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***Chapter One***
Word Count: 2,636

July 1994

If she could just get through the next couple of days she'd be fine. At least that's what she kept telling herself. She'd been telling herself that for a month now, though. It worked some days, some days it didn't. She swore when she was done with this, though, she was never wearing black again. The somber smile was pasted onto her face by now as hundreds of people went through the receiving line between last night and tonight offering their condolences. No one expected her father to drop dead of a heart attack before the age of sixty. He was overall the epitome of good health. Sure, he drank on occasion, but he exercised and didn't smoke or anything else.

Her first genuine smile came when of all people Brian Johnson came through the line. He offered her a hug.

"I'm so sorry, Claire," he said.

"Thank you," she said.

"If there's anything you need, anything at all, just let me know. All right?"

"Thank you," she said again sincerely. Of all the people who had said those words to her over the last seventy-two hours he was the only one she believed to be sincere in the offer. She knew without a doubt if she called him later tonight or even a week from now and told him she needed something he'd do what he could to get it for her.

They hadn't remained close friends or anything, but she'd kept in touch with him throughout college since they'd both gone to University of Michigan. Neither had known anyone else who'd gone there so they met for coffee once in a while just to talk. He'd helped her with her sciences homework more than once. She'd helped him a couple times, too, with his foreign language requirement. She had a knack for them, picking them up easily for whatever reason.

They'd kept in touch enough after college for her to know what he'd been up to. She imagined he knew the same about her, probably some things she'd rather he didn't know considering he was from home and not just college. She had his home number, which was how she knew his offer of help was a sincere one. She really knew how to get in touch with him.

"I'll see you later. Maybe before you leave?"

"Yeah, sure," she said. "Maybe," she added. She was flying out tomorrow so she doubted it, but he was being nice and was sure he didn't really mean it.

Not too far behind Brian was Andy. He was the only one from that day of detention whose relationship with her hadn't changed from what it had been going into that day. He'd blown out his knee, though, midway through college and had to fall back on academics. His father hadn't been happy, but Claire couldn't remember seeing Andy in a better mood than their last year or so of college when the pressure of being an Olympian or something was off of him.

"I'm so sorry, Claire. I was shocked when I read the announcement in the paper."

"I know. I guess I'm glad it happened like that if it had to happen. They say he didn't suffer."

"That's something," Andy said. She imagined he'd probably like to see his dad suffer just a little. She knew their relationship hadn't gotten any better. Now, though, he was teaching Physical Education and wrestling at an area high school. She hoped he learned from how he'd been treated not to treat others the same way he'd loathed back then.

There was going to be a lunch at their house after the funeral, but they had to stand here and wait for everyone to leave the church before they could leave. She had no idea who even half of these people were, but she was the daughter he was evidently proud of because everyone told her how often he spoke of her. She found it hard to believe that was the case because he hadn't approved of some of her choices over the years. Then what parent had, she supposed.

A few of her lifelong friends had come to the wake or funeral today, but overall not many had. Her brother, Scott, had a ton of friends come. Claire wasn't sure what that said about her or her friends. Then, Scott still lived in the area where Claire didn't.

"I guess it's okay for us to go," Scott said. His wife Joan was busy gathering up the kids.

"Yeah," she said.

"Just a little while longer, Claire. I know this is hardest on you."

She shrugged. "I'm fine." Numb was more like it.

"You say that, but you don't have to lie to me of all people."

"Oh I won't deny tonight before bed I'll probably drink a big glass of brandy."

"I might just join you."

"I'd like that," she said.

They were fairly close as siblings went despite the distance between them. She was currently living in New York after a brief (less than a year) stint in Los Angeles. The move to New York was supposed to be the last, permanent, one. She wasn't sure anymore, though, if she was going to stay.

"We can catch up aside from the obvious. We haven't talked since before all of this."

"I know."

He gave her a hug, going to help Joan afterward. Claire joined them as well.

"Auntie Claire," her niece Maddie said. "Can I ride with you?"

"I guess that's up to your mom and dad."

"It's fine as long as it's okay with you."

"Sure," she said. "I'd love it."

Maddie stuck her tongue out at her older brother, Scott Junior, who in turn pulled on her braid hard enough for her to cry out "ow".

"That's enough or you're not going to ride with her," Scott said.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No, you're not," Joan said, "but at least you apologized this time."

"I just haven't seen her in forever," Maddie said.

"I know," Claire said. Of course it seemed like forever to Maddie's three year old mind. It'd only been a few weeks. Before that, though, it had been far too long.

"Let's go," she said, gathering up those who were riding with her. "There's food waiting for us at Grandma's house."

She stopped, dropping the little cap she was holding when she saw him standing there. He looked positively too good in a suit that he had no business making look sinful because it was just a basic suit. He was watching her curiously as she stooped to pick up the dropped hat.

"Hi," she said finally. "I didn't see you."

"I kind of sat toward the back and then the line was practically to the altar so I just waited."

"Oh," she said. "How are you?"

"Good. I'd ask the same question, but I can sort of figure it out."

"Yeah," she said. "I saw Brian and Andy."

"No Allison?"

"No, I think they're having problems," she said with a shrug.

"Problems enough she wouldn't come to something like this with him? That's too bad. I always figured them for the couple most likely to make it."


"Yeah, you know, they genuinely liked one another," he said.

"I guess they did."

"So, back to your house?"

"Yes, are you coming?"

"I could. I was really just here to offer my condolences."

"If you're busy that's fine, but if not you'd be more than welcome."

"Are Andy and Brian going to be there?"

"I didn't ask them, no. Andy might because he knows where I live, I'm not sure Brian does."

"I'm betting with all of his computer gizmos he could figure it out."

She smiled at that. "I'll bet he could."

"You sure you don't mind, Claire?" Joan asked.

"No, it's fine. I'll be right behind you. I promise."

"Okay, thanks," she said.



"She's about what I pictured for ol' Scott."

"You know my brother?"

"By reputation. He was quite the ladies' man in his day at Shermer."

Claire frowned slightly. He had been, of course, John spoke the truth. That was years ago, though. He'd met Joan and for whatever reason no one else ever turned his head again.

"See you at the house? I've got to get them going or they're liable to tear this place apart."


"You remember how to get there?"

He scoffed. "Yes," he said.


She made her way home, wondering how many drinks her mom had imbibed in between getting home and people arriving. She hoped not many. Of course, no one would blame her since her husband had died, but anyone who knew their mother knew that a few too many was not uncommon for her.

Everyone inside and accounted for she pasted the fake smile back on and prepared herself to hear stories about her father going back to high school and possibly earlier. Stories she'd heard before, but she'd listen again pretending that she wouldn't rather be curled up in bed with her blankets over her head, hiding from the world.

Hours it went on. She listened, she talked, and she even laughed a couple of times. It seemed so wrong to laugh at a funeral, but there were funny stories involving her dad and it seemed disrespectful not to enjoy those, too.

"I'm surprised you came alone," John said much later on in the evening.

"Well, I didn't. Not completely," she replied.

"Want to get out of here?" John asked.

"I can't," she said.

"You can't? Most everyone's gone by now."

"I'm surprised you stayed."

"I figured you could use a drink or something when it was all done. Come on, the husband can't get mad at an old friend helping you drink your sorrows away."

"I'll have to settle for having it here."


She sighed softly. Was it possible he really didn't know?

"I'm here by myself," she said finally.

"Even more reason not to worry about it. A drink isn't doing anything wrong."

"Mommy," Bill ran up to her.

"Yes, honey?"

"Uncle Scott said I had to ask if we can watch The Flintstones downstairs."

"I suppose," she said, watching John as he regarded her rather intrigued. "Not too late, though. We're leaving to go back home early tomorrow don't forget."

"Okay," he said, hugging her. "You're the best."

"I'll remember that when you're mad at me for making you eat your broccoli."

"Mom," he said clearly embarrassed to have that bit of information shared with a stranger, running off toward the basement.

John chuckled. "About seven?"

"Yes," she said.

"I heard you'd gotten married before graduating."

"Yeah," she said.

"Is that why?"


"Is he why?"

"No," she said softly. "We wanted to get married. He was a year ahead of me. I don't know," she shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Where is he?"

Oh God, he really didn't know.

"I take it you only read the part of the obituary that said Dad's name?"

"What?" he asked, clearly confused.

"Well, if you had read the obituary you would know why he's not here."

"Okay, I guess I skimmed over it. I saw your dad's name and knew I'd at least come see if you were going to be here. Sorry I didn't read every detail of his life."

She sighed heavily so not wanting to deal with this tonight. She was so close to enjoying that glass of brandy with her brother and going to bed.

"Well you would have read that he was preceded in death by his son-in-law among others. He died a month ago."

"What?" he asked. "You can't be serious."

"I am."

"How in the hell does that happen to someone our age?"

"He was in a car accident. He was driving too fast and it'd been raining," she said. She still couldn't believe it herself.

"Geez, I'm sorry, I really didn't know. I didn't even know you had kids just knew through the grapevine you were married to some actor or something."

"Yes, he was actually pretty good."

"I didn't recognize his name."

"Because he was in plays not on TV or movies."


"So, it's just you and I didn't catch his name."

"Bill and my youngest, Justin, is three."

"Wow, that's rough. I'm sorry, Claire, really, I didn't know."

"I didn't expect you to."

"Well, I'll let you get to whatever you were going to do then."

"I was going to have a glass of brandy with Scott and go to bed."

"That's probably a sound plan," he admitted.

"I appreciate you coming today. Really. It was nice of you, more than you needed to do."

"Hey, what are friends for?"

They'd never dated or even really been involved with one another after that day of detention. Not that they hadn't thought about it, but nothing ever came of those thoughts. They were sort of friends, though. She'd liked him when he was willing to talk to her just her and do away with his tough guy persona. He hadn't done that often, though, and it was the reason whatever they felt for one another hadn't turned into more. She couldn't date someone who was one person in front of people and another completely different person privately. Once in a while he'd come over with a video or something and just want company from someone who didn't expect anything out of him. She'd fit the bill. Not to say that the attraction wasn't there. She'd found him incredibly attractive, but back then they'd both known that would get them nowhere. So, they'd hung out, talked, eaten pizza more than a few times, and talked about anything and everything they could think of talking about. Dreams, ambitions, plans, hopes, and other things not so pleasant.

"Maybe next time we come back. I'm sure I will be again soon now that Mom's alone."

"Thinking of moving back?"

"I hadn't thought about it real hard until this happened. I mean Dan dying threw me, but it wasn't a reason to just pick up and move. Now, though, Scott shouldn't have to deal with her on his own."

"No job?"

"Teaching. I could do that here."

"Well," he said pulling a business card out of his wallet. He flipped it over and wrote on the back of it with a pen he had in his shirt pocket. She still couldn't get over the suit and how good he looked in it. "Here. You come back through town whether to stay or just to visit and want me to return the favor you gave me more than once those few months before you left for school I'd be happy to. That's my home number and my cell number on the back there."

"I didn't do anything that major."

"Says you. I probably would've done something really stupid like kill the old man if I hadn't had somewhere I knew I could go for a while."

"Well, I'm glad I could help."

"You did." He stepped toward her then, handing her the card before offering her a hug. "I'm sorry, Claire. Not just about your dad either."

"Thank you," she said, hugging him back.

"That number works even from New York, you know? You need to talk or something."

"Thanks, I will," she said. She walked him to the door then. "Good night, John," she said, closing the door behind her. There were still people mingling around, but most of them were there for her mom or were just old friends of the family who she didn't need to be "on" for. She made her way downstairs to check on the kids and to see if Scott was ready for that glass of brandy yet.

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***Chapter Two***
Word Count: 5,416

August 1994

She absolutely hated making this call, but she really had no one else she felt comfortable asking. Most of her friends here in New York were really Dan's friends and they seemed to be avoiding her. She understood why. She'd probably avoid herself, too, if she was one of them and knew the things about Dan they knew.

'Hello,' he said, sounding as if she'd woken him up.

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I completely forgot about the time difference," she said. It was eight o'clock here and she thought nothing of calling her brother at this time because he was always awake, even on a Saturday like today. Scott had kids, though, who didn't sleep in much past sunrise. Claire's boys, on the other hand, slept in as late as they could get away with. Some days she let them, some days she didn't. She figured their days of waking up early were going to come soon enough.

'Um, okay. Who's this?'

"It's Claire Abbott. I mean Standish."

'Abbott. I guess I didn't know that either. Daniel Abbott? That was his name?'

"It was."

'All right. Well, what can I do for you, Claire Abbott?'

"I have a huge favor to ask of you and if you can't do it please just say so. I understand it's incredibly bizarre for me to ask and it's short notice, too. I could ask my brother, but well I don't think Joan would be too happy with my asking. And honestly I don't really want to involve my family in this."

'Claire, settle down, breathe, and tell me what you need. I can't tell you whether I can or can't do something until you tell me what it is you need. And can you try and maybe not talk so fast, I promise I'll hear you out.'

"Sorry, I just really hate asking. I was wondering if you could help me move?"

'I'm sorry? You are still in New York, right?'

"Yes, but I'm moving back home. I have a moving truck with a moving company for the big stuff, you know? Furniture and stuff. I have some things that I need to take in a smaller truck. If my furniture gets lost on the way I'm not in trouble because Mom has furniture. If my clothes and other belongings get lost then I'm screwed if I want to find a job before schools start."

'Okay,' he said.

"With two kids," she said. "One who isn't thrilled at the idea of leaving his friends behind and starting at a new school even if it is the school I went to growing up. The other, well, it'll take me a week to drive there by myself because he's at that 'Daddy's never home, I want my mommy every second of the day because I don't understand what's going on' phase."

'Ah, say no more. So you're coming back here? Did I hear that part right?'

"Yes. We're going to move in with Mom for a while anyway. She's taken Dad's death a lot harder than Scott and I anticipated. He can't really move in there, and I don't have anything holding me here anymore."

'So you need me to what?'

"I'll pay for your ticket to fly out here and just drive with us. I figure it'll take a couple of days at least so I'll pay for meals and hotels."

'I can pay for my own stuff, Claire.'

"Yes, but…"

'Remember when I said that's what friends were for? I'm happy to help. When are you looking at coming?'

"Well, the moving van is coming next Wednesday. The kids and I can stay in a hotel until you're able to make it here. So, whenever you can."

'Where are you going to put all of your things?'

"Well, there's room in the house and we have the guest house in the back I can store stuff in as well as the garage and basement. I've sold some things, too. Our dining room table was very nice, though, so I didn't want to get rid of it. I just can't stop until everything is packed because if I do I know I'll break down and never get it done."

'Are you okay?'

"Yeah, I'm fine, just ready to be out of here."

'I'm sorry. It has to be tough. You must miss him a lot.'

"Some days," she admitted, realizing the answer probably revealed a little more than she intended to.

'I'll be there Wednesday. If you're not ready to go until Thursday so be it.'


'It'll only be a couple of days off work, I have some vacation time coming. It'll be fine.'

"That's very nice of you."

'You wouldn't be asking if you weren't in a bind.'

"Thank you," she said, incredibly relieved. Her next recourse was to call Andy, but she didn't really want to given the problems he and Allison were having. While they never liked one another beyond friends she just felt uncomfortable asking another woman's husband for this kind of help.

'You're welcome. I'm glad you called. Which airport should I fly into and how do I get to your place?'

She relayed all of the pertinent information to him.

'I'll call you with my flight information then as long as you're sure you don't mind picking me up and that I can stay there.'

"I'm positive. The boys can sleep with me and I'll leave Bill's bed together. It's a twin sized so kind of small, sorry. It shouldn't take long to take apart two beds the next morning, though. And the sheets I can throw in the bag with our other laundry. The boys will love going with me to get you. They love going to the airport."

'Okay. I'll call you back later then. You'll be home?'

"Yes, I'm a teacher, remember, it's August. Besides it's Saturday."

He laughed softly. 'I'm not totally awake yet.'

"I guess not. Thanks again, John. You're a life saver."

'I'm not sure I've ever been called that before, but you're welcome.'

"Bye," she said.

'I'll talk to you later, I guess,' he said before hanging up.

He'd called back within a couple of hours. She thought for sure once he woke up and thought on what he'd just committed to he'd have a change of heart. She wouldn't want to drive halfway across the country with someone else's kids. Bill she wasn't so worried about, but Justin well he was only three and had no clue what was going on beyond his normal routine had been messed with.

She packed and cleaned like a madwoman. She was grateful their landlord was letting her out of their (now her) lease earlier than she was supposed to. Funny how her husband and dad dying was useful at times. She knew there was no other way she'd have gotten out of the lease. Going home to take care of her mother when she was newly widowed herself allowed her to get a lot of stuff done she wouldn't ordinarily. Like a good rate on both moving vans.

She waited for John at the airport nervously. Her brother and sister-in-law had at the last minute offered to take the boys off her hands if they were okay with flying by themselves. Bill was ecstatic at the idea, Justin hadn't been too sure but Claire had known Bill would look out for his little brother. So, they'd flown out on Tuesday. She'd called John on Sunday to tell him he didn't have to come any longer, but he'd insisted he'd already bought the plane ticket and took the days off from work so he may as well. She would get there faster with two of them driving the truck, and even if he did the bulk of the driving the time would certainly pass faster not being alone the entire time.

"Wow, I wasn't expecting you to be here waiting for me."

"Where else would I be?" she asked.

"I don't know, I guess I hadn't thought about it. No one's ever picked me up from the airport before."


"Nope, not much reason to fly."

"I really appreciate it."

"Don't mention it. Did your kids arrive safely?"

"Yes, thanks. I was a little nervous, but the flight attendants escorted them to their seats after leaving me and off the plane in Chicago."


"So, have you been to New York before?"

"No," he said.

"Now I feel bad you're only here for the night. If I'd known the boys were going to go ahead of me I could've planned something."

"Claire you have enough on your mind right now I'm sure without having to worry about thinking of ways to entertain me. I'm fine."

"Okay. I have no dishes or anything. I packed everything but a few days' worth of clothes basically. So, we could get something to eat on the way home or pick something up."

"Which would you prefer?"


"Yes, please."

"I'd prefer to eat somewhere not the house."

"All right then. You're the driver, whatever you want."

"You're sure you don't mind?"


"Okay then. Is there anything you don't like?"

"Um, well, no offense, because I know you at least used to like it but I never could stomach trying that sushi stuff."

She laughed softly. "I haven't had any in a while, and couldn't right now even if I wanted to so you're safe from that."

She drove him to a neighborhood restaurant that served just about everything. She went there with her kids at least once a week just to get out of the house. Before Dan died she'd come here with them for the same reason only it wasn't a distraction, it was just fun to do something with them in public once in a while.

"Hi," the hostess said, recognizing Claire.

"Hi, Haley. How are you tonight?"

"Good," she said. "No kids tonight?"

"No, they're already in Chicago with their aunt and uncle."

"How nice for them. And you. When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow sometime. This is my friend John from home. He flew out to help me drive the truck back."

"Well, we'll miss you guys."


She seated them, setting menus down in front of them. Claire didn't need one, she got the same thing most of the time. For the few times she got something different, she knew the menu by heart anyway.

"You must live nearby?"

"I do. I've been coming here for years. It's not a place that's going to get written up by any food critics, but everything's good and the people are all very nice."

"All right," he said, glancing at her before picking up the menu.

"Get whatever you want, I'm buying," she said when their waitress came to take their drink order.


"I insist. It's the least I can do."

He grimaced, but he ordered a beer. She went with a glass of iced tea.

"Still have that brandy at home?"

Claire smiled a little at that. "No, it's packed, too."

"Hmm, you're making me feel bad ordering a beer."

"You're fine. Iced tea sounded good, and I shouldn't be drinking right now anyway."

He set his menu down, regarding her closely. "No sushi. No alcohol." He tilted his head. "Are you pregnant?"

"What?" she asked. How in the hell could he have guessed that?

