don't lie to me."

"Well, they'll grow up."

"Sure, and your mom assumed you'd be here with three kids ten years after graduating high school?"

"Well, of course not."

"That's all I'm saying. You're always their mom, I wouldn't have it any other way."

"You're not treating me like their mom right now," she whispered as he slid a fingertip inside of her panties.

"I'm trying to tempt you. It's not often we get your house essentially to ourselves."

"True," she said, drawing his mouth down to hers so she could kiss him.

"I'll be very quiet and …"


"I was trying to think of a better word than that. Efficient?"

"You know I can't say no to you."

"That is my plan, yes," he whispered. "I promise I will be decent in seconds flat if I hear them coming up the stairs."

"You know we could just go up to my room…"

"Not as fun and totally defeats the purpose of you being on the pill."

"It does," she asked.


"Well, we wouldn't want that."

"Spontaneity is good," he whispered, sliding into her.

"I think I agree."

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