"Well, I know of no other reason why you wouldn't be able to eat raw fish or drink alcohol."

"How do you know what pregnant women can and can't eat and drink?"

"I'm not a complete dolt."

"Yes," she said softly.

"Wow. You can't be that far along, I would never have known if you hadn't said those things."

"Ten weeks," she said.

"So you had no idea when the accident happened?"

"No! I didn't even find out until after I came back after Dad's funeral."

"Wow. That's really rough, Claire."

"I know. No one else knows. I'll be sure not to mention things I can't eat or drink for a while."


"Well, I need to get a job! No one's going to hire a pregnant woman."

"Teachers go on maternity leave."

"Sure, teachers who've been employed for a while. If Mom wasn't having such a hard time I'd stay here until I'd had the baby, but Scott seems really worried about her."

"You and the boys going to be okay living with her?"

"Yeah, it's nothing like that. She just," she shrugged. "I guess just sits all day and does nothing. Scott went to see her on Sunday I think and he said she looked like she hadn't showered or put clean clothes on for at least a day or two."

"Is she drinking?"

Claire scoffed. "That's a silly question."

"I guess so. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. My landlord was surprisingly agreeable about letting me out of my lease months ahead of time."

"Sympathetic, that's rare in landlords."

"I think if Dan hadn't just died she probably wouldn't have been. We'd been living there for years, though, and Dan did a lot of work on the house himself. If it was real expensive he'd deduct it from our rent payment, with receipts of course. Otherwise, the small stuff like caulking a tub or fixing a toilet that wouldn't stop running he just did it. I mean, we had a lease, but she knew us. So, maybe it wasn't just Dan dying but between him and my dad I think she understood I needed to be near my family."

"Probably so. Unless she knows your mom?"

"No, she's never met Mom. I think she met Dad once. They visited, but Mom usually stayed near their hotel to shop or whatever. Dad liked to come and visit the house, spend time with Bill and Justin in their element so they were more comfortable with him."

"That sounds nice. I hope Bill remembers that."

"I hope so, too. Justin won't. He was, God, maybe two the last time they were here."

"I bet his big brother will be sure to tell him about the stuff they did with their grandpa."

They ordered their meals.

"So, what do you do anyway?"

John chuckled a little, taking a sip of his beer. He didn't use the glass their waitress had brought him, drinking it straight out of the bottle.

"I install and repair elevators."

"How does one get interested in that?"

"I'm not really sure. How does one get interested in anything? I'm good with my hands. I was looking for something after high school that I could do but that wasn't so based on the weather. Even working construction or roofing during the summer you have to deal with your work day being canceled or cut short because of rain."

"I see. You like it?"

"Yeah, I mean, it's kind of cool. I worked this job last month. Actually, I'd just finished it right before your dad's funeral. This big old house, and I mean like turn of the century old, had an old shaft for a dumbwaiter that had been sealed up. They wanted it opened back up and the dumbwaiter functional again."


"Yeah," he said with a shrug. "I don't understand why they'd need it, but what do I know. I just go where the jobs are. It was pretty neat, though, messing around with stuff in that shaft that hadn't seen the light of day in probably thirty years. The thing still had a pulley system it was that old."

"So, it's not just elevators?"

"No, mostly. I mean, there aren't many dumbwaiters being installed, but the general concept isn't that different from an elevator."

"I suppose. I had no idea."

"It's a job," he said.

"Have you been doing it long?"

"Since graduation. There was an apprenticeship and stuff, tests to take. I mean, people's lives kind of depend on me knowing what I'm doing."

"Oh right, for sure. Do you ever ride in elevators you installed and think you did that?"

He chuckled. "Not often, no, but I have I guess. No one else really cares so it's not exactly an ice breaker or a way to make an impression. What about you? Teaching? What?"

"High school English."

"Why does that not surprise me?"

"Because I'm good at English?"

"That could be why," he said as their food was set on the table. "You're feeling all right?"

"Yeah, why?" she asked.

"I don't know, it seemed a logical question to ask given your condition."

"It's not a condition," she said with a roll of her eyes.

"If you say so."

"I do! I hate when people say that. I'm pregnant not diseased or incapacitated."

"You haven't been lifting stuff by yourself, have you?"

"Not the heavy stuff, no once I suspected I was pregnant."

"Good. Is there anything left at the house?"

"Just the two beds and a couple of suitcases."

"Which I'll carry down to the truck."

"I know," she said. "Now you understand why I called you."

"I do, you should've said that."

"I wasn't ready to admit it yet."

"So are you going to go for high schools?"

"I'll take whatever job is hiring to start with and then go from there. Bill is scared to death I'm going to find something at his school."

John chuckled. "Yeah, that'd suck having Mom around. Then, he's seven, right? How much trouble can he get into?"

"You'd be surprised. He's good for the most part, but there were some kids in his class last year that acted out and got in trouble every day it seemed. I was very grateful he wasn't one of them."

"It may be pretty tough on him, you know?"

"The move, you mean?"


"I'd thought of that, but he loves Scott and my niece and nephew so I hope that will make it a little easier. I try to think of it from the standpoint that it's probably better for him to move now than in another year or two when he's established in any sports or anything."

"I suppose, yeah," John said.

"Did you ever play sports?"

John scoffed.

"No, really," she asked. "When you were little? I know your parents weren't always bad."

"I guess maybe I did little league one or two years when I was pretty young. I'm not really an athletic guy. Give me a car to dismantle and I can run circles around most people. Give me a ball and bat and I have no clue what to do with that."

"Not everyone does, I was just curious."

"So, are Dan's parents' okay with you moving back to Chicago?"

"Yeah, they understand. They're in California, which was why we moved there after I graduated from University of Michigan. It didn't work, though."

"Too close?"

"No, not at all, they're actually pretty nice. It's just LA is mostly movie actors. New York is where he needed to be for stage acting. I mean, obviously there's stage acting in LA, too."

"I kind of get it. So they'll be a little closer to you then?"

"Yeah, a little. I hadn't seen them before the funeral in a couple of years, though."

"Oh," he said. "How did you two meet anyway?"

She laughed. "We met at the library. I was, believe it or not, checking out a book of Moliere's works."

"Really, Claire?"

She shrugged. "I like him, okay?"


"Anyway, we started talking about him and it led to talking about other things and now here I am."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It is what it is. I mean, he always drove too fast. I tried telling him a hundred times he needed to slow down. At least he never drove like a crazy person with the kids along, but when the policeman showed up at my door in the middle of the night," she shrugged. "I knew what had happened."

"Jesus," he said. "I mean, with kids you'd think he would want to be around to see them grow up."

"You'd think," she said.

"Have you had any time to deal with it? I mean a month between him and your dad."

"No, not really. I figure I'll get to Mom's and then maybe it'll all hit me. Until then, well, until the boys got on that plane to go to Scott's I had to be a mom first, you know? It didn't matter what I was feeling or that I wanted to stay in bed all day I couldn't do it. I had to make breakfast, get them dressed, take them to the park or the library or the zoo, and just function as if everything was normal."

"What about friends?"

"We had, have, them of course, but they were mostly Dan's friends. I have a couple, but they have their own stuff, you know? It's New York, not Shermer, people are always doing something."

"I suppose. It still sucks. Your friends should've taken you out, taken your kids, something."

"I know, a couple offered, but I didn't want them gone. I think I'm better off like it is."

"That's not healthy."

"Says you."

"Yeah. Says the guy who held onto a lot of shit over the years and let it build in me until I was a pretty miserable person. Yeah, I speak from experience on it. It took me a while. I got into a lot of fights, started some but always finished them whether I was the one starting it or not."

"Do you still?"

"Nah," he said. "That shit could kill me if I let it."

"Good. I'm glad."

"It took me a while, I won't deny that. You left for school and there just wasn't anyone else to really talk to about stuff. You know?"

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. You had your life to lead, and I'm glad you did. I'm sorry we're sitting here now under the current circumstances. It's just I had a lot of stuff to figure out and alone it took me a while longer than it might have. I don't trust people easily, still don't so it wasn't like I was going to find someone else to bounce shit off."

"You're not married?"

He scoffed. "No."

"Oh that's right," she said, nodding as their conversation from detention came back to her. "No kids either?"

"Uh, no, believe it or not I wouldn't do that."

"I believe you, just wondered."

"You're going to file for social security, right?"

"Yeah," she sighed softly. "My dad had actually just finished all of that stuff a week before he died. He said he'd handle it because he knew I wasn't in a frame of mind to. He had a life insurance policy, too. It wasn't a lot, but it was more than I was expecting. If I don't find a job right away, especially living with Mom we'd be okay for a while anyway."

"Well, that's something at least. At least he thought of you, you know, I mean, at our age that was good of him to do."

She laughed softly. "My dad sort of made us when Bill came along he said we had to be prepared."

"Well then your dad was obviously a smart man."

"Yeah, he was pretty smart at least when it came to that type of stuff."

John ordered another beer when the waitress came back to see if they needed anything else. They were both finished eating by now, but as her house was empty besides somewhere to sleep tonight she was in no hurry to go back there.

"How did you and Brian keep in touch?" he asked.

"We both went to Michigan. It's a pretty big school and it was sort of nice to know someone from home. We met for coffee once in a while. He helped me a couple of times with Biology."

"Oh, right, I guess I didn't know that. He turned out all right."

"I'd say," she said. Brian had gone on to make himself more than a little bit of money with a startup computer software company. Not many had seen online communities becoming what they were, but Brian's company was one of them.

"I guess we all did for the most part. If Vernon could see us now sitting here talking like adults."

"We are adults."

"I know, I just meant, you know, me holding a conversation with you."

"Oh right. I wonder if he's still there."

"At Shermer High?"

"Yes," she said.

"He'll be there until he croaks. He has nothing else to do with his time and there might be a kid he misses out on the chance to harass, threaten, or bully into thinking they're as rotten to the core as he makes them think they are."

"He did that?"

"Yes," John said.

"He threatened you?"


"Why didn't you say something?"

"To who?"

"Well, I don't know, but he was a teacher. Not even a teacher he was our assistant principal. He shouldn't have been able to do that."

"His word against mine. Who do you think anyone in their right mind would have believed? The tenured guy or the pot smoking, drug dealing, fight starting bum?"

She sighed. "I suppose. I didn't know. I would have believed you. You never told me."

"It didn't seem real important at the time."

She set her hand over his lightly. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that for whatever reason as much as you trusted me about things you weren't able to or didn't want to trust me with that. I would've believed you."

"Thanks," he said. He slid his hand out from under hers, drumming his fingers on the table top and she wondered what he was thinking. "So you ready to go then?"

"Yes," she said, pulling her credit card out of her wallet so their waitress would know they were ready. "We can talk about something else. I didn't mean to…"

"Nah, it's fine, but if we're going to head out in the morning I probably shouldn't drink any more of these and I have no idea are we going to have to stop every hour for bathroom breaks for you or what?"

She smiled a little.

"What's so funny?"

"You're safe from the frequent bathroom trips for a while."

"All right. I wasn't sure when that started."

"I promise I won't draw this out any longer than it has to be. And believe me it'll go much faster without Bill and Justin along."

"That I can believe."

"Yet you did it anyway."

"Sure, you needed help. How could I say no to that?"

"I don't know," she said.

They made their way back to her house.

"What are you doing with your car anyway?"

"One of my friends bought it off me."


"Yes. She'll be by tomorrow morning to pick it up. I'll leave the keys in the mailbox if she hasn't gotten here before we leave. I've already transferred the title and everything to her, she was just letting me use it until I left."

"Why does she want it?"

She laughed. "Are you saying it's a bad car?"

"Bad? No, not exactly, but it's certainly seen better days."

"I know. She has a step-son who's learning how to drive next year. She and her husband thought this would be a good car for him to learn on. It's a manual transmission and while it's not pretty to look at anymore it's reliable."

"How much did you get for it?"

"Not a lot. More than I would have selling it to a used car place or something."

"What are you going to do for transportation in Chicago?"

"My dad's car for a while."

"Wow, definitely a step up."

"Yeah, it was Scott's idea when I mentioned to him Tiffany offering to buy my car so I'd have one less thing to worry about moving. Once I know I have a steady job and everything I will probably buy something new."

"Let me know when you get to that point, I have a friend who owns a dealership he won't rip you off."

"Thank you."

"Sure," he said, following her inside.

"Power and everything are on through the end of the month so we won't be in the dark or anything. I have a radio we could listen to, but the TV is packed away."

"It's fine, Claire, really. I could sleep."

"Okay," she said.

"Wow, this is pretty nice. You said house, but renting I was expecting…"

"A rat-infested, broken down house?"

"Well, it is New York."

"Yeah, we kind of got lucky. It's worked very well for us and Bill's school was only a few blocks away so I could walk him to school unless the weather was real bad."


"There are towels in the bathroom," she said, flipping the light switch on to the bathroom. "Your room is here. Again I'm sorry about the twin-sized bed."

He chuckled. "I think I can forgive the bed size, but Barney sheets?"

She shrugged. "He likes Barney. Justin's are Sesame Street if you would have preferred those…"

"These will do. It's just weird to see this is what your life is."

She leaned against the doorframe, regarding Bill's room as John set his duffle bag on the floor beside the bed. "Yeah, it's weird for me, too. I never envisioned it, really. Dan asked me to get married, I said yes. I never really thought about the rest. Kids, a house, bills, responsibility. I mean, I'm completely responsible for them now," she said, settling a hand against her stomach. "And this one, too. I have to teach them everything and I don't know everything."

"Hey," he said, taking her into his arms and hugging her. "You'll do fine."

"I don't know. I mean, I'm twenty-eight years old. What the hell do I know?"

"Claire," he said. "It's too bad you can't drink because it'd certainly calm you down. You'll be fine. Your kids will be fine. It will be fine. You're going to be closer to your mom and your brother. You'll have support. It'll work out."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Good night then," she said, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek. "For coming here like this, for talking to me, for hugging me."

"Anytime. Well, you know, within reason. I only have so much vacation time in a year."

"Right. Don't worry, no more cross country moves for me for a while."

"Good because one more I could handle, but a third I don't know I'd have to put my foot down or something."

She smiled then, drawing away. She went to her room, getting ready for bed. She put the things from today in her bag so that was done. She'd packed four days' worth of clothes for the drive just to be safe. She didn't think it would take them that long, but just to be sure.

She sat on her bed, sliding her watch off and setting it on top of her alarm clock on the floor. Her last night here. A week ago she was glad to be leaving, couldn't wait to get out. She still couldn't, and realistically she knew that getting out of here was the best thing for her and her kids. Still, though, she was going to miss this place in some ways. Even though they'd rented it had basically been their house. Their landlord let her paint Bill's walls whatever funky colors or designs he was into.

She stood then, opening her door and going to Bill's bedroom door, knocking lightly.

"Everything okay?" John asked once he answered the door.

"I, uh, yeah," she said. "I was thinking, you know, I could do better than Barney sheets."

He quirked an eyebrow a bit at that. "Yeah?"

"I mean, my bed is bigger and not a Barney or Baby Bop anywhere to be found."

"Claire, I…"

"I'm not hitting on you. I swear. I just, it's my last night here in my house. My life as I've known it for the past eight years is done. It's scary and I never thought I'd admit how truly frightened I am about what I'm going to find when I get home with my mom. But if you have a girlfriend or don't want to or something I totally understand. It's way more than I asked you to do."

He flipped out the light in Bill's room. "Lead the way," he said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Three***
Word Count: 6,102

"You're not as talkative today," he said.

It'd been after noon by the time they got the beds taken apart and put into the smaller moving van they were driving back to Chicago. He'd hauled the remaining things down to the truck while she did a final walk through of the house to be sure everything was clean and gone. Her friend had picked up the keys to the car before they'd left. She'd given John a very strange look, but then he supposed Claire hadn't had a lot of visitors from home over the years. Claire had felt better about the car being gone so hopefully that was one less thing she'd feel the need to worry about. She was worrying about a lot already, a car seemed pretty insignificant as far as John was concerned. If she'd already signed the title and paperwork over to her friend if it got stolen or something all they'd have to do would be call the police.

"Just thinking, I guess."


She shrugged. "I don't know," she said, glancing at him. It was the first time she'd looked at him since they'd pulled away from her house. He hadn't been sure if he'd done something wrong he hadn't realized or what. He'd been nice to her friend, at least he thought he had. He also hadn't known that idea would bother him as much as it did, the thought he'd done something to make her mad or uncomfortable somehow. "Going home again."

"Ah," he said.

Logical thoughts for sure, he couldn't blame her. Going back home when she probably thought she never would had to be a bit of a load on her shoulders. It wasn't just her she had to worry about either, she had kids and despite her relationship with her mom he knew she was worried about her too. She wouldn't be moving herself halfway across the country otherwise.

"Good or bad thoughts?" he asked.

"A little of both, I guess. I'm scared for my mom. I mean, we haven't always gotten along, but she's still my mom. You know? You probably don't, I guess." She looked out the window again. "I worry, and I'm not sure I'm ready to be mom to an adult on top of two kids and taking care of myself so I have a healthy pregnancy."

"You're doing what you can. You're doing more than some kids would do. You're doing more than I'd do that's for sure. And you're right, I don't know what that sense of obligation you're feeling is like because I don't have it. I'm not normal when it comes to that, though. I can acknowledge that."

"I wouldn't be doing it if Dan was still alive."

"No, I guess you wouldn't, but I'm sure you and your brother would have come up with something."

"He won't live with her again so moving her in with him is out of the question."

John laughed at that.

"Well, she could've moved to New York I imagine if need be," he said. "Or come stay with you for a while. You know, change of scenery or something?"

"I guess. I just never imagined Dad would be gone."

"I suppose not."

"He was always the stable and rational one. They had problems, always had them. Scott and I were pretty shocked once I was married they didn't get divorced. Somehow, though, whatever their issues were, they stayed together."

"Who knows? Maybe they talked about it and realized there was something there to work through? Maybe they got along better when they didn't have kids to raise. I can't imagine every mom and dad see eye to eye on disciplinary issues and how to raise a kid. Maybe that put a strain on them that wasn't there once you were gone."

"So it's my fault?"

"That's not what I said. I suspect people when they get married and decide to have kids don't sit down and talk about how they feel about this or that when it comes to raising a child. You know? So, differences show up that weren't there before the kids and suddenly there are problems where there weren't any."

"I guess."

More quiet. Clearly she was thinking over what he'd said. Maybe he shouldn't have said that. He didn't know. He wasn't trying to make her feel worse.

"I'm also thinking about last night."

"Last night?"

"I shouldn't have asked you to do that."

He shrugged. He'd been thinking about last night all morning and most of the time they'd been driving, which was why he'd finally decided to initiate a conversation with her. Nothing had happened between them beyond him offering her the comfort of company she obviously needed. She'd slept close to him the whole night, which he hadn't minded at all. He'd woken up more than once glad she was still near him. He hadn't slept real well. The bed wasn't his and the house wasn't his. Plus he just wasn't used to sleeping with women, especially women he had no business touching when he was sleeping with them. He could have said no to her request and really should have, but he hadn't been able to find it in his heart to do that. He knew asking him to do it hadn't been easy, and it wasn't as if she was expecting sex from him.

"I probably shouldn't have done it, but it didn't really matter what bed I slept in when it got down to it. You were all right. You needed someone. That's logical after what you've been through. You have nothing to feel bad or be sorry for. I've never had anyone die, but I can sure understand how saying goodbye to the home you shared with your husband and the father to your kids might be a bit tough."

"It wasn't as bad as I thought."

"I saw tears in your eyes."

"Hormones," she said with a laugh.

"Yeah, I've heard those can be pretty brutal add on top of that grieving I bet you're kind of a mixed bag of emotions right now. That's all right, and that's why I did it."

"Well, thank you. I can't explain why it was any better than it would've been if you'd said no or weren't there. I have just felt so completely alone. As tempting as it was a few times to let Justin or Bill sleep with me, I couldn't start down that road. It would've made for very bad habits."

"It probably wouldn't have been the same either."

"No, it wouldn't have. So, thank you."

"Can I ask you something?"

"I guess. What?"

"Why do you seem more upset about your dad's death than your husband's?"

She shrugged, glancing out the window. "I'm not."

"It sure seems that way to the casual observer."

"It's not important," she said.

"All right, just asking. I mean, it's clear you love your kids, even the one you haven't had yet so I assume you loved him, too."

"I did," she said, but he didn't think she sounded as though she meant it.

"Okay," he said.

He wasn't sure what else to say so he stopped talking. It wasn't as if they'd kept in touch over the years or anything. He'd showed up at her dad's funeral out of respect because she'd been a real friend to him, something until her he'd never really had. Not a true friend who was willing to just hang out with him, talk with him, and listen to him. The fact that they'd liked each other more than just a little hadn't interfered with that. He wasn't what she needed that was for sure so he hadn't pushed for more. She was going to college and onto better things that was also for sure. So that attraction had gone untapped after the day of detention. They'd given into their curiosity about each other and moved on.

It was the first time someone had ever kissed him just to kiss him, expecting nothing else from him but that bit of simple affection. Simple to most people, but kissing wasn't something he'd done a whole lot of until the day in that closet. The types of girls he did things with weren't expecting him to kiss them. He'd never understood why exactly until Claire that the reason was because kissing actually took more emotion than the rest of the physical shit that came after it. She hadn't wanted the stuff that came after it, though. He hadn't been quite sure what to do with that. He hadn't been sure what to do with her at all. So he'd taken his cue from her. She'd wanted to be friends and so they'd been friends despite the fact that he'd fallen a little bit in love with her over a simple thing like kissing.

He'd been surprised when she invited him back to her house after the funeral. Why exactly he wasn't sure. It was the polite thing to do. It was bred in her, probably while she was still in diapers, to be polite. He just hadn't expected anything beyond a 'hi, thanks for coming, it's good to see you' out of her. Ten years was a long time, a long time to forget about him. She had no idea what she'd meant to him. He'd been too scared to admit it even to himself until she was long gone.

She hadn't wasted any time getting involved with the guy either. He'd heard by spring break of her freshman year that she was in a relationship. He heard a year or so later that they'd gotten married. He hadn't heard about any kids, though, so evidently once she was married she was no longer newsworthy in the circles she traveled in at Shermer.

"Things just weren't that good."

He snorted softly.

"What's that mean?" she asked.

"You're ten weeks pregnant, sweetheart, something must have been good."

"And you've been in a good relationship with every person you've had sex with?"

"Well, put like that, no, but I wasn't married to them either."

"I don't believe in divorce," she said softly.

"It was bad enough you thought of divorcing him?"

"Yes," she said. "I even talked to my dad once."

"What did your dad say?"

"I didn't really tell him much, which led to him telling me it was my responsibility to stick it out and make it work."

"Jesus. Your own father?"

"Well, sure, of course, he didn't want me to get divorced either."

"Were you okay?"

"Yeah, for the most part."

"He didn't hurt you, did he?"

He'd thought about her lots over the course of her freshman year. He'd lucked into the job he had currently and after steady employment and getting away from his parents' house he thought about talking to her, asking her out, and seeing if she'd be interested in a long-distance boyfriend. Then he'd heard about the boyfriend through the grapevine and had shelved that plan. College guy versus manual labor guy. He didn't need a degree to know who would've won that contest. If he'd stood by, left her alone, so the other – better – guy could have her without interference from him and he hurt her somehow he'd feel incredibly guilty. Because for some reason he was pretty sure if he'd asked her out her freshman year she would have said yes.

"Not really," she said.

"Not really? What kind of an answer is that?"

"Not physically."

"Oh. Good," he said, then thought over her answer a little more. His parents' choice of abuse was physical, but they liked to mix things up, too, and add in words that hurt just as bad. The bruises went away, the cuts scabbed over and healed (some of them anyway), but being told he was a loser repeatedly didn't heal as quickly as the other things. He wasn't sure, even today, which part of his parents' treatment of him had been worse. If they'd just physically hurt him without the mean things they'd said would he have been different? He'd never know, but these were things he'd thought of over the years when he had time on his hands to think about shit he had no business dwelling on. "So, other ways?"

"You don't want to hear about my problems."

"I'm asking, aren't I? We have hundreds of miles to go, may as well talk about something."

"My marriage is the only thing you can think to talk about?"

"For now."

She sighed. "He cheated."

"Oh," he said.

"A lot," she said.

"Moron," he said.

"He liked to gamble, too, which wasn't so bad, but when he gambled he drank and spent money we didn't always have and then he'd feel guilty and didn't want to come home."

"And cheated."

"Yeah," she said.

"I'm sorry. That sucks. It sucks that he did it, but it sucks even more that you knew about it."

"I knew about it years ago."


"Yes, I don't think he ever did before we got married."

"Right after you were married?"

"I was pregnant."

"That's not an excuse."

"Evidently, to him it was. He thought he'd hurt the baby or something," she sighed softly.

"And you stayed?"

"What was I supposed to do? Go home to my parents with two kids? Leave everything behind? Admit I'd made a huge mistake?"

"Well, yeah, okay. Or how about not having to admit all of that and just leaving him because you'd had enough?"

"Because he was always so sorry about it."

"I bet he was."

"It's the reason our friends haven't really talked to me much since he died."

"They know?"

"Most of them, I think some know more than others. I know at least one of them slept with him."

"Your friend?"

"She didn't know me at the time."

"No excuse."

"She was in a show with him," she said.

"How did you find out?"

"Well, eventually I met her because I saw the show. She thought she was pregnant for a while. Or she told him she thought she was. She wasn't. I don't think she ever thought she was, she just wanted him to think she was so he'd leave me. I don't think she understood that he wasn't going to leave me."


"Because in some odd way he loved me. I know he did. We had good moments. He was good with the boys. And, I guess that's why I stayed."

"Gambling. Did he lose?"

"He never lost enough to go into debt or anything. He never had to take out loans if that's what you're asking, but there were times I had to ask Dad for money to pay the rent because we didn't have enough to pay it because he'd lost everything he'd been paid."

"How'd you explain that?"

"Oh, there was always something to blame it on. I needed new clothes for the boys. My car needed work done. Something around the house needed done and we couldn't deduct it from the rent until it was actually done."

"Hmm," he said. "And your dad believed that?"

"Most of the time."

"So, ten weeks ago?"

"I honestly don't even remember," she said with a laugh. "I mean, obviously it happened, but I can't place exactly when. He was doing a show, so lots of late nights which meant getting home in the middle of the night. I was still in school, so I don't know."

"I hope you're not going to tell him or her that."

She laughed softly. "No, but then I don't think most people could name exactly when their kids were conceived."

"I suppose not."

"I hope it's a girl" she said her hand rubbing her stomach a little.

"Why?" he asked. "Tired of boys?"

"No, I love my boys."

"Hopefully you can teach them something about being men their dad lacked."

"I hope so, too. I'd just like a girl."

"I know nothing about girls."

"Trust me, you adapt. You think I know anything about baseball?"

"You don't?"

"I do now, but I sure didn't until last year. Never mind hockey."

"Hockey and baseball? Busy kids."

"Justin only does swimming right now. I don't know what they'll offer by Mom's house."

"You'll find something, I'm sure."

She sighed, resting her head against the back of the seat. She was tired, he knew that. He saw it in her eyes last night when she'd picked him up at the airport. He doubted she'd slept well for weeks.

"I just want it to be seven months from now already so I can be done with it."

"I'm not sure that's a good attitude to have," he said.

"I don't know either."

"You know that pisses me off."

"What? I was just kidding!"

"No, not that. Not you. I know you're going to take care of yourself and the baby just fine." He shook his head a little, playing over what she'd just said in his head. "If someone, your friend which no offense she's not, thought she was pregnant that meant he wasn't even being careful when he was out there sleeping with other women."

"Yeah, I know. He swore he had with her, that he did. And like I said, she turned out not to be pregnant."

"Unless she got rid of it."


"She was an actress. You said she thought he was going to leave you. Maybe when she realized he wasn't going to do that she decided to get an abortion. She couldn't act pregnant, could she?"

"Well, no. I mean, of course she could still act, but no one would cast her, no."

"Obviously I don't know, but if she was that scheming I don't know I'd put something like that past her. And he was an asshole."

"John," she said.

"No, you know I'm not married for a reason. I'm not sure what kind of husband or father I'd make. I can admit that. I didn't have a very good role model. I can admit that, too. But I sure as hell if I decided to marry someone wouldn't cheat on them."

"You don't know that."

"I do know that. And someone like you. Was he dumb?"

"No. I was, obviously, because I stayed."

"You weren't dumb. It's no different than any other type of power situation. You had kids and it sounds like you needed his income at least a little bit."

"Yes. I mean I never sat down and crunched numbers even when I talked to my dad."

"So, you couldn't leave him, he knew that so he could do whatever he wanted because he knew you'd stay put."

"I don't think it's as simple as that."

"Probably not, but if you ask me it's no different than someone who stays with a guy who hits her."

"It is not the same."

"Sure it is. You even said it. He was always so sorry about it. All guys who are assholes to their women are so sorry about it until they really fuck up and she ends up dead or in your case probably getting some disease because he couldn't even have the courtesy to protect you from that sort of shit never mind himself."

"I've never had anything."

"You've gotten tested?"

"Yes," she sighed.

"See, and you've just proven my point. The fact as a married woman you had to do that is just nuts."

"I'd appreciate it if you don't tell anyone what I just told you."

"Who would I tell?"

"I don't know, but I'd appreciate it just the same. He's dead, I don't need people thinking I'm trashing his reputation or something."

"It doesn't sound like he was hiding what he was doing, Claire."

"No, he wasn't. I think Brian knew."

"Brian did? And he said nothing? That doesn't seem like the Brian I know."

"Dan didn't like Brian at all."


"I don't know. He thought our friendship was weird. That we could be friends without any interest in each other."

"See and, yeah, that should've been a clue. He was basically telling you he couldn't have women as friends."

She sighed again. "He did say something once, sort of. I think he thought it was none of his business. We were married and Bill was already born. Brian and I were graduating. Dan and I were packing up to move out to LA. Brian called to see if I wanted to get coffee one last time. Kind of a final good bye to everything about my past. Brian asked me if I was sure I wanted to be so far from everyone and everything. I thought of that conversation after we were here. He'd been good in LA, I guess maybe because his parents' were there. Maybe we never should have left."

"You can't stay some place hoping the guy won't cheat on you."

"I know that, logically. I just think that was Brian's roundabout way of telling me something was wrong. Brian and Dan didn't know one another, really. Dan knew who Brian was and that he was from Shermer. Brian's a smart guy. I'm sure he saw things, heard things, or whatever."


"Anyway. It's done now."

"What does that mean for you?"

"I'm not sure. I have enough money from his life insurance policy that if I find a job right away I could buy a house. It wouldn't be a great house, but it'd be a house of our own."

"At least he did something for you. A house wouldn't be bad for you or your kids."

"No, I know. I'll probably just stay with Mom for a while, let the boys get used to a new place, and make sure I find the right job. I like teaching, I do, but I don't want to end up stuck in a job at a school I loathe with no way out because I have a mortgage. And, well, some help with the baby wouldn't be unwelcome either. I was pretty sure we were done after Justin."


"I missed talking to you."

"Yeah? Me, too," he said. He had, too. He'd never admitted that to anyone or anything, and he wouldn't have said so to her if she hadn't mentioned it first.

"I'm sorry."

"About what?"

"I left and sort of never talked to you again. That wasn't very nice."

"I knew the deal. I didn't expect you to look back at Shermer or anyone in it once you were gone."

"You didn't?" she asked, regarding him then.

"Nope. I wouldn't have blamed you if you never came back."

"I don't have quite the bad feelings toward it you do."

"No, I suppose you don't."

"You don't live in Shermer then?"

"No. I haven't since I moved out the spring after graduation."

"Where do you live?"

"Lake Bluff."

"Really?" She sounded surprised, and he couldn't blame her. It was a nice town. If she ever saw his house she'd probably think he killed someone or at the very least did something very illegal to get it.


"I'll bet it's nice."

"It is."

"Close to the lake?"

"Not far," he said.

"Sounds nice."

"It is. Lots of work, though."


"It's pretty old, lots of work to do on it."

"You're doing it yourself?"

"Most of it. Some I can't do, but lucky for me I know a whole bunch of electricians and stuff who'll do me a solid when I need help with things like that when they're off the clock."

"How old?"

"The twenties."

"Really? I bet it's gorgeous."

"I like it."

"Good. I'm glad you have something you like and is permanent."

"Me, too," he admitted.

Ten years ago he would never have seen that happening in a million years. She probably wouldn't have either, liking him or not. That John Bender and this John Bender were about as different as two people could be. He looked back at times to high school and couldn't even believe he was that person. He certainly had a hard time believing someone like Claire had been remotely interested in him.

"You like having a house to yourself?"

"Yeah, it beats an apartment and paying someone else rent."

"I think I'd hate having a house by myself."

"Why? I'd think with kids it'd be worse honestly. At least I only have to pick up and clean up after myself."

"I don't know," she shrugged. "God, I wish I could undo the past two months."

"Really? After everything you just told me? And only the last two months? You'd still want to be pregnant?"

"I didn't want him to die!"

"Okay, point taken, but he is and it sounds at least as though he left you in a decent position to where you're not hard up or going to starve even without living with your mom."

"No, we wouldn't."

"He made that much acting?"

"I told you he was really quite good. The night he died he'd been out celebrating because he got the lead in a play that everyone is assuming will run for months if not longer. It was a big deal, obviously, and his agent worked very hard to get him cast over others."


"Yes. He called me after he'd gotten the call to let me know. He'd been called back three or four times, I can't remember. It's all so fuzzy and he went on so many auditions."

"Did you like it?"



She shrugged. "I don't think I'm going to be rushing out to see any plays again soon. I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong. It's just I saw a side to it that not many people get to see I guess."

"Yeah, that's true for anywhere, though. I could tell you some stories about construction workers that'd probably really piss you off."

"Oh I bet you could, probably a few about yourself in there, too."

"Not for years."

"So you're the poster child for a good guy now?"

He chuckled. "I didn't say that, no, but I'm just a lot more careful about it than I was once upon a time."

"I bet."

"And yet you called me over Andy or your brother."

"I didn't want to ask another woman's husband to drive with me hundreds of miles. I'm not sure Joan would've been thrilled. I think she already thinks Scott's done enough since Dad died."

"Done enough? What does that even mean? She's your mother and while I know I'm nobody to judge such things she seemed all and all decent enough."

"I don't know. She's just weird that way. You know? She's not bad or anything, but her priority is certainly her side of the family over ours."

"And Scott just lets that happen?"

"What can he say?"

"Uh, how about 'our dad just died cut me some slack while I'm helping my mom and sister through a difficult time for all of us?'"

"You'd have to ask him."

"No, I don't. That's not right. There's no excuse for that."

"You get married and things change, John. Your priority is no longer the people who raised you and you grew up with but the person you're going to spend the rest of your life with."

"Until that person your sister married dies suddenly before the age of thirty. That sort of changes things, I'd think anyway."

"He took the boys early this week so I wouldn't have to worry about moving with them."

"I guess that's something," he said.

"He's not bad, John. Really, he's not."

"If you say so."

They were quiet for a while after that. John realized he probably shouldn't have said the things he'd said. They kept the conversation fairly neutral after that until they stopped for the night. Eight hundred miles wasn't bad and he probably could've pushed it and done it in a day, but since he was barely able to keep the moving van above fifty-five he figured they could stop for the night as she seemed to want to. He couldn't blame her, he supposed. Maybe she wasn't looking as forward to getting back to her kids as she said she was. He didn't think that was the case, but he couldn't imagine the past two months had been easy for her so maybe a couple of nights break was welcome.

He'd given her shit about the bag she'd packed for the trip. She'd packed it before knowing her boys weren't going to be along for the road trip, so she'd taken into account it could take longer than normal to make the drive. He still thought days' worth of clothes was excessive, but even moving vans broke down.

She didn't invite him to share a room with her when they checked in. He had absolutely no business offering to share one with her, but it was just ridiculous to pay for two rooms.

"Just get a room with two beds," he said.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm positive," he said. "As long as you don't mind. It's stupid for you to have to pay for two rooms and since you won't let me pay for anything you may as well save money somewhere."

"Okay," she said. "Thank you."

The front desk clerk probably thought they were a little weird, but John could care less.

He turned the TV on as they settled in for the night. He took his cell phone out of his bag and turned it on when she went to the bathroom. The roaming charges would probably cause him to take a second mortgage out on his house, but he would make the call anyway.

"I'll be right back," he said before leaving the room. She'd said something about taking a shower so he doubted she'd even know he was gone.


"Hey," he said.

'Hi. I was wondering if you got there all right.'

"Yeah, sorry I didn't call. It was kind of late by the time I got in. We ate afterward and I wasn't sure what time she wanted to leave this morning so I crashed right away."

'You don't have to apologize. I'm glad you called, though. Where are you?"

"Um," he said, thinking on that. "Toledo. We thought of stopping in Akron or Cleveland, but I told her I could make it a little further."

'That's not bad.'

"No. How's everything going?"

'Fine. You? How's your friend?'

"I'm fine. She's fine. You know as well as can be expected given the circumstances."

'I can't even imagine. Her husband and her dad in a month of one another?'

"I know. She seems okay, though. I don't know. I'm glad you don't mind my doing this."

'Why should I mind?'

"I don't know. I've known women in my life who would not be too thrilled with it."

'Well, if I'd said no would you have called her back and told her you couldn't do it?'

"No," he admitted. "She's probably the only real friend I had in high school. I couldn't say no to her asking for this kind of help."

Granted that was a severe overstatement of their relationship or the length of their relationship. Did three months, six including the time before she left for college, count as being a friendship? Considering he'd never had any real friends before her it counted to him.

'Well, then, see, there was no point in getting mad about it. Besides, it's one of the things I like about you.'

"Yeah?" he said, surprised when the door to their room opened. He'd assumed she was going to be in there for a while.

'Yes, you're willing to help people. It's nice what you're doing.'

"Yeah, well, when she called me back and told me her kids weren't going to be riding along…"

'And again my saying no or arguing wouldn't have done any good. Besides I don't think she planned all of this in an attempt to seduce you ten years after high school.'

"Well, probably not, no," he said. "Anyway, I'm going to go. If we talk much longer I'll have to sell a body part to pay for the call. I just wanted you to know that I'm all right and stuff."

'Thank you.'


'I'll see you tomorrow?'

"If not the next day, yeah."

'Okay. Drive safe.'

"I will," he said, disconnecting.

He turned the phone off before making his way back to their room. She hadn't come out, so maybe she'd just been looking to see where he'd gone.

"Hi," he said when he went back in. He slid his phone into his bag, noticing she hadn't changed and that her hair wasn't even wet. "Change your mind about the shower?"

"Yeah. It can wait until the morning, I'll wake up better. I was going to see if you wanted to get something to eat. There's a restaurant so we wouldn't have to drive anymore."

"Yeah, sure. You don't have to eat with me, you know."

"Well, no, I don't have to but I'm asking you to. Would you rather eat alone?"

"No, I just don't want you to think you're somehow responsible for entertaining me. Maybe you'd rather eat alone."

"I suspect I'll have my share of that coming up."

"You have kids."

"You know what I mean. It's not the same as eating with an adult. Justin can't hold a conversation with me. Bill only wants to talk about The Mighty Ducks, Angels in the Outfield, or The Lion King. It gets old after a while."

"I can imagine."

He grabbed his key and slid it into his pocket before following her out into the hall.

"What about your mom?"

"I don't know. I hope we'll talk. I hope we'll get along. I hope we'll fall into this relationship that I've always dreamt of having with her because we have something horrible in common now. I'm not sure what to expect or even if she'll want to sit down and eat with us. And as much as I hope we'll get that relationship finally I'm not confident we will."

"I suppose."

He was surprised when she ordered a glass of wine.

"Should you be doing that?"

"I'm not going to drink the whole thing. It's just after sitting all day…"

"Yeah, I get it."

"Thank you."

"Hey, you've had two others and what I know about pregnant women you could fit in a thimble."

"You thought I forgot?"

"It occurred to me that you might be tired enough to do something out of habit without thinking of your situation."

She smiled at that.

"Thank you for not saying condition."

"Yeah, I learned my lesson last night."

He followed her gaze in the direction of another couple seated nearby. That couple was obviously together unlike him and Claire. He saw tears form in her eyes before she wiped them away with her fingers.

"It's okay, you know," he said.


"It's okay to be sad and cry and miss him."

"I know the first two are okay, but there are times I miss him and I hate myself for it."

"You loved him. You can't control those feelings or what you're feeling now. If you didn't love him, I doubt you would have stayed."

"Probably not."

He slid a hand over hers, squeezing it lightly. "You have the right to feel what you're feeling, Claire. Seeing things like that would bother anyone in your situation, happily married or not."

"I was just trying to remember the last time I looked at him like that."

"Like what?" he asked.

"You don't see it?" she asked, glancing from him to the couple again.

"See what?"

"They're looking at each other as if they're the only people in the room right now."

"Huh," he said.

"It must be a woman thing."

"Must be," he said.

He wasn't so sure about that, though, and he kind of wished that he had his own room to go back to tonight. The only person he could ever think of that had looked at him close to like that was her. It wasn't the same certainly, but he remembered the fascinated way she watched him the day of their detention. And afterward when they hung out she'd always made him feel as if he was the only thing that mattered to her. To hell with homework, her phone ringing, or anything else.

Tomorrow wouldn't get here soon enough. He obviously needed to get back home and back to his routine.

Return to Top

***Chapter Four***
Word Count: 3,985

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."

"They're kids."

"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."

"You're sure?"

"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.

"Hardwood floors?"

"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 suppose."

"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.


She shrugged.


"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."

"Your kids."

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."

"I know."

"Make sure you do. If you don't know what needs to get done, talk to your brother."

"I will."

"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."

"Then what?"

"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.

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***Chapter Five***
Word Count: 2,006

September 1994

"What's wrong?"

"Huh?" he asked.

"You haven't eaten anything and you haven't said much since I got here."

"Nothing. I'm fine. Sorry. Just tired I guess."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. It has just been a long, exhausting weekend."

"You certainly can't blame me for exhausting you."

"What?" he asked with a frown.

She laughed. "Never mind. You must be tired."

"No, I'm fine."

"You said that already."

"I guess I did."

He took a sip of his wine. God he hated wine with a passion. She kept insisting she'd find one that he liked. She hadn't succeeded so far and he wasn't counting on it happening. Just like some people didn't care for the taste of beer, John was pretty convinced he just didn't care for the taste of wine. It seemed to make her happy that he was willing to keep trying so he kept trying and hating the stuff.

"It was just a long weekend. Maybe I did too much, trying to get as much done with the extra day off I had today."

"I understand. I was surprised you called me, honestly."

"Why?" he asked.

"When I left Friday night I didn't think I'd see you again until next weekend."

"I said I'd call if I had time."

She smiled a little. "I know. I assumed you wouldn't."

"Oh," he said.

"Is everything all right with your friend?"

"Claire," he said, a little more abruptly than he meant to.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by it. I don't know her and you haven't said anything about her since you got back, but okay Claire. Is she okay?"

"Yeah," he said with a shrug. "She's fine I guess."

"You haven't seen her?"

"No," he said. "Not since she dropped me off here. I would've told you if I had."

"I'm not sure you mentioned she brought you here. Did she like the house?"

She'd loved it. He knew she would, which was one of the reasons he insisted she come in and see it. Sure he'd wanted to show off a bit. Who wouldn't if they'd been in his shoes? He knew for whatever reason that the turret would be her undoing. He could, in fact, picture her sitting there on a comfortable chair, a blanket around her in the winter, and a book in her hands. Maybe it was a children's book of some kind because he doubted between being a mom and a teacher she had much time for reading books that interested her.

"Yeah, she didn't say much."

She hadn't had to say much. He knew she'd loved it, and she'd loved it for the same reasons he loved it. It was old and cool with so much potential. It was like a blank canvas. He could do whatever he wanted to with it. Sure, being on the lake helped, but it was a big old house obviously with some history. What wasn't to love? He watched her as he showed her around and he could almost see her mind processing the potential each room had just the same as he did when he walked into one each and every time since buying the place.

"Okay. Has she found a job?"

"I don't know. I just said I haven't talked to her."

"You said you haven't seen her. I guess I assumed you'd talk to her."

'Why?" he asked.

"Well, she's your friend. She just lost her husband and her father. I just presumed you'd check on her."

"She's living with her mom and has her brother around. She's fine. I'm sure. Why would I need to check on her?"

He'd picked up the phone more than a few of times over the past couple of weeks. The first time it was to apologize. He actually never picked up the phone that time. The second time it was to explain things to her, to tell her why as flattered as he was that she wanted to kiss him he couldn't kiss her back. Only he had. For a second or two there he'd been a very willing participant. He'd hung up without dialing even one number. There was no way that explanation was going to fly. She'd hate him and he didn't want that. He wanted to know if she needed something again she'd call even if it was ten years from now.

"Okay, so it's not your friend."

"No, it's not her. It's not anything. I'm fine. I'm just tired."

"And I'm making you eat chicken and drink wine when you'd probably rather have a burger and beer."

Yes. He couldn't say that, though.

"No, it's fine. You cooked. It's great. I appreciate it. That's not why I invited you over here, though."

She smiled a little, settling her hand over his.

"Oh? I kind of like the sound of that."

Jesus. He hadn't invited her over for that either. Not that he wasn't attracted to her. He was. God, she was gorgeous. He still couldn't quite believe she'd accepted his initial invitation of a drink. He knew she'd been interested in him, but being interested and going out with him were not always the same thing. He hadn't quite gotten to the point of being able to close the deal with her yet. Not for lack of interest on either of their parts.

He just couldn't help but think in the back of his head that if things went wrong, as things in his life always seemed to do, that he could be screwing himself out of a lot of work by, well, screwing her. So, he'd kept things pretty casual for now. He figured that was the way to go, let something build into whatever it was going to become. A far cry from when he used to carry a packet of protection in his wallet and keep a couple of spare in his car just in case that one wasn't enough. He was pretty sure the past nine months was the longest he'd ever gone without having to use one in about twelve or thirteen years.

He chuckled softly. "I just thought you'd want to hang out for a while. We haven't since last weekend."

"Because you were busy."

Working on his house. She hadn't once in the two hours she'd been here asked him what he'd done or asked to see what he'd done. That irritated him somewhat. She was the one who'd thought of him when she'd seen the house was going to be listed.

He slid his fingers through hers, sliding his thumb along hers a bit. Her nails were, as always, flawless. It was part of who she was. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen her look anything but perfect. Not a hair out of place or a nail chipped. Her clothes were always immaculate, impeccable even down to her shoes. No scuffs, always polished. Even coming over here today on a holiday she was. Sure, the clothes were casual, but the hair, makeup, and nails were still the same as any other day.

"Let's get out of here," he said.


"Go see a movie or go to a bar. There's got to be one around here that has a band playing."

"You want to go out?"

"Yeah," he said. "Or get in my car and just drive, see where we end up."

"I have to work in the morning."

"So do I."

"Yes, but…"

"Yeah, I know. It takes you longer to get ready in the morning."

"We don't have to go out. We could stay here and watch a movie or something. Isn't there a football game on tonight?"

"You'd rather watch football then go see a movie?"

"You like watching football."

"I like going to movies, too."

"John, now you're just being difficult. I have to be on the Southside tomorrow morning. I told you that."

"I'm not being difficult. Why is it all right for you to drive all the way out here when you have to work in the morning, but not go anywhere?"

"I'm not dressed to go anywhere."

"You're dressed just fine."

"Sure, for being at your house."

He sighed softly. "Football is fine. It's the 49ers and the Raiders, it should be a good game."

"See," she said. "You knew which teams were playing, so obviously you wanted to watch it."

"Well, sure, before you called and we decided to have dinner I assumed I'd have nothing else to do with my night."

"Is there something wrong with my being willing to watch football with you?"

"No, it's great," he said.

He stood from the table, taking her plate and his to the sink. He set them in there, rinsing them off before returning for their glasses. Hers was empty. His was still half full. She wouldn't drink from his glass he knew, which he didn't understand. She kissed him so why couldn't she do that? Baffling things, but then women were baffling.

"I'll be right back," he said.

"Okay. I'll be in the other room."

"Sure," he said.

He went to his room and closed the door. He went to his nightstand and picked up the phone, dialing the number. Ten years and he still knew it because hers was the only number he'd ever called in his life with any frequency. He got to the last number this time before hanging up. He had no idea if she even had the same phone number. It had been her own line in high school, chances were her parents' had disconnected it once she was gone.

He absolutely had no business calling her to ask her the ridiculous question he was about to ask her. He was a complete and utter moron is what he was. He slid his hand along the receiver for a second before letting go of it completely and heading to his bathroom.

He returned to the living room where Amanda was on the couch waiting for him. She had the game on already, a beer out for him, and everything. She eyed him a little curiously as he sat next to her. He grabbed the beer, popping it open before taking a sip. So much better than wine. He rested the can against his knee, sliding an arm around her to draw her toward him.

"Sorry," he said. "And thank you," he said, lifting the beer slightly.

"You're welcome. What are you sorry about?"

"I'm just not in a real great mood today."

"I could tell. Is everything all right?"

He chuckled. "It seems to me that question is what led to me just now apologizing. I'm all right. Let's just leave it at that for now."


She leaned in a bit and kissed him. He kissed her back. They kissed one another real well. Even more, he liked kissing her. He was pretty sure she felt the same way. If he pushed, initiated, or suggested he was pretty sure, too, that she'd join him in his room. His reasons for not pushing, initiating, or suggesting were sound ones. Things always seemed to get fucked up when he least expected it. He had a good job that allowed him to be able to afford to live in this house. His was a somewhat specialized field. He wasn't going to leave it and go find another one down the street. It wasn't that simple. Not to mention he'd been with the same company for ten years and had gotten pretty high up on the seniority chain by now to want to leave and start over from the bottom rung again. He couldn't jeopardize that for sex until he was sure there was something between them worth jeopardizing it for. And he just didn't know yet if there was. Physical attraction was great no denying that. He had it for her in spades and thought she felt the same. He just had these moments, like tonight, where he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to be here with her.

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***Chapter Six***
Word Count: 5,104

"I wish Grandma would've come with us," Bill said.

"Me, too," Claire said. "She's not a big football fan."

"Then why does she have the tickets?"

Claire laughed at that. It was such a simple question even if the answer wasn't, but probably a very logical question to him.

Her father had had season tickets to the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, and Cubs for as long as she could remember. He gave most of them away to clients or friends as gifts. He'd always let Claire and Scott pick out a game each to the Bears games before doing that when they were younger. There were always plenty of games to go to for the other teams so picking games wasn't a problem. During college she and Dan had come down more than once, letting her parents babysit Bill after he'd been born, and took in a game just to get out by themselves for a few hours.

"Grandpa just liked to have them."

"What will happen to them now?"

"Well, I imagine Uncle Scott and I will need to talk about that. We could maybe keep something. I know I can barely afford to pay for even half of one team's season tickets, but I'd be willing to do it if you think you'd enjoy going to the Bulls or Blackhawks games with me. Maybe Scott will keep the others. I don't know. So someone else would get them if we don't renew them. They were already paid for this year, though. And, they're playing the Vikings, too."

Bill wasn't sure what that meant. He'd spent most of his life in New York so wasn't really that familiar with the Bears or who their rivals were. They'd picked a great day to go to a game. It was nice out, warm without being too hot so Justin wouldn't get uncomfortable.

"Now what would you like?" she asked.

Her mom had surprised her by giving her a – very – generous amount of money to be sure that she and the boys had a good time today. She told her to be sure they each came home with a shirt or something.

"A hot dog please."

"Justin? You want a hot dog?"

"Yes," he said.

"Yes, please," she corrected.

"Yes, please."

"Thank you."

She stood in line. Bill was at her side, but she was holding Justin. She didn't trust him to stand still and not wander off. This was a perfect place for him to get lost in and he had a tendency to drift away from her if she wasn't watching every second. Bill hadn't been like that at all at this age. He'd stuck by his mom for dear life in crowds where they seemed to fascinate Justin. She wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

They got to the counter and she ordered their hot dogs and one drink for them to share.

"Okay, Bill, you hold your hot dog and the drink. I'll get Justin's hot dog."

"Aren't you going to get something, Mommy?"

"Maybe later. I don't have enough hands."

"I could help you," a guy behind her said.

"Thank you, but no, really I'm fine."

"Oh come on. You're not going to have any more hands later."

"But you've been standing in line…"

"Yeah, with my friends," he said, gesturing to the group he was apparently with. "One of them can take my beer to my seat for me."

"If you're sure."

"Not at all."

"She ordered a hot dog and a pop for herself, wishing she could order a beer. She wasn't overly fond of beer, but there was something about tap beer at games that always tasted great. She wasn't sure why because she was sure the kegs it came out of were no different than the kegs at bars and anywhere else."

"No beer?"

"No, I'm driving,' she said. "With kids I just don't take the chance."

"I suppose."

"Is this your first game, big guy?" he asked Bill who was staring at him.

"It is," Claire answered. "Sorry, he's a little shy."

"Hey, no problem. It probably doesn't hurt to be on the shy side in this crowd. Where are your seats?"

"Over here," she said, heading toward the seats her dad had had for years. They were excellent seats right on the fifty yard line. She'd brought more than one friend here during high school who'd been absolutely jealous.

"Wow," he said. "Maybe I should bail on my friends. It looks like you have an extra seat."

"I bet your friends would miss you."

"I doubt they'd blame me," he said.

"Thanks again, really, that was very nice of you," she said once she'd gotten Justin and Bill settled. She grabbed her hot dog and pop from him.

"Anytime. I'm Paul, by the way."

"I'm Claire," she said.

"It's nice to meet you, Claire," he said.

"You, too. It's nice to know chivalry isn't completely dead."

"Glad I could restore your faith in humanity. Or is it just my gender?"

"A little of both?"

"Well, glad I could help."

They were early so the seats around them were still filling up. She'd wanted to be sure to get here in plenty of time. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been here. It'd been with her dad, she knew that much. She'd come to town for some reason without Dan or the boys. They'd come to the game as a family, Scott leaving Joan and their kids behind. It was, she realized, the last thing they'd done as a family. That family. The Standish's.


She glanced around her, certain she was hearing things. It sounded as if it was coming from behind her, so she turned as best as she could in her seat, more than surprised to see John there. Did John even like football? She never would have thought it, but obviously he must have if he was here.


"What are you doing here?"

"Mom thought the boys might like to take in a game since it was supposed to be a nice day."

"It is that."

"It is."

"Mommy," Bill said.

She turned around again to see what Bill was looking at.

"Is that a player?"

"No, it's one of the coaches, I think," she said. She presumed so anyway since he was wearing a Bears jacket. He could've been an injured player, she supposed.

"Oh," he said, sounding a little disappointed.

She resisted the urge to turn around and say more to John. She was still hurting over what he'd said to her the last time she'd seen him. Talk about kicking her while she was down. Her own fault, she guessed, for thinking trying to kiss him would be a good idea. She could probably blame it on hormones and get away with it because hormones were truly to blame for so much. She certainly had it in her to control her urges. She'd just thought… Well, she wasn't sure what she'd thought. Obviously she'd been wrong. She glanced over her shoulder at him when she saw someone walk toward the seat next to his. It was the only empty seat in his row so they had to be going there.

"Sorry I took so long. The line was already out the door."

"It's all right," John said as the woman sat next to him.

Claire regarded her for a minute before turning her attention back to Justin and Bill. Bill wasn't having any problems eating his hot dog, but Justin was having a bit of a hard time so she took it and broke it into smaller pieces that would be easier for him to grab onto and chew.

She spent part of the game wondering who the woman was. A girlfriend? Did John have girlfriends? She didn't know, he'd never said and she hadn't asked. Whoever she was she was gorgeous. And thin. Claire at almost fifteen weeks was getting to that point she didn't feel thin anymore. She wasn't wearing maternity clothes yet, but she could certainly see the difference in her abdomen when she dressed and undressed every day.

As it turned out she'd told the school's principal when they offered her the job that she was pregnant. She wasn't a liar and withholding that bit of information from them would have been lying no matter how she looked at it. He'd said they'd work with her. If she carried to term, which she had and even been late with both Bill and Justin they were only looking at about two months of a substitute. As John said, teachers had babies, so there were always longer term substitutes available. She remembered in sixth or seventh grade her Social Studies teacher had a stroke and they'd had a substitute for a long time while she recovered.

Claire focused on the game, answering Bill's questions as much as she could. She had her dad's binoculars along which she let Justin use more than Bill since her older son at least had a grasp of what was going on on the field. Justin just wanted to see things.

About midway through the first quarter the seat next to her, which would have been her dad's or Dan's she supposed if he'd been along for a trip like this, was taken. She glanced beside her, ready to tell whoever it was that they had the wrong seat.

"Uh, hi," she said to Paul. He hadn't really bailed on his friends to come sit with them, had he? She supposed some people might do that because the seats were that good, but she hadn't asked him to.

"I was thinking your boys. They are yours, right?"

"Yes, they're mine."

"They're cute, too."

"Thank you."

"I was thinking maybe they'd like some peanuts and popcorn. You can't come to a football game and not get them."

"No, really."

"Oh come on. They're kids."

"Well, no I mean, I can buy their…"

"But I already bought them."

"You bought them for them?"

"I did. You said this was their first game. At least I assume if it's the older one's first game it's the younger one's too. Hot dogs are great, but you've got to indulge in all the game-day feasting to truly get the full spectator experience."

She laughed. "I'll pretend I have a clue what you just said. But thank you."


"I can pay you back. I have money," she gestured to her purse.

He waved his hand in the air. "Don't worry about it. I have a nephew about your older one's age who I'd love to take to a game but my sister won't let me. She thinks he's too young and yet here you are by yourself. I have something to tell her when I talk to her next time."

"Oh, don't use me as an example to start an argument with your sister."

She took the peanuts and the popcorn, handing the popcorn to Bill who wouldn't make too big of a mess with it.

"She thinks I'm going to bring him to a game, get drunk, and forget he's even here."

"Would you?"

He laughed. "No."

"I still don't think you should use me as an example. I admit this probably wasn't the smartest choice I made."

"You seem to be doing fine. They're having fun. Isn't that the reason for coming?"

"I guess."

"You guys enjoying the game?" he asked.

"Yeah," Bill said. "No touchdowns yet."

"They'll get one soon. Just wait."

"So, what do you do, Claire?"

"I'm a teacher."


"Are you a married teacher?" he glanced at her ring finger. She'd taken her rings off when she'd moved here. Too soon maybe, but she figured a new place to live she didn't want to have to explain or answer a million times where her husband was.

"I'm a widowed school teacher."

"Oh," he said. "I'm sorry. Really. That's rough at your age even without the kids."

She smiled a little. "It's okay. How could you have known?"

"Well, I saw the lines," he said, gesturing to her finger. "It must have been recent. You still have the lines."

"So you thought you'd hit on the newly single mother?"

"Hey, no. I really just figured your boys would like some peanuts and popcorn. And, well, if I could watch the game for a little while from this vantage point I wouldn't complain. I'm sitting in his seat, aren't I? Geez, I'm sorry. You're probably thinking I'm the biggest asshole around."

"No, these were my dad's tickets."

"So, this isn't Mom's first game?"


"Lucky Mom."


"Well, I'll go then."

"You can stay if you want."

She'd surprised him, herself, too. She wasn't picking him up. She wasn't going to give him her number or see him again, but she had to admit it was kind of nice to have someone flirt with her. Even if he was using her boys to do it.


"The seat's empty anyway."

"You sure you don't want just one beer?" he asked, flagging the beer vendor down. "I'll buy."

"I'd love one, but I can't. Thanks."

"All right."

"So, what do you do, Paul?" she asked.



"Yeah, very exciting and difference making. Right up there with teachers and doctors."

She laughed at that.

"Well, someone's got to sell the things we buy."

"See, that's what I say, but man, some people think I'm going to go into my pitch off the clock."

"What do you sell?"

"Medical supplies."

"Well, I'm in no need of medical supplies so it'd be a waste of your time pitching to me."

"Damn, and I had it all set to go, too. I could ask which district you work for and have an in to have them revamp their nurse's offices."

"I swear the nurse's office in the school I work at hasn't changed since I was in school there fifteen years ago."

"You teach at the school you went to?"

"Yeah. I just moved back here and needed a job. I couldn't be entirely too picky with kids."

"I suppose not. Where from?"


"The move."

"Oh, New York."

"Did you like it there?"


"You like Chicago better?"

"You know, I have to admit I always have."

"Well, then you made the right choice coming back home."

"I came back because my mom and brother are here more than anything."

"Nobody in New York?"

"No family."

"I don't know how recent you're talking, but I imagine family is more important than friends."

"It's been a few months, and it is. For them especially."

"He sure likes those binoculars."

"I know. I'm glad I thought to bring them. My brother and I haven't used them in years, but I remember loving to look at everything through them when I was little."

"Everything but the game, you mean?"

"Well, yeah, you can spy on people," she said with a laugh.

"And they have no idea."

"Exactly! See, you get it."

"Hopefully he's not quite that diabolical yet."

She kissed the back of Justin's head. He'd switched back and forth to his seat in between her and Bill and her lap. Currently her lap was the seat of choice.

The game was pretty boring at first. Paul had been right, touchdowns were scored. They just weren't scored by the Bears. Claire couldn't remember seeing such a lopsided game as the 42-14 result they had at the end of the game.

"Well, thanks for letting me mooch your empty seat off of you."

"I bet you wish you hadn't now."

"Nah. Still the best seats I've seen a game from."

"Thanks again for the food and everything. It was very nice of you."

"Sure. Thanks for the conversation."

"Yes, because everyone comes to football games for conversation."

"If they met women like you they probably would."

She blushed. She couldn't help it as she settled Bill in front of her and Justin in her arms so they could make their way out with the crowd. So many had left early once it was clear it was going to end up being a blowout so it wasn't as bad as some games she'd been to.

"I suppose you have the good parking to go with the good seats," he said once they made it to an exit.

"We do."

"Probably good with the little guy. I'm sure he gets heavy."

"He does, but if I set him down he'd be gone before I could blink."

"One of those, eh?"

"Yes, he knows no fear."

"Well, listen," he said, pulling out his wallet. "I swore I wasn't going to do this and look like I'm desperate on top of being a complete weirdo, but I know you said it'd only been a few months. I'm not quite that skeezy as to ask you out knowing you just lost your husband. So, if you decide maybe sometime you'd like to meet for a drink or dinner you can give me a call."

"Paul," she said.

"Hey, no pressure. I don't know your last name or anything so I can't hunt you down. You're attractive, smart, a good mom, and know football. I'd be stupid to not at least try."

She took his card.

"You really sell medical supplies?"

"You thought I was kidding?"

"I guess I thought you were."

"Wow. I had no idea I came across like that."

"It's probably me."


"A little."

"Okay. Well. You know, maybe sometime I'll hear from you. I could come to you if you're crunched for time with a sitter and all."


"That's a thanks, but I'm going to throw your card away as soon as you've turned around and left, isn't it?"

"It's a simple thanks. It's been a while since someone's given me their number."

"I imagine it has. He looks to be maybe eight and you can't be thirty yet."

"He'll be eight in April. I shouldn't, though."

"Well, keep it, when you get to a point where you think you should maybe you'll use it."

She slid it into the front pocket of her purse.

He offered Bill his hand who took it, shaking it properly.

"That's some grip. That's a good handshake there, Sport. Hopefully, the next time you come to a game the Bears will win for you. You had fun, though?"

"Yeah, it was all right."

He let go of Bill's hand and took Justin's. He hadn't quite perfected shaking hands yet and didn't know what to do with it.

"Nice to meet you, too, little guy."

"You drive safe."

"I'll be fine."

"Oh, I know you'll be fine, but don't forget you're one of few who didn't drink here today."

"Oh, right," she said.

He surprised the hell out of her by leaning in and giving her a kiss on her cheek.

"What was that for?"

"Pretty women deserve more than handshakes. It was nice to meet you all."

"Who was he, Mommy?"

"Just someone nice," she said.

"Oh," Bill said.

"Let's go find our car."


"John, I need your keys."

"I can drive."

"I know you can drive. I know you're capable of driving, but I've never seen you drink that much."

"It was only a couple of beers."



"Okay, pretend for a minute you get behind the wheel and drive out of the parking lot. Do you not realize there are cops everywhere, waiting to pull over the guys who think they only had a couple of beers. You get a DWI you can't work."

"I could take a bus."


"I'm fine."

"You're not fine. I understand if you don't want me to drive your car."

He scoffed.

"I'm not riding with you if you're driving."

"You're going to what? Take a cab home?"

"If that's what I need to do. Maybe you want to get into a wreck, but I sure don't."

He reached into the pocket of his jeans and found his keys, drawing them out before tossing them to her.

"Fine. You win. Drive then."

She opened his door, using the automatic lock switch to unlock his door so he could get in. Christ was that probably the worst three hours of his life in a real long time. Forget the Bears getting their asses handed to them on a platter.

"What is your deal anyway?"

"There is no deal. I drank some beer."

"And didn't eat anything."

"I wasn't hungry."

She sighed, starting the car, and pulling out of the space. They'd gotten there early enough that he was able to back into the spot without holding anyone up, making getting out a breeze compared to having to back out now into all of the traffic of everyone leaving from the game. They'd parked in a garage and taken a shuttle to Soldier Field, but hundreds did the same thing so the garage was packed. The only good thing was that there was no Cubs or White Sox games going on today since the season had been cut short due to the strike. He'd been down here before when both football and baseball games were going on and it was complete hell.

Actually, hell probably would have been easier to maneuver through.

What were the odds?

He didn't even know she went to football games. She certainly hadn't seemed the type in high school. Then he supposed when they met in March the season was already done so he wouldn't have reason to find out.

The tickets weren't even his, the seats belonged to the real estate company Amanda worked for. She'd asked him a while ago if he'd be interested in going. The company had six seats, so four other people sat with them that John didn't know. He, of course, ended up with the seat being closest to her and her kids. And whoever she'd been there with.

She'd barely been here a month and she was bringing someone to a football game already? Her oldest boy seemed to really enjoy the game. The guy had come out of nowhere, too. He'd assumed by the vacant seat that it was just the three of them. Then he showed up with snacks for the kids, though Claire had had some popcorn and peanuts, too, he'd noticed. Were the seats hers or his? Where'd she come by them if they were hers? Her dad? Her brother?

He tried to listen to parts of their conversation, but it was just too loud for that to work. They didn't look like they were seriously involved or anything. Then, neither did he and Amanda to the casual observer because he just wasn't much into public displays. He always felt as though the people who couldn't keep their hands off of one another in public felt as though they had to prove, to themselves more than anyone else, that they were having sex.

He'd ordered a couple of beers John had noticed. He saw Claire shake her head both times, so he had to imagine the guy was asking her if she wanted one. So, he evidently didn't know what John knew. Poor guy was going to be in for quite a surprise when he found out there was going to be a third Abbott not long from now.



"Are you hungry?"

"No," he said shortly.

"All right."

He closed his eyes, letting his head rest against the seatback.

"Do you like kids?" he asked.


"Kids. You know, little people. Do you like them?"

"I guess. As long as they're someone else's."

He snorted at that. That would have been his response a few months ago, too. He hadn't spent any time with her kids, but he'd observed them at the funeral, the gathering afterward, and at the game today. They were good kids. Cute, too. The youngest one was a little squirmy, shifting from the seat he should've been sitting on and his mom's lap. He supposed that was to be expected from someone that young, though. At the funeral they'd been very well behaved. He supposed she'd expect no less from her kids. All those rules and things she'd been taught growing up would be second nature to her even if she wasn't living the hoity-toity life she'd probably expected to have.


"Just curious."

"You want kids?"

"No," he said simply.


"No," he said.

"Why not?"

"You just said as long as they were someone else's, I assume you don't either."

"Well, not now. I mean some day. I'm only twenty-five."

He turned his head a little, regarding her. He couldn't even imagine her with kids. He just couldn't. Honestly, he couldn't imagine her having sex either. It was part of the reason he supposed he'd still been hesitant to take things very far. He just couldn't picture her allowing herself to get that…messy. Sex, if done right anyway he always thought, should end with both parties looking disheveled. Kids had that same effect on people.

"Were you watching the woman in front of us?" she asked.


"The woman in front of us with the kids? They were too young to be there, I thought."

"Why?" he asked.

"The one couldn't sit still."

"He didn't do anything wrong," he said defensively.

"He was too young."

"He moved from his seat to his mom's lap. He probably wanted to see better. Who could blame him?"


"I didn't realize there was an age limit on games."

"There's not."

"There should be, though, huh?"

He turned his head again, looking out the window. Her kids had had fun, even he with his complete lack of knowledge on the subject could tell that. They'd eaten hot dogs, drank pop, and gotten to have some popcorn and peanuts. She'd bought each of them programs and shirts at half-time he'd noticed. Or the guy had. He had no way of knowing who'd done what.

"So, what you have kids and you're not going to take them anywhere?"

"Well, not to a football game where other people will be bothered."

"Who was bothered? I didn't hear one person tell the kid to sit still or anything. You could barely see him anyway."

"What is your problem?"

"I'm kind of wondering what yours is. I don't want kids, but I don't dislike them. You say you want them, but you sure don't seem to understand them."

"And you do?"

"Kids wiggle around. They're not going to sit still for three hours. He wasn't loud or obnoxious. He didn't cry, complain, or fuss. He wasn't hitting people. He wasn't throwing things. He did knock over one guy's beer. Oh, wait, that was the grown man in our row who did that. He didn't turn around in his seat and stare at other people. I didn't see him or the other one kick the seat in front of them or anything."

"I just don't think it's appropriate."

"Yeah, well, trust me I had a dad who wasn't afraid to show me when I got out of line. There was nothing that kid did today that would've gotten under his skin."

"There's alcohol and swearing and it's just not appropriate."

"There's not alcohol or swearing anywhere else? You can't keep them in a bubble."

"I think you've had too much to drink and just want to argue about something ridiculous."

"Just wake me up when we get to my place," he said finally.

She hadn't really been dressed for a date. She didn't look like a slob or anything, but she wore jeans and a sweatshirt. Her hair and makeup were nice as they always were. No nail polish, though, he'd noticed when she was helping her youngest open a peanut. He'd seemed so amazed that he could eat what came out of the shell. She'd even let him lick the shell inside and out. John hadn't been able to resist chuckling at that because while he hadn't done it in a while he could remember how good that used to taste to him. It was probably terrible, germs and whatever else, but then most things were probably bad for you anymore.

He got out when she woke him up at his place, entering the code on his gate so she could drive through the gate.

"Are you going to be all right?" she asked.


"You want me to come in and make you something to eat?"



"Good night, Amanda. Thanks for the game."

"Sure. Maybe tomorrow when you've sobered up you can explain to me where this mood came from."

"Maybe I'm just a moody guy."

He'd thought of that a few times over the course of the past month when he'd been short with her. Maybe he had more of his dad in him than he'd wanted. It was the only explanation he wanted to consider because no way in hell was he throwing away a pretty good thing on the mere idea of something that he had no idea would even work. It wasn't even something. That was the completely baffling thing about it. She'd asked him for a favor. She'd kissed him. She hadn't called him since or anything and she was at a football game with someone else today so clearly she wasn't at her mom's house pining away for what could have been between them ten years ago if she'd told cheating-Dan to fuck off instead of agreeing to marry him.

Evidently she didn't know what to say to that so she walked to her car. Like everything about her it was pristine. She washed it at least twice a week. She said everything got factored into whether she was going to close a deal or not. He couldn't quite fathom someone walking away from a deal because her car was dirty, but she was pretty good at her job so she obviously knew what worked for her.

He opened her door for her, closing it once she got in, and then walked to the gate so he could let her out. He wondered why she'd never asked him why he didn't give her the code. He could let her in and out from inside the house, but this wasn't the first time they'd ridden in his car together and she'd had to leave afterward so he had to walk to the gate to let her out. Maybe she didn't care. Maybe she didn't want it.

Lots of maybes and John wasn't really sure what exactly the questions were.

Return to Top

***Chapter Seven***
Word Count: 4,263

"Hello," he said, trying to sound more awake than he was. He'd made himself a sandwich after Amanda left and sat down on the couch to watch some TV. He had no interest in watching the Bears game highlights on the news because, well, there weren't any highlights, so he bypassed the news and eventually found a movie he'd seen already but it was better than staring at nothing. He hadn't watched much TV before dozing off anyway. He had finished his sandwich at least, though.

'Hi, it's Claire.'

He debated for a minute about hanging up. She was the last person he needed to be talking to right now. Except she hadn't called him since she moved here, so that might mean she needed something.

"Hi," he replied.

'Can you talk?'

"Yes, I'm perfectly capable of doing that."

She sighed into the phone, clearly not in the mood for his smart assed comments tonight. 'I meant are you alone?'


"Yes," he said after another moment's pause. If he'd said no, maybe she would've hung up and saved whatever this conversation was about for another day.

'I'm sorry.'

"For what?"

'Kissing you. I shouldn't have. I had no idea you were involved with someone.'

"You didn't ask."

'Because I had no reason to think you'd have a girlfriend.'

He grumbled at that.


"Nothing, I'll pretend that what you just said isn't remotely insulting in some way. What is it you need, Claire?"

'I wasn't trying to be insulting. You said you didn't believe in that!'

"Yeah, ten years ago. I bet from where you sit today you're probably rethinking things. Yeah? At least I know my limitations as far as commitments go. I didn't marry someone and then cheat on them for years while they took care of my kids and had to come face to face with people I had sex with."

'I'm not trying to argue with you, John. I know you don't mean to say things that hurt me.'

He sighed softly. Well, put like that, no. It just seemed to be a defense mechanism for him where she was concerned. Better to piss her off than have her reject him for something boring and mundane like she just didn't like him in that way.

'I…she is the reason you didn't want to kiss me, right?'

"Uh, yeah," he said. Not wanting to wasn't exactly the right phrase. He'd wanted to, very badly. It'd just been wrong.

'Well, I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I should've asked I guess somewhere on the trip about more than your job.'

"You had your mind on other things. I'm not upset about it or anything."

'She's very pretty.'

"She is," he agreed. She was. He wasn't going to dispute the obvious. She was one of those people that drew attention wherever they went. On top of being gorgeous she had one of those … bubbly personalities. Put her in a room to mix and mingle with people and by the end of the night she'd be able to tell you something about each and every person in the room. John was lucky to talk to maybe a handful of people in situations like that without exceeding his limit for being nice to people.

'What's her name?'


'How did you meet?'

He pinched his nose, staring at the ceiling for a minute. Really? He couldn't believe he was even contemplating going down the road where this conversation was headed with her. This was absolutely, positively the most absurd conversation to be having with her of all people right now. And probably pretty dangerous, too, considering he wasn't completely sober.

"She's a realtor."

'Oh,' she said.


'That's why you didn't want to give me your realtor's name.'

"Well, I hadn't told you about her and I wasn't sure how she'd react if you just called her up."

'Well, she likes to make money I assume.'

"Sure. Is that why you called? You need her number? I mean if you really need it I'll give it to you. She tends to deal in pricier stuff, but I'm sure she'd help you out as a favor to me. It might be best if you don't tell her we kissed." Or that I slept with you.

'No, I don't need her number. I've decided to stay with Mom for a while.'


'Yeah. The boys seem to like it here, and in a few months I'm really going to need the help.'

"She's doing okay with your youngest so far?"

'Yes. She seems to have fun with him when I'm at school. A second one, that one being in diapers may be a challenge.'

"Well, she's what? Fifty-five or so? She's not decrepit. Maybe it'll help her, you know, a connection to your dad that you can both kind of share."

'Yeah, his last grandchild.'

"Why last?"

'Scott and Joan are done.'

"Well, anything can happen, sweetheart. Look at you, you said your younger one, I'm sorry I forgot his name."


"That's right. You said he was going to be the last one."

'Dan didn't get a vasectomy.'

"He probably should've," he said with way more emotion than he probably should've displayed on this topic.

'Actually, no, I think I was better off without that being a part of the mix. It may have gotten tempting for him to…'

"Not use protection?"

'Yes," she said and he could tell that was a real hard thing for her to admit to. Even over the phone, even only talking to her about two days' worth of time in ten years he knew it tore her up to admit that to anyone. Maybe most of all him. Yet she'd told him over anyone else.

"I'll say it again. He was a jerk. You don't do that to someone you supposedly love."

'I just wanted to apologize.'

"Nothing to apologize for."

'Did you know her before she sold you the house?'

"Yeah, we met about a year ago on some sites. You know, condos that she was looking to fill and stuff that I was working on. One thing led to another."



'Well, after seeing her I certainly can't blame you for not wanting to kiss me. So, I really am sorry I put you in that position.'

"You think I didn't want to?"

'Well, clearly, and like I said after seeing her I can't blame you. She's perfect.'

He exhaled sharply. "I did kiss you back for a minute there. You do realize that, right? Or were you so mad at me the past month that you forgot that part of what happened? And I am such a fucking idiot."


"Because I think it would probably be better for both of us if you're under the impression I don't want to kiss you that it stay that way."


"Because I'm involved with someone and it would seem you are, too."

She laughed softly at that. 'Is that what you think?'

"Well, you seemed to be having a good time with him."

'He was just a guy. He helped me carry my hot dog and pop to our seats because my hands were full. I wasn't going to get anything, but he said he'd help me. He came back with snacks for the boys. He was nice. The seat was empty.'

"Oh. Well, he sure was talking to you."

'He was being nice. He was there with his friends and I'm sure was just feeling sorry for the mom by herself with two boys.'

"He was flirting with you."

'How would you know?'

"I have eyes!"

'John, he was just being nice.'

"Sweetheart, I have never blown off my friends for almost three hours for a woman just to be nice. Ever."

'They didn't have an empty fifty-yard line seat you could sit in.'

"He was still into you."

'You really think I'd take my kids on a date with someone I've known for a month right after my husband died? I mean, never mind that's rude to Dan. I wouldn't do that to my kids.'

"Well, put like that…" That did seem a little crazy. "I suppose you wouldn't do that."

'He was just a nice guy. I won't lie and say he didn't ask me out.'

"I'm sure he did. He's clearly not a stupid guy."

'He sells medical supplies.'

"How nice for him."

'It's a respectable job.'

"So is working at a carnival."

'Why did you sleep with me?'

"I was wondering when you were going to ask me that."


"If I'd known about your husband I wouldn't have. I didn't know, though. You needed that apparently so I don't know maybe I still would've even if I had known what kind of guy he was. I had no problem giving that to you. I knew I wasn't going to have sex with you. Did I tell Amanda? No, and I have no intention of telling her that happened. Her understanding I helped you move is one thing, I'm not entirely sure she'd understand that."

'Does she know we've kissed?'

"In high school you mean? No, I never told her anything beyond our being friends."


"At the time I didn't think it was important and God it was ten years ago. It seemed silly to mention something like that."

'I bet you did now.'


'Maybe she would've told you not to go out there.'

"I would've anyway, sweetheart. Don't you know that by now?"

'I guess that's the reason I called you tonight.'


'I've never really been mad at you before. I mean, I left for school I think you always knew you could call me if you wanted to. I hope you knew that anyway.'

"I thought about it."

'Why didn't you?'

"You were already involved."

'Oh,' she said with a sigh.

"So, you turned away from me before I could actually talk to you today. You used your son as an excuse, too. I'm not stupid, I know you didn't want to talk to me," he said. "Have you found a job?"

'I'm at Shermer Junior High.'

"Well, at least it's close to your mom's house."

'Yeah, and it seems decent so far. I told the principal I was pregnant when he hired me. I waited until then, you know, not at the interviewing process but I couldn't not tell him.'

"I understand. He was okay with it, I assume? He had to be chomping at the bit to have you as a teacher."

'Yeah, I guess. He seemed glad I was interested in teaching there.'

"Good. And the kids. They're settling in?"


"How's Bill adapting to a new school?"

'So far so good. He's the only new student in his class, though.'

"Well, that could be good. You know, people may be interested in the new kid from New York."

'I suppose.'

"At least you're not there with him that has to make him feel better."

'He hasn't said, but I imagine he likes it this way.'

"Glad to hear everything's falling into place for all of you. Are you feeling all right?"


"You're sure?"

'Well, other than realizing next to your girlfriend that I'm as big as a house already,' she sighed softly.

"Oh shut up. You look fine. You had a guy hitting on you today, obviously you look fine to more than just me. I bet that guy didn't even have a clue you were pregnant. I'd also bet it wouldn't have stopped him if you'd told him. And you're what, over three months along now?"


"Are you going to go out with him?"

'No,' she said.

"Why not?"

'Because I have no desire to really. He seemed nice, but I don't know.'

"It may not be a bad idea."


"Well, I don't know. Maybe, you know, go out with someone a time or two you're not really interested in just to get over that hurdle of a first date."

'I don't want to date. I'm pregnant!'

"Being pregnant doesn't mean you're dead. That's my point! Have dinner with someone just to have dinner with them. That's not a crime. It would be a terrible thing to have the love you're obviously capable of giving other people to be wasted solely on your kids."

'I don't know. If you hadn't been seeing Amanda that night?'

"Jesus, really? I have to answer that?"

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

"You wouldn't have left mad," he said.

She laughed at that. 'I didn't want to have sex so when I left you may have been mad.'

"I doubt that. What did you want from me?"

'I'm not sure that I know.'

"Do me a favor?"


"When you know the answer to that let me know."

'John,' she said.

He sighed softly. "I'm not going to cheat on her, don't worry. I'm not particularly happy either, though."


"I don't know."


"Okay, just say, it's a holiday weekend. We have an extra day to do something. Anything. You drive out here from the city, knowing you have to drive back downtown later that night and be up at the ass crack of dawn because it takes you ten years to get ready in the morning."

She laughed.

"It's not funny."

'Sorry. Go on.'

"Okay. So this is us I'm talking about right now. Hypothetically, right? We have this extra day. I ask you to go see a movie, go find a bar with some live music, or even just go for a drive. What would you choose?"

'I, uh, well, I have kids so I'd probably choose the drive.'

"Pretend the kids are accounted for somehow. Mom, brother, a babysitter, tied up with duct tape."

'You know that's illegal, right?' She'd laughed, though, so she wasn't mad or taking him seriously.

"No, really? Damn."

'Okay, so presuming they were accounted for? Well, I guess it would depend on my mood. I had to be up early the next day? So the live band may be kind of out, but there's nothing saying we'd have to sit and listen to them all night.'

"Yes, see, there."

'I take it she didn't choose the live band?'

"She chose to stay here and watch football."

'And you're complaining about this?'

"I know, I know. Men would beat me over the head if they heard me saying that was a bad thing. It wasn't a game I gave a shit about. I asked her to do something and she'd rather sit around here because she wasn't dressed to go anywhere."

'Maybe she likes your house.'

"That's the other thing."

'Your house? She doesn't like it? Is she nuts?'

"No, she does. I mean, I assume she does. She never asks to see anything I've worked on and hardly ever asks what I did. I mean I'm living here because she thought I'd like it. Why exactly, I'm not sure. It's a great house, but why she saw it and thought 'John would like this' I have no idea. It's certainly a hell of a lot bigger than I had in mind when I thought of being a homeowner."

'Oh,' she said.

"I mean, I ask her about her day."


He sighed softly. "I have no business talking to you about this."

'Why not?'

"Because a month ago I really wanted not to be seeing her that night at my house."

'Well, I'm glad to hear that, that makes me feel good at a time I don't feel so good most days.'

"You don't wear nail polish anymore."

'I do sometimes,' she said.

"You weren't today."

'No, I'll actually put some color on before I go to bed so they can dry without smudging. I don't do them more than once a week, once they start chipping or something I remove it and just redo it again Sunday. Well, I can try to get them to dry without smudging. My luck Justin will need something two minutes after I finish.'

He chuckled softly. "Why only once a week? You always liked doing your nails funky colors."

'Well, the fumes from the chemicals may not be the greatest to inhale when pregnant.'

"Oh, yeah, I guess I hadn't thought of that."

'Are you all right?'

"I'm okay. I just think I'm a little crazy."


"You know I haven't more than kissed her."

'What? Why?'

"I'm not sure. I mean, when we started actually dating beyond just meeting once in a while for a drink when we were both free I was busy moving in here. She's busy with her job, I am, too. Our paths cross you know. I worry I guess if something goes wrong or things end badly and there's sex involved she could make my job difficult."

'Oh. How old is she?'


'Does she want to have sex with you?'

"I don't know. She seems to, and she probably thinks I'm weird or gay for brushing her off all of the time."

'But you're not sure?'

"I don't know. She's beautiful, like you say, but she won't go anywhere or do anything without looking that way. I'm pretty sure she doesn't even go down to get her paper in the morning without her hair and makeup done."

'Oh,' she said.

"So, I can't help but think… I don't know. Is she going to what? Get up and go to the bathroom right away because I smudged her eyeliner and lipstick."

She laughed.

"Laugh at my predicament."

'No, it's just funny to hear you talk like that. There was a time you wouldn't worry about what she did afterward.'

"Well, yeah, I mean if she wasn't someone I was ever going to see again I wouldn't care what happened afterward."

'I don't know what to tell you.'

"I know," he said with a sigh. "She didn't like you had your boys with you."


"I probably shouldn't have said that, huh?"

'How did my kids get brought into it?'

"I don't know. I was watching them and you with them. I assumed the guy was with you, but if it was a date I didn't think he'd be hands on anyway so I didn't pay attention to him beyond he bought them some things."

'He did.'

"And you say he wasn't interested in you."

'I asked him that.'


'If he was using my kids to get to me.'

He chuckled. "It's not the stupidest thing to do."

'So, my kids got brought into your conversation how?'

"I was crabby."


"Watching some guy flirt with you for three hours pissed the hell out of me. I drank too much."

'Do you realize how stupid you sound right now? You have a girlfriend while I was at the game with my kids.'

"If I had a crystal ball, sweetheart, and knew seven months ago you'd be here…"

'Yeah, all right.'

"I asked her if she wanted them. I don't know. It bothered me that you'd do that, let some guy be involved with them so quickly. I mean I don't know shit about them beyond what I've seen around so don't get me wrong I'm not judging."

'I swear he was just a nice guy who wanted to watch the game from that seat. When he thought it was Dan's he offered to leave immediately.'



"Points for that, I guess."

'I won't deny it was nice, but that was all.'

"I believe you. But they were good. They had fun, enjoyed the game, they clapped and cheered when other people were, but they weren't crazy. I've seen kids who can't sit still. I thought it was neat you did that and that your mom suggested it. You deserve to do some fun things, too."

'Justin was a little wiggly.'

"Yeah, but not in a bad way. He moved from his seat to your lap. He wasn't in other people's faces or in the way. He was being a three-year-old."


"It just made me think about kids and whether she'd want them."

'You want to have kids with her? You'd kind of need to decide to have sex with her in order for that to happen.'

"Very funny. Thank you for that. It's been longer for me than for you, but not that long."

She laughed at that.

"What's so funny?"

'And the world hasn't stopped spinning.'


'That I've had sex more recently than you have.'

"Oh, yeah, well, I kind of like to think that maybe it was osmosis or something."


"Because it really irritates me you'd let him…Touch you."

'He was my husband.'

He sighed.

'So you want kids? Does she?'

"She said eventually, but she thought yours were too young to be there which made no sense to me. They were having fun. I've seen people bring babies to games. It wasn't like it was below freezing. It was a nice day, a perfect day, to bring kids to a football game."

'That's what Mom thought.'

"I liked her," he admitted.


"Your mom. I never really saw her or talked to her in high school, but that day at your house she was very nice to me. If she hasn't told you, she's glad to have you living there."

'How do you know that?'

"She told me! She told me she was glad you came back home."

'Oh. Well, I'm glad. She's been fine. We haven't argued or anything.'


She got quiet then.

'I should go, I guess,' she said a few minutes later. 'I have work tomorrow, and so do you I imagine.'


'And while it doesn't take me ten days to get ready, I do have two kids to ensure have breakfast and stuff so my day does start early.'

He chuckled. "It was years not days, but okay then. Thank you."

'For what?'

"Calling. Listening."

'Did it help?'



"Because anyone in their right mind would tell me that I'm nuts for not being ecstatic to be in a relationship with her."

'You can't help how you feel, John. She's beautiful, but if that's all you have that's not really a reason to base stuff on. You're talking kids.'

"No, I'm not talking kids."

'You say that, but you asked her.'

"What time do you get home?"

'Around four o'clock. Bill takes the bus home.'

"Oh right, good old Shermer District Bus Line."


"You busy tomorrow night?"


"Want to come watch football?"

'John, I have the boys.'

"Bring them. We'll order pizza or something."

'I don't know if that's a good idea.'


'After this conversation.'

"It's the first time you've talked to me in a month, I wasn't even sure how to get a hold of you. So sue me for thinking it'd be nice to hang out with you."

'Let me think about it, okay. I really, really don't want to be that woman.'

"She was surprised I hadn't talked to you since you've moved here."

'You talked about my kids and me?'

"We talk about things. She asked about you, you know. She's not an emotionless person, your situation would be upsetting to most anyone with a heart."

'I don't know, but I can give you my phone number.'

"Okay," he said.

'Do you have email?'

"Yes," he said.

'I'll give you that, too, sometimes it's easier for me to check that than talk on the phone. I can read it and answer when all is quiet. Trust me I don't always know when that will happen.'

Something told him that wasn't going to be improving anytime soon. "Okay," he said. "One second, let me grab a pen." He sat up from the couch and walked to the kitchen, grabbing the pen and scratch paper he kept next to his fridge. "Go ahead," he said, jotting down her information.

'I'll let you know tomorrow when I get home, but I'm going to say the answer is probably going to be no.'

"I understand."

'Thank you, but if I change my mind.'

"I'll be here."

'Are you going to be all right?'

"Sure. I just either need to tell her why I've been a dick around her the past month or so or bite the bullet and move things forward."

'Well, I wish I could give you an answer.'

"This is something I need to answer on my own. Have a good night. I'm glad you called. I hated you didn't want to talk to me today. I really, honestly, your being pregnant didn't enter into the equation that night."

'It didn't?'

"No. Many things bother me about you being pregnant, but finding you attractive and wanting to kiss you back were not among those things."

'But you said…'

"Yeah, I know what I said. I was pretty sure it was a lose-lose situation whatever answer I gave so I went with the one that you'd probably eventually get over thinking I'm an asshole for saying."

'You're probably right.'

"Sleep well. Okay? I hope the little guys get good sleep, too. They had a long day in the fresh air, I bet they're close to being zonked."

'Oh yeah, and we ate dinner outside with Mom.'

"Good idea. You know, if you wanted me to come out there tomorrow I could do that, if coming here seems too …"

'Date like?'


'Maybe, let me think about it. I do like that idea better.'

"Okay. Good night then."

Return to Top

***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 4,476

October 31, 1994

John knocked, certain this was a stupid move on his part. She'd said no to his offer of pizza and the game when he'd asked last month. He'd expected it, but he hadn't anticipated hearing nothing from her for six weeks. True, he could've picked up the phone, too. He hadn't because he thought he needed his mind focused on what he needed to decide. Plus, he wasn't the world's greatest phone caller.

"Mommy, someone's here to see you," her oldest son called out behind him after he'd opened the door.

"I'll be right there."

"How are you, Bill?" he asked.

"You know my name?"

"Sure, I met you at your grandpa's funeral in July."

"Oh, I don't remember. I'm sorry, Sir."

"It's all right. You probably met a whole bunch of people that day whose names you'd have to remember. I only met you and your brother so it's easy for me."

"What's your name?"




He looked a little panicked or perplexed. John couldn't figure out what that was about.

"He's not supposed to call people by their first name, so he's asking for your last name."

"Oh," John said, understanding now. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't know. I'm not up on rules." He should've guessed, he supposed. "It's Bender."

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Bender."

"Yeah, you too, Bill," he said. He hated being called Mr. Bender with a passion so deep he'd rather poke his eyes out, but he understood rules. He couldn't help but stare at his mom, though, to the point he was probably bordering on being terribly impolite himself.

"What? Do I have chocolate on my face or something?"


"You're staring at me and I just snuck a piece of Justin's Halloween candy."

"Oh, that's right," he said. He hadn't really ever given Halloween much thought. Holidays weren't things celebrated at his house. "You don't have chocolate on your face." She was just so much more obviously pregnant today than the last time he'd seen her.

"Well, that's good I guess."

"They already went trick-or-treating then?"

"Yes, Mom took them around the neighborhood when Bill got home from school. I had to stay a little later to take my decorations down."

"That was nice of her."

"I think she liked showing them off."

"Oh, the proud grandma? That's cool. I told you she was glad you guys were here."

"Is everything okay?"

"Yes, why?"

"Well, you're here."

"Oh, yeah. Well, I got done a little early today and I got to thinking. The Packers and Bears are playing tonight."

"Right, I know, Monday Night Football."

"So, I figured I'd try running the watching a game idea past you again." Only this time in person so you'd be less apt to say no.

"And you drove all the way out here so I'd be less inclined to say no?"

"Pretty much."


"Come on, it's a football game and pizza or something."

"I just can't help but think you'd have a better time watching the game with friends."

"You're my friend."

"Well, yeah, but I can't drink and I have the boys."

"So? I'm not asking you to drink or leave them here. Go get them and yourself ready, pick a place that has a TV, and we'll go watch the game for a while."

"You want to go out?"


"I'm not sure that'd work very well."

"Then we'll eat and leave if they start getting antsy."

"You want to watch the game."

"Claire, quit arguing with me and go get them ready already. If we have to come back here then so be it. You deserve to get out of your house once in a while for something besides work."

"Fine," she said. "Come in. I have to change, too."


"Because I can't go out in public like this."

"Like what? Pregnant? You look fine, better than fine."

"I look like a swallowed a softball."

"I don't think softballs are quite that big sweetheart."

"Nice," she said.

He chuckled. "If you need to change, fine. I went home and showered first."

"Bill. Justin. Come here. You must've really gotten done early then."

"Yeah, about three o'clock."

"Go put some socks on and find some for Justin while I find Grandma," Claire said to Bill when the boys showed up by the door.

"Where are we going?" Bill asked.

"Mr. Bender…"

"Claire, really."

She glared at him so he shut up. She was good at that look, too.

"Mr. Bender invited us to go get something to eat and watch the Bears game. They're playing the Packers tonight, so it should be a real good game."

"Hopefully better than the one you saw against the Vikings last month."

"Okay," Bill said. "Come on, Justin," he said, grabbing his younger brother's hand.

"You can have a seat in the living room while I talk to Mom and get ready."


"We'll have to take my car."

"I figured that and it's fine. Go already, I'll be fine. And we are going to talk about this Mr. Bender stuff."

"I can't wait," she said, sounding like she wanted nothing to do with that conversation. He chuckled a little, watching her leave the room.

He had never paid pregnant women any attention. Ever. They were pregnant, which was a pretty immediate and obvious indication that they were unavailable. He'd known guys whose wives or girlfriends were pregnant, but he rarely saw them to notice the changes. He couldn't believe how much more she was showing now than when he'd seen her at the game six weeks ago.

She'd obviously planned on being in for the rest of the night, maybe answering the door for trick-or-treaters or something. She was wearing some workout pants or something, but he saw nothing wrong with what she was wearing.

Bill and Justin appeared first. They'd done more than get their socks on. They had shoes, coats, and hats on, too.

"He did all that?" John asked, indicating Justin. Three seemed pretty young to put all that together, especially since she'd told Bill to help the younger one get socks.

"No, Sir. I helped."

He nodded a little, regarding both of them. He could see Claire in Bill, but not as much Justin. Bill was missing a tooth. He wasn't sure if that was a new thing or not. "You must be a pretty good big brother."

"I'm going to be again."

"I know that."

"Mommy told you?"

"She did," John said. He supposed from a seven-year-old perspective he wouldn't understand that it was very obvious to John he was going to be a big brother again.

"She said I'm not supposed to tell people."

"Are you excited?"

He shrugged a bit. "I guess. He's not going to have a daddy, though."

Huh. That hadn't been the response he was expecting at all. John knelt then so he was eye level with Bill, thinking over what to say to that.

"Of course he or she will have a daddy. He just can't be here anymore. Your dad is still your dad, the same as your brother's, and the new one."

John was an expert on still having parents because he knew his were still out there even though he never saw them. His choice was voluntary, though. He got that her kids didn't have a choice.

His parents, or lack of them, was eventually his undoing with Amanda. She'd brought up going to dinner with her parents. Until then, evidently she'd thought his were dead because he never talked about them. So, then she'd mentioned going to dinner with their parents. Together. The six of them.

That was never going to happen in this lifetime. Ever.

She'd gotten a little miffed when he said he hadn't seen or spoken to them in over nine years. He hadn't felt like going into why, but she'd been unable to get past someone turning their back on his family.

Oh, it hadn't happened immediately, but he knew that was the point of no return for him. Likely for her, too. It had taken a few weeks, but he was pretty sure they both knew after those conversations that they were too different. He'd said he'd meet her folks, he'd have been happy to. Well, maybe happy to wasn't exactly accurate. He was pretty sure he gave incredibly bad parent because in all honesty he didn't trust them. Always in the back of his head when he met people's parents was him wondering what secrets their family hid.

Evidently it was a package deal, though. His parents' for hers.

He could've explained it, maybe even shown her. He really, really hated drudging up things that were better off left in the past. He didn't want to show her either because he wasn't confident about what he wanted to do with her. Her having that sort of information if they stopped seeing one another about him didn't sit well with him. So, he'd kept his mouth shut and let her think, he supposed, that he was an ungrateful asshole.

He stood when she came back into the room. He couldn't help it. She looked, holy crap, fucking amazing.

"Wow," he said.

"Hmm. I must have really looked awful if this gets a wow out of you."

"You didn't. It's just been years since I've seen you in a skirt. And, well, you look very nice in that one."

"Thank you. Wow you guys are all ready to go."

"I know. They must have been excited since you told them just to put socks on."

"Thank you, Bill, for helping Justin." She stooped a little, checking Justin's coat to be sure it was zipped up. It wasn't real cold out, but cold enough John supposed zipping up was necessary. "Let's go then."

"So, I was thinking," John said once everyone was settled in Claire's car.


"Maybe we should head to Glenview or something."

"Why?" she asked. She glanced at him then. "Are you afraid you'll run into someone you know and they'll think we're yours?"

"What? No, why would you think that? I was thinking of you more than me. I mean, people can be cruel and if they see us together."

"Really? Ten years later you're worried?"

"About you. If you don't care we can go wherever you want. I'm not the one with the job with the Shermer Public School system."

"I'm not ashamed of being seen with you and if people want to judge my having dinner with an old friend let them. I haven't gone out anywhere since I've been back besides the game, work, and the grocery store."


"Not really. I mean, I take the boys to the park and stuff, but as far as socializing. No."

"No friends with kids? Or just friends who'll tolerate your kids?"

"A couple, and we've talked. I've seen a couple, but I've gone to their houses or they've come to ours."

"Well, I'm glad you're doing something to get out."

"The school counselor recommended some group grief counseling for Bill."


"I'm going to give him a little longer to adjust."

"That sounds like a solid plan if he's not acting out or anything."

They arrived at a place John hadn't been to since high school. The food had always been good and they had a TV. John was pretty sure judging by the number of cars in the parking lot that it was still a good place to go.

"Do you mind letting Bill out?"

"Sure," he said, opening his side's rear door so Bill could get out.

"Thank you, Sir," Bill said.

"Yeah, sure," John said, glaring at Claire over the hood of the car.

"You like the Bears, too, then?" Bill asked.


"Mommy and Uncle Scott do, too."

"You know, I've known your mom for a long time and I never knew she even knew anything about football or liked it until recently."


"Really. I saw you guys at the game you went to last month and I was real surprised to see her there."

"They lost," he said, sounding very sad about that.

"Yeah, well, it happens. At least you had fun, though, right?"

"Yes, Sir, we did. Mommy even let us drink pop."

"She doesn't usually?"



"Yes, Sir."

"All of the time?"

"Yes, Sir," he said. "And not even chocolate."

He chuckled a little at that.

"Well, I expect your mom is trying to be sure you grow up big and strong with no cavities."

"I know," Bill said, but he didn't sound happy about it.

They were seated and ordered their pizza pretty quickly.

"So what were you two talking about?" Claire asked.

"Nothing," John said.

He'd gotten the seat next to Bill's. His only other choice had been Justin. He knew less about three-year-olds than seven-year-olds. So, he figured it was the better, safer choice. He couldn't screw up too much he hoped.

Claire had crayons and a coloring book for each of the boys so they were sort of occupied.

"See anyone you know?" she asked. He'd chosen to sit facing most of the restaurant.

"No, but that's not surprising. I hadn't been to town since I moved out before August."


"So, how's the job?"

"Fine. You know, it's a job. I get to teach hormonal boys and girls things they don't want to learn."

"What grade are you teaching?"


"Huh. Any problem students."

"No," she said.

"One cussed at her," Bill said.

"How do you know that?" Claire asked.

"You told Grandma."

"Kids cussing at you aren't a problem?" John asked.

"He was trying to be cool," she shrugged. "To get a reaction out of me. I didn't react, which is what he was going for."

"You didn't react to a twelve-year-old kid cussing at you?"

"The school I taught at in New York was a very good prep school."

"Okay," he said.

"Politicians, famous people like stage and movie stars and athletes, and old money people all sent their kids there. So rich kids, entitled kids, kids not used to being told no or given detention. So I've learned not to react. Believe me, he said nothing I haven't heard before."

"Aimed at you?"


"I don't like it," Bill said.

"I don't either, but why not, Bill?" John asked.

"She's an adult."

"Yeah," he prompted, wondering where he was going with that. He clearly was thinking through what else he wanted to say.

"And she's a teacher. She's import…"

"Important," Claire prompted.

"Yeah. They should expect her. My daddy told me cussing at a lady is disexpectful."

"On that I can agree with your daddy, I hope you remember that when you're older," John said.

"Daddy told you that?" Claire asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.


"When Tommy hit me."

"I remember that happening, but I don't remember Daddy talking to you."

"Tommy's mom believed him that I started it. When Daddy asked me about it I said something not so nice about her."

"And Daddy said?" Claire asked.

"That she was doing the same thing you'd do for me or for Justin. He said that being mad doesn't give me the right to call someone names. He said especially women like Mrs. Trent who were nice ladies."

"I never knew he talked to you about that."

"You'd fallen asleep on the couch. He put you to bed and came to see me because I'd gotten up to get a glass of water. He told me I was a big boy for getting Justin to bed without waking you up. He saw my black eye, though."

"You fell asleep on the couch? "John asked. He found that kind of hard to believe.

"She was sick," Bill said. "Daddy said she had a fever."

"Oh," John said. "When was this?"

"It was in March," Claire said. "I only remember because we had to go to church with him having a black eye on Palm Sunday. It was gone by Easter Sunday, thankfully."

"Were you okay?"

"Yes, it was just the flu."

"That's good," he said. "Were you and Tommy still friends after that?"


"Good," John said.

"Daddy said friends fight sometimes."

"Very true."

"Are you a daddy?"


"Why not?"

"Some people don't have kids."

"You don't like them?"

He glanced at Claire for help, but she was helping Justin with his pizza. He evidently needed his piece cut up into smaller pieces.

"Well, honestly, I think you and your brother are the first kids I've really been around."

"None of your friends have kids?" Claire asked.

Now she was paying attention!

"Well, sure, but I don't converse with their kids. Usually, I meet them at a bar or something."

"Leaving the wife home with the kids? That doesn't sound familiar at all," Claire said, glancing away.

"I guess it would," he said. None of his friends were cheaters, at least not that he knew. He didn't go home with them at the end of the night and didn't follow them out of the bar to their cars. He didn't always leave at the same time as they did either.

"You got quiet," she said.

"You know how to kick a guy where it counts," he said. Now he was sitting here wondering if he was somehow acting as one of his friends' beards. 'Oh I'm going out with John tonight. It'll be a late night. I'll crash at his place.'

"Mommy didn't kick you," Bill said with a giggle.

"How do you know?" John asked him.

Bill laughed a little more. "Because she's too far away. She can't kick you from there."

"Maybe she has real long feet," John said.

"No," Bill said, laughing harder now.

"Are you sure? Maybe she's really like Bozo."


"You don't know who Bozo is?"

"No, Sir."

"Ask your mom to show you pictures tomorrow."

"Who is he?"

"A clown," Claire said. "We grew up watching him on TV."

"And he has big feet?" Bill asked.

"Yes," Claire and John both said.

"I was kidding about your mom kicking me. She didn't tonight anyway, but she did once in high school."

"John," Claire said.

"Why'd you kick him, Mommy?"

"I did something that wasn't very nice," John said.

"Did you say you were sorry?" Bill asked.

"I did," John said. Eventually he had.

"Did you, Mommy?"

"I'm not sure I did. I was kind of mad at him."

"She did better than saying she was sorry. She was my friend even after I wasn't so nice. Your mom's a pretty good friend to have."

"Oh," Bill said.

Just like the game last month against the Vikings, the first quarter started out pretty boring with the Packers ahead at half-time. By the time they left at the end of the third quarter it was 21-0.

"I must be bad luck," Bill said when they were settled back in Claire's car.

"Nah," John said. "There's no such thing. The Packers and Bears games are always tough. The two teams have been playing against one another for like seventy years so the players are always pumped for the two games they play against each other. They've won a few this season."

"I know," Bill said.

"You want to come in and watch the rest of the game?" Claire asked when they got to her house.

"Are you sure?"

"You're the one who has to drive home afterward."

"Sure," he said. He opened the door for Bill as he'd done at the restaurant.

"Bill, you and Justin go on upstairs, get ready for bed, and brush your teeth. I'll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in."

"Okay, Mommy," Bill said.

"Justin, you brush your teeth, too, just like Bill tells you. I'll check when I get up there."

"Yes, Mommy."

"What do you say to Mr. Bender?"

"Thank you for dinner, Sir," Bill said.

"Thank you," Justin said.

"Sure," he replied.

"I'll show you where the TV is and go get them settled into bed."


"There's a fridge if you want a beer or a pop. Mom probably has something to mix in with the pop if you wanted something like that."

"I'm fine," he said.

"Okay," she said, handing him the remote once she'd turned the TV on. "I'll be right back."

"Looking for something in particular?" She'd caught him checking out her basement after he'd gotten a pop out of the fridge behind the bar.

"No. It's just been years since I've been down here."

"Mom and Dad didn't change much."

"Well, they probably figured with grandkids there was no need to."

"Yeah, I guess. So, how are the Bears doing?"

"Not scoring twenty-one points in fifteen minutes."

"Too bad. Oh, you did get a pop, good. I'm glad you made yourself at home."

"Yeah, I was going to grab you one, but I wasn't sure what you wanted to drink."

"I'll just have some water. Those two glasses I had at dinner were my limit for the day."

"No pop either?"

"It's the caffeine."

"Oh, right," he snorted with a shake of his head. "Obviously I'm clueless. You could've gotten water or juice or something at dinner."

"I kind of wish I didn't have to do this again. And it's okay, a glass or two aren't going to hurt me."


"Why what?"

"Do you wish you didn't have to do it again?"

"I don't know. The looks I get at school now that I'm showing. I can't be sure people are being nice to me anymore because they actually like me or just feel sorry for me."

"They can't do both?"

"I don't know. And that waitress tonight."

"What about her? She was fine."

"She probably thinks the kids are yours."

He'd thought of that, too, especially after she'd asked him if he was the one who'd taught Bill how to color when she'd seen John helping him color a picture. John couldn't remember the last time he'd colored. Grade school? Bill had asked him to, though, and despite some common perceptions about him he wasn't a monster or a complete asshole. A kid who just recently lost his dad wanted him to color with him. He could do that.

"That's her problem for presuming, not yours."

"Yes, but you mentioned me going out on dates. I think about these things. I don't want every waitress to think that."

"You aren't planning on taking them with you on dates, are you?"

"No, of course not."

"I wouldn't think you'd do that until, well, you thought the guy should meet them."

"Well, right, eventually I hope I would want to."

"Right, sure."

She shifted on the couch a little, setting her glass of water down, and breathing in sharply.

"You okay?"

"Yes, he's just moving."

"Oh," he said. "He?"

She set her hand on her stomach and moved it around. He looked away after a couple of seconds, feeling as if he was kind of intruding on something he had no business being a part of.

"I don't know that, I just say he."

"Does Bill know you want a daughter?"

"Bill wants another brother."

"I got that earlier, yeah."

"You were nice to him, thank you."

"You don't have to thank me for being kind to your son."

"Well, thanks just the same and thank you for dinner. I could have paid for ours."

"Thank you for coming out. About this Mr. Bender thing."

"It's how I'm raising them, John."

"I get that, but I hear Mr. Bender and I think my dad's behind me or something."

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to do that."

"You think of something better."

"I'll try."

"John would be fine with me."

"You planning on being around that much? There's very few people I allow them to call by just their first name."

"I'm not going anywhere, Claire."

"Does Amanda know you're here tonight?"


"You may want to let her know you want my boys to call you John."

"It's my name."

"It's very informal, implies familiarity."

"I hope I'm going to be familiar to them."

She yawned, rubbing her stomach again.

"I should let you go to bed."

"I'm sorry. This is the latest I've been up since we drove here."


She laughed. "Yes, I'm lucky to be awake later than Justin."

"You should've said something."

"It's one night. I can handle it."

He stood, setting his empty pop can in a garbage can behind the bar. He returned to the couch and offered her his hand.

"I'm perfectly capable of getting up. I'm not that big yet."

"Wow. Did I say anything remotely like that?"

"No," she said.

"You just look like he – or she – may be giving you a hard time so I thought I'd offer you help."

"Thank you," she said, taking his hands. He let her do the work getting off the couch. "I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it. You look good, by the way."

She scoffed.


"I think you need glasses."

"My eyes are just fine. I mean, you look pregnant, but you look good. Evidently it suits you."

"Too bad this will be the last time then."


"Well, yeah," she said, looking at him as if he was crazy. "I've already talked to my OB about getting my tubes tied after I've had this one."

"What if you meet someone and want more?"

"Three is enough!"

"Your doctor agrees with this?"

"She said she'd recommend waiting a little while."

"I think she may be right. I mean you're only twenty-eight."

"And, again, three is enough."

"So you meet a millionaire and could have more without money being an issue?"

"Put like that…"

"You should maybe put it off."

"You know any single millionaires?"

"Not off the top of my head."

"That's too bad."

She opened the front door, turning on the porch light. She flipped the switch that controlled the lights further along the driveway near where he'd parked.

"Get some sleep."

"You, too. Drive safely."

"I will," he said. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "You make cute kids."

She laughed. "Thanks."

She stood in the doorway, watching as he got in his car. She turned out the exterior lights once he started driving away. He imagined she would make sure the door was locked and everything before going upstairs.

He had about an hour to think about the night and whether he'd done a very stupid or a very good thing by going over there tonight. He still wasn't sure by the time he'd pulled onto his driveway and into his garage. At least she was talking to him and hadn't walked away from him tonight mad. That was something at least.

Return to Top

***Chapter Nine***
Word Count: 7,001

November 1994


It was Claire's mother, though he supposed it could've been her sister-in-law.

"Hi, is Claire home?"

'Sure. May I tell her who is calling?'

"It's John, Ma'am," he said.

'Oh, hello, John. How are you?'

"I'm fine, Mrs. Standish. How are you?"

'Oh, it was kind of a hard day for all of us, but I think especially on the kids,' she said. 'Bill and Justin most, I think, it was their first holiday without their dad. Scott Junior and Maddie are used to not seeing their grandpa on some holidays.'

He thought as much, which was why he was calling. He'd thought about calling earlier, but didn't want to intrude on what was probably a very personal, painful, and private day for all of them this year.

"I imagine it was."

'Did you have a good day?'

"It was fine. I was just here working on my house."

'You didn't have a meal?'

"No, Ma'am," he said.

'Well, I'll have to talk to Claire about that. There's always room at our table for one more on Thanksgiving.'

"I appreciate that, but she didn't know what I was doing either."

'Well, she should have asked. It's the polite thing to do.'

"She probably assumed I had plans."

'Oh,' she said. 'Well, let me go and get her for you. I didn't mean to monopolize your time. She had just gone upstairs to put Justin to bed, though.'

"It's all right. Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving," he said before she set the phone down.

He'd thought of that the couple of times they'd talked over the past few weeks. They hadn't talked frequently or for very long when they did talk, but they'd both picked up the phone a couple of times to say hello. He hadn't mentioned yet he and Amanda weren't together anymore. In part because he hadn't been entirely sure they weren't together anymore. It was such a stupid thing to argue over. He wasn't sure if after a few days or something she'd realize that, too.

He knew, too, if she'd found out that he was going to be alone for Thanksgiving that she'd invite him over. She wouldn't have taken no for an answer either. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have minded such an invitation, but he thought it would be intruding this year in light of what she and her family had gone through the past few months. So, he'd kept his mouth shut.

He learned Monday through someone he ran across with some frequency at work that Amanda was seeing someone. Well, he'd mentioned seeing Amanda at a restaurant with someone who wasn't John over the weekend. So, John presumed that they were finished.

He still wasn't completely sure how he felt about that. A little relieved and a little not. He supposed that was normal. They hadn't dated real long to where he thought he was in love with her or anything, but she hadn't really done anything wrong. Claire had been right to a point. Physical attraction was great, but there had to be more than that and they just didn't have it. Whatever it was. John still wasn't sure such a thing existed.

After Claire's comment at dinner last month he started watching the friends he did go out for beers with a little more closely. He was not going to be that guy, the guy who enabled someone to treat his wife or girlfriend shittily. Turned out he wasn't being that guy at least that he knew of. People who were going to cheat and did it with any frequency probably knew how to be discrete or they'd have gotten caught long ago and not be married anymore. There was a friend of a friend who John thought was a little shifty, but John couldn't control what everyone did.

Most of his friends seemed to think if Amanda couldn't accept him for who he was he was better off without her. He obviously had his reasons for not talking to or seeing his parents for years. If she couldn't respect or understand that, he didn't need her.

One of his friends, Paul, however was in the minority. He suggested that groveling should be involved to get her to come back. He'd also asked John if he was that stuck on not talking to his parents anymore.

Yeah, that wasn't happening. Ever. No woman was worth that amount of crap.

John didn't grovel either.

Well, he supposed he would if he thought she was worth groveling over. Clearly he didn't because begging or pleading his case hadn't entered his mind since the last time they'd talked.

Overall, though, he thought he was probably better off. He could just imagine what Paul would say if he knew John was making this phone call tonight. He'd accuse John of being more than just a little nuts. A widow with two kids and a third one on the way over Amanda who was gorgeous and had no ties or baggage to anything. Except they didn't do anything really either. They had dinner out, ate at his place or her place with frequency. As far as doing stuff, though, they didn't go out to movies in the middle of the week or anything. So, what point was there in dating someone without baggage when they still didn't do anything?

'Hi,' she said, picking up the phone.


'I'm sorry it took so long.'

"It's okay, your mom told me you were putting Justin to bed."

'Yes, long day. Kind of a tough one.'

"I can imagine."

'He just doesn't understand yet why his dad's not here. You know?'

"No, I don't know, but I can imagine. And I'm very sorry that Justin or any of you are going through it. How are you doing?"

'I'm okay.'

"Claire," he said.

'Oh, I won't lie and say I didn't cry more than once today, but I'm okay.'


'Mom says you didn't do anything today.'


'Why not?'

"Nothing to do."

'Oh,' she said, sounding legitimately confused. 'You know you could've come here. Mom always cooks too much food.'

"I know. I appreciate the thought, really. Your family deserved today amongst yourselves."

'Oh, I don't know, maybe it wouldn't have been better to have someone around who wasn't sad.'

"What about Joan?"

'Oh God, don't even get me started. She's all in a huff because Scott wants to have both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner here with Mom.'

"Understandable I'd say given your dad just died."

'She doesn't see it that way. Their arrangement is switching. Mom gets Thanksgiving this year so Mom only gets dessert later in the night Christmas. Next year, Mom would get dessert on Thanksgiving and the meal on Christmas.'

"Shit. Is she just heartless or is she really that stupid?"

'I don't know. I told you, it's all about her family.'

"I'm sorry you have to deal with that on top of everything else."

'They'll figure it out. Maybe they'll come over here for Christmas Eve and we'll do our big meal then instead. Santa can come regardless of when we eat.'

"That could work," John said. As if he knew anything about holidays and meals. Or Santa.

'So, you didn't have dinner with Amanda today?'


'Is everything all right?'

He sighed softly. She hadn't really asked about Amanda before tonight. Well, she'd asked if Amanda knew he went over to her house on Halloween and other, more general things. It was the first time she'd asked if things were okay, though. Understandably, he supposed, since today was a holiday and you were supposed to be with your loved ones on holidays.

"We broke up a while ago."

'Oh. You didn't say anything.'

"Well, you didn't ask, and I didn't want you to think…"

'It was my fault?'

"Something like that. It was my parents."


"She wanted to meet my parents. Well, she wanted me to meet her parents and I made the mistake of saying that my parents would have a heart attack if they met her. I think in general they'd have a heart attack knowing I'm alive and well, not just surviving but actually doing well for myself. She, I guess, presumed they were dead or living in Antarctica or something until then."

'And she broke up with you over that?'

"Oh, you know, just one more thing in a line of things that were adding up. For both of us. I will never have contact with them again. I'd rather die than ask one of them for a kidney, you know? She doesn't understand that."

'Most wouldn't.'

"You do."

'That's because you told me.'

"Yeah, well, it's been ten years I don't really feel like airing dirty laundry now, you know? They're out of the picture. Not everyone has a good family. She seemed to think it was disrespectful or something."

'Hmm,' she said.

"So, it is what it is."

'When did this happen?'

"Last month some time. I don't know. A month ago?"

'So, Halloween?'

"Yes," he said.

'I see. I'm sorry. You obviously liked her.'

"I'm not really sure I did. I mean, I wanted to and knew I should, but I'm just not sure I liked her or the fact that someone who looked like she did was into me. I mean, I have a good job and everything, but chicks like her don't flock to me. Then I don't usually put myself out there to types like her either."

'You put yourself out there to me once upon a time. And you're not a bad guy, John.'

"I appreciate you saying so, but she was still a little more high maintenance than I think I knew what to do with on an everyday basis. You," he chuckled. "It's probably a good thing you didn't want to date me because I wouldn't have had a fucking clue what to do with you."

'I wasn't that bad.'

"No, you weren't, it's just you were everything I wasn't, sweetheart. It was a bit frightening. I wasn't scared of her or anything. I just never fully invested myself in giving her everything I could. And that's probably why I'm sitting here on Thanksgiving alone and she's probably having dinner with her parents' and her new guy as we speak."

'I understand. I'm still sorry. Breakups are never easy.'

"Like you've had any. You married your first boyfriend."

'You're right, but I have friends who've gone through it. So what did you do today then?'

"Oh, just some things around the house."

'Yeah? Did you finish the last of the floors yet?'

"Yes, in fact I did. Every inch of every floor in this house has now been refurbished and is in mint condition as of about ninety minutes ago."

'So, you can go barefoot now?'

"I could," he said with a chuckle.

Not that the floors were that bad, but a couple of them had had carpet on top of the hardwood so the floors were in pretty pitiful condition when he took the carpet up.

'Well, good, I know that's a load off your mind.'

"It is. I've had nothing but time since she and I stopped dating so I've gotten a lot done more quickly than I had the four months previous to now."

'I'm not sure I should say that's good or not.'

He chuckled. "It is what it is."

'I really wish you'd told me. I could have brought you a plate of food or something at least.'

"It's all right, Claire, really. I've gone this long without turkey on Thanksgiving. It's no big deal to those of us who've never done the holiday thing before."


"No. Who would I have to celebrate Thanksgiving with?"


"Oh, I've been invited, but I've always given an excuse. Holidays are for family."

'John, if they hadn't wanted you there they wouldn't have asked you.'

"Yeah, well, still. So, anyway, I was thinking. What are you doing tomorrow or Saturday night?"


"Do you think your mom will babysit?"


"So suspicious, sweetheart. What's up with that?"

'No, I'm sorry. What's up?'

"Well, I just thought maybe you could maybe use some non-Mommy time after today. You know? I was thinking of dinner somewhere, but if you'd rather eat here we could do that, too."

'You just want to show off your new floors.'

"My old-new floors, you mean?"

She laughed then. 'Yes. That. I don't know, though.'

"Why not?"

'I'm just not sure…'

"If I hadn't told you Amanda and I broke up would you have said yes?"

'I'm not sure, probably.'

"I don't think anyone would blame you or think we're doing anything wrong. You haven't gone out without your kids since you've been here, have you?"


"Well, then, it's not like you're hitting your mom up for babysitting every waking moment. I mean, if you want to bring them, well, that'd be fine but I have absolutely nothing to entertain them with."

'I know.'

"Well, it's up to you. I'm not asking you out on a date or anything. I just thought you could maybe use a break after an emotional day, that's all."

'It does sound appealing,' she said. 'One second. Let me ask Mom before she goes to bed. She was trying to be brave and strong, but I know she cried a few times, too.'

"I'm sure she did, I'm glad you're there for her and I'm sure she is, too. Take your time."

She set the phone down and he had to wonder what her family did on days like Thanksgiving. Her sister-in-law sounded kind of crazy, but what he knew about families and merging two families was nothing. So, it wasn't his place to judge he supposed. It still seemed kind of nuts not to understand her husband would want to see his mom on the first few holidays after his dad died.

'Mom said it's fine. Either night. What did you say to her anyway?'

"What do you mean?"

'She likes you.'

"I didn't say anything! Maybe I'm just a likeable fellow."


"Which night works best?"

'Either. I'm off until Monday.'

"Well, do you have a preference? The whole weekend is going to be crazy with people shopping, but I could cook something here and then we could go out somewhere later."

'Still have that bar with a live band in mind?'

"I'm sure there's something like that around if that interests you."

'It wouldn't be so bad.'

"I'm going to get you past ten o'clock if I'm paying a cover charge to get into a bar, right?"

She laughed. 'I'll do my best.'

"Okay. Well, it's up to you."

'Let's do tomorrow night.'

"Okay. Whenever you want to get here is fine. A phone call when you're leaving might be nice so I can stop what I'm doing and shower."

'What are you going to be working on tomorrow?'

"Stripping wallpaper."

'Hmm,' she said.


'I don't know, it might be kind of entertaining to watch you do that.'

His eyes flew open at that. It was the most flirtatious thing she'd said to him since… Well, since high school. Kissing him in August didn't count. That wasn't flirtation, it was need. He knew the difference.


'Yeah, you know, you probably look nice doing that.'

"You think so?"

'I have my suspicions.'

"I'd still have to take a shower. It's pretty dirty work, decades old glue particles and stuff all over the place."

'Yeah, I know. Our house wasn't as old as yours is, but we did a lot of stuff on it.'

"That's right you said that. Now, if you're volunteering to take a shower with me…"

'As appealing as that may sound I'd have to say no.'

"It does sound appealing, though?"

'The logical part of my brain says no.'

"Is there an illogical part?"

She laughed at that. 'The pregnancy hormones in me are screaming at me to say yes.'

"I'm not sure I understand what that means.'

She laughed softly into the phone. 'Never mind. I'll tell you some other time when my brother isn't in the next room.'

"Oh, okay," he said. "Are you saying it, uh, being pregnant makes you horny?"

'God, yes,' she said, her voice so low he barely heard her.

"I see," he said. He had absolutely no idea. "You said he wouldn't when you were pregnant with Bill."

'I said he wouldn't. I mean, he did, he just didn't like to and wouldn't at all once I got further along. I didn't say I didn't want to every waking moment the entire pregnancy.'

"Sweetheart," he said softly. "And with Justin?"

'He was better, but still about the same. So was I. I never understood his reasoning behind it.'

She sounded pretty sad about that. He could imagine if being pregnant put her in the mood and she had no outlet for that mood.

"I'm sorry. And this one? I suppose you've had…" he thought on that. Absolutely no outlet for that mood at all. Her husband had died before she even knew she was pregnant.

'Well, you know, I have a lot on my mind to stop me from thinking about it, but trust me the need is still there.'

Need. Need didn't sound like such a bad thing. He had no business thinking like that either.

"Okay then. We'll ignore the pregnancy hormones for tomorrow. You call me before coming over and I'll be sure I'm fully dressed and presentable when you get here."

'Oh, I think you'd be presentable the other way, too. And you're probably reconsidering having me over now. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything.'

"No, I'm not," he said quickly. "Not at all. I did say it wasn't a date, though."

'You only do that on dates now?'

"Believe me after nine months my hormones are screaming at me the same thing yours are. Anyone else it wouldn't matter, no. You're not just anyone else. I'd only do that on dates with you."

'Oh,' she said softly.

"And I'm pretty sure more than the first date."

'I see.'

Why did she sound disappointed?

"So, you call before you come over."


"You remember the code to get through the gate?"


"You know, Amanda never had it."

'You probably assumed I'd never use it again.'

"Kind of, yeah. I also didn't want her showing up at my house in the middle of the night unannounced."

'Why not?'

"I don't know. It was how I felt. It's my house."

'Nothing wrong with that. Okay, well, I'll call before I leave tomorrow then. Are you sure I can't bring anything?'

"Just yourself. You can leave your wallet at home even."

'I can't, my license is in it.'

"You know what I mean."

'I do. Thanks. I'll see you tomorrow then.'


"You look very nice, honey," her mom said.

"Thanks, Mom."

"I'm glad you're doing something."

"Me, too," she said. "You should, too, you know."

"I was married for a lot longer than you were."

"That doesn't mean you shouldn't go out, too. You could go to a movie with Mrs. Schroeder or Schmidt. I'm sure they'd love it if you asked them."


Claire felt bad for her mom. Claire at least had her job to go to every day. Her mom had nothing except babysitting Justin. She seemed to be coping for the most part, but there were times she came home from her day at work and Justin while fed and everything was still wearing his pajamas. There was nothing wrong with that, but she knew it wasn't because her mom was letting him bum around in his pajamas all day. She just forgot that getting him dressed was a normal part of a child's routine. He could get his own pants on usually, but shirts were a little out of his league yet.

"Mom, Dad wouldn't want you to just sit here."

"Your father would want me to mourn properly."

"Mom, it's the nineteen nineties not the eighteen nineties. Dad would understand."

"It's different for you."

Claire supposed she was right. Claire while raised with all of the rules and etiquette guidelines her mother had been raised to abide by, so many things today just weren't followed as strictly as they were even for her mother's generation. She was just glad her mom didn't walk around the house in black all day long, every day. That would scare the boys. Her, too.

As much as she hated to admit it she put effort into what she looked like for the first time since Dan died. Oh, she always looked nice at school and everything, but she spent a little longer on her hair and makeup than she had in what seemed like eons. Never mind the dress wasn't something she'd wear to school to teach in. It was one of a handful of very nice dresses she had. (She was very glad she refrained from donating all of her maternity clothes because despite the fact some of them were perhaps a little outdated they were all still very nice.) Her mom evidently noticed, too.

He'd assured her when she called that it wasn't too early.

"You be good for Grandma and do as she says, including eating all of your dinner and going to bed when she tells you to."

"Yes, Ma'am," Bill and Justin both said.

She gave them both a kiss.

"Why can't we come with you?"

"Because you can't this time, Bill," she said.

"Did Mr. Bender not like us?"

"No, honey, that's not it at all. But sometimes adults just want to do something with adults. That's all. Mommy had a real hard Thanksgiving and I just need some time to be Claire not Mommy. Next time maybe, okay?"


"He had lots of fun coloring with you."

"He stayed in the lines better than I did."

"Well, he's a little older than you are. It's easier for him."

She kissed him a second time. "Be good for Grandma, help her with Justin."

She stood then, kissing her mom on the cheek. "Thanks again, Mom."

"You're welcome. I hope you have a good dinner."

"Me, too. You have his number, right?"


"Okay. I'll be back, probably not too late."

"Be careful," her mom said.

"I will," Claire said, not sure what her mom was telling her to be careful about.

She was going to presume she was talking about driving on a busy weekend and not about anything else because she didn't even want to think about her mom thinking about her having sex.

He'd told her about a slight shortcut when she called to tell him she was on her way. It wasn't going to save her a whole lot of time, but it would be a more direct route to his house than driving through Lake Bluff would be.

She grabbed her purse, a purse that matched the red of her dress almost exactly, once she was in front of his house. Wearing red was difficult for her, so when she'd found this dress while pregnant with Justin she'd snapped it up because it looked absolutely fabulous on her. It was one of the few red things she owned. It also made it very obvious that she was pregnant because it was really form fitting. She, thankfully, still had the figure to pull it off. She was one of the fortunate people who didn't get bloated or anything else. She just looked like she swallowed a big ball. And her breasts got fuller, but they did before, too, so everything she owned accounted for that.

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

"Thank you," she said.

"No, thank you. I mean, I feel a little weird thinking you look incredibly sexy like that, but you do."

"Why weird?"

"Uh, you're not going to make me say that again, are you? You got kind of mad at me the last time I said it."

"Oh," she said, blushing. "No, I won't make you say it again then. I'll just say thank you and leave it at that."

"Thank you because believe me I really don't want you to leave now. It'd be a shame to let that dress go to waste. Come in," he said, stepping aside so she could do just that. "Your purse even matches."

"Yeah," she said. "I spent more money on both than I should have considering how seldom I've worn the dress and I have nothing to wear with the purse when I'm not pregnant."

"They are worth every penny you spent."


"Uh, yeah, really. Whatever you spent, you got your monies worth."

She stepped out of her shoes, leaving them by the front door. He hadn't asked her to, but she noticed the last time she was here that he'd taken his off once he'd gotten inside.

"So, going out to dinner won out, I guess?"


"You're dressed like that," he said. "Clearly, you want to go out."

"You mentioned a bar later. I don't know. It doesn't matter. I just enjoyed dressing up a little."

"Well, thank you. Let me go put something a little more appropriate on then based on what you're wearing and we can go."

"Okay," she said.

She went to his kitchen, setting her purse on the counter next to the fridge. She breathed deeply and made a decision on a whim. She walked to his bedroom door, settling her hand at the knob for a beat before opening it. She stepped inside, pressing back against the door once she'd closed it again as she took in his room. It wasn't supposed to be a bedroom, but he'd made it into one just fine.

"Holy crap," he said when he came out of his bathroom.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi yourself, sweetheart. What's up?"

"I was thinking last night."


"How stuck in your ways on that date thing between us are you?"

"Claire," he said, sounding sort of cautious. She couldn't blame him exactly.

"I had this image of you…" she sighed softly, eyes falling to his chest. He had a T-shirt on but hadn't put a dress shirt on over it yet so she could see him very clearly. He was big and strong and she could just imagine what his chest and arms would feel like. "Like that in my dreams last night."

"Like this? You dreamt about me?"

"Yes," she said softly.

She stepped away from the door then, walking toward him. He was watching her and he wasn't backing away so she had to think he was okay with her doing this.

"Was it a good dream?"

"It was very good."

"Yeah?" he asked. She reached for him then, taking his hand.

"Yes," she said.

He groaned softly as she settled his hand over one of her breasts. She leaned up a bit to kiss him and he more than met her halfway this time. Her lips parted about the same time his did as their tongues met. He moved his hand, cupping her breast through her dress, and she groaned into the kiss.

"You like that?" he asked.

"You have no idea," she whispered.

"Really? That gets you going?"

She laughed. "You're complaining?"

"What? No. Just surprised is all."

"I told you." She found his ear then, kissing it. "Hormones are terrible."

"Or wonderful I guess, depending on how you look at it."

"Dan hated it."

"Why on earth would he hate it?"

She shrugged, kissing his neck. "I don't know."

She slid her hands under his T-shirt, running her fingertips along his abdomen. He was flat and hard, leaving absolutely no doubt that he worked for a living. She slid her hands up a little further, bringing the shirt up with her as she did. She slid her mouth to his chest then, finding one of his nipples and licking it before sucking it and nipping at the skin around it.

"So, in August, if we hadn't stopped kissing?"

"I cannot say with certainty I would have left here without my clothes having come off first," she said, drawing his shirt the rest of the way off and dropping it at their feet.

"And now?"

"Do I seem like I want them to stay on?"

She continued touching his chest and abdomen. He dropped his hand to her hips then, tugging the skirt of her dress up along her thighs as he kissed her again. He slid the skirt up, over her hips so it was under her belly. His hands stopped there. She was bigger than she'd been with either Justin or Bill at this point in either of their pregnancies. Her doctor had done an ultrasound a couple of weeks ago to be sure she wasn't having twins. Thankfully, she wasn't because she was pretty sure she'd have a breakdown at the idea of two babies. His hands slid along the roundness there and she thought for sure that would be the end of it. She couldn't blame him really, she'd probably pull away from her too if she was him.

He didn't stop, though, sliding his hand lower from her belly between her legs. He groaned softly when he came in contact with her curls, damp now from her arousal. He grazed her nub with his fingertip and she cried out. He didn't stop, stroking her spot there a little harder. Hard enough she felt so good her whole body started shaking before she came.

She wasn't shy about letting him know she was either and judging by his breathing he didn't mind her reaction at all.

She slid her hand lower, to the waistband of the trousers he'd changed into so she could work the fastening there.

She pressed herself into his hand, encouraging him to keep going. He chuckled softly, finding her mouth again and kept going. He brought her over again and again to where she knew normally she'd be ready to pass out, but it'd been so long and her libido was so out of control right now that she just wanted more.

"Fuck, really?" he said when she grabbed his hand stopping him from moving it from between her legs.

"No, don't stop," she murmured.

"I was going to suggest, you know, the bed might be more comfortable."

"Oh," she said. He laughed again.

"Don't worry, I can do that all night."

"Don't make promises you can't keep."

"Oh, I can keep it. You're the one who has to go home."

"I know," she whispered.

She broke the kiss then, dropping her hand from touching him, and he slid his hands to her belly again and the hem of her dress there, sliding it up and off.

"What?" she asked when he sucked in a breath.

"Nothing, you just look very nice like that."

"Like what?"

"Naked in my bedroom, very obviously pregnant."

"You're lying, but thank you."

"I'm not lying. I like it. A lot."

"Oh," she said, unsure he was being sincere or just saying what he thought he should say.

He led her to the bed then and slid next to her. She watched, amazed as he slid a fingertip along her belly. The baby was moving a lot these days, right now was no exception. He or she evidently liked when she was turned on because it was the most active he or she had been in hours. He reached behind her, unhooking her bra so he could focus on her breasts for a while. He moved on top of her, well, as on top of her as he could get right now. He seemed to know without her saying so that he had to be careful.

She slid her hands to his head when he took a peak into his mouth. She draped her legs around his calf and arched into him so she could rub herself against his thigh. What he was doing with his mouth felt absolutely too good right now. She cried out as she came again. He gave a surprised groan himself then as she felt relief in her breasts, too.

Oh God, she'd completely forgotten about that part of finishing when her breasts were getting attention, too. Dan learned very quickly while she was pregnant with Bill to stop sucking before she actually came. If he did at all. He stopped after a couple of minutes and she slid out from under him to stand from the bed.

How completely embarrassing!

"Where are you going?"

"I'm so sorry," she said.

"About what?"

"Oh God. This was a really, really bad idea."

"Claire, sweetheart. What are you talking about?"

She grabbed her bra, groaned in frustration when she couldn't work the clasp the first time. He settled his hand against her wrist, stopping her from trying again.

"Okay. If that's all you needed I'm fine with that. I wasn't expecting any of that, so if you need to stop we can. Why are you acting as though you did something wrong?"

"Because you with your mouth. It felt so good and I completely forgot that happens."

"What happens?"

"Oh God, never mind."

"No, I'm not going to never mind. Nothing bad just happened."

"But you…"


She gestured to her breasts.

"Okay. Was it too much? You seemed to like it. Did I hurt you?"

She settled her head in her hands, shaking her head.

"You had to taste…"

"Taste you? Is that what you're upset about? You didn't want me to? I mean, I wasn't expecting it, I had no idea that could happen before a baby was born but I guess it makes sense it would. Your body's got to get ready and stuff, right? I'm not sure what the problem is. It's a part of you. What's the big deal?"

She stared at him then.

"What?" he asked.

"I just, I should've remembered and stopped you before that happened."

"Okay, next time if you're really that worried about it you can."

"It's just Dan…"

"Ah. Well, I'm not him. I mean, it's not something I'm going to rush out and tell anyone I did, but I didn't have a problem with it. I mean, it's not poisonous or anything. Is it?"

She laughed then. "No."

"I guess maybe it could be considered turnabout being fair play for women being expected to swallow or something. I don't know. You're like that all of the time?"

"I don't know when it starts, but yeah. And only when they're sucked on like that when I'm coming."

"Huh," he said. "Well, hey, it's part of life, right? And you clearly like it. I don't think I've ever made a woman come that hard before. And I didn't even do the hard part! All I did was suck on your very nice chest."

"I do. It feels so unbelievably good. I wish I could describe it. It's like I get a release twice. It's just really embarrassing."

"Why? I mean, I assume you fed them that way, right?"

"Yes, I certainly don't get turned on doing that."

"I should hope not. Obviously your body knows the difference between a baby sucking and a man sucking."

"It would seem so."

He ran a fingertip along one of her nipples. She groaned softly as he rolled it between his thumb and finger, squeezing a little so more came out.

"Really? This is what you're worried I'm going to get offended about? I'm not even sure much more than that came out."

He brought the fingertip to his mouth and licked it and she breathed in sharply.

"Hmm, you like that?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Now if it came in different flavors…"

She snorted softly as he prompted her back onto the bed again.

"If it came in different flavors, babies would never get any."

"I think you're probably right."

He slid between her legs then, drawing her panties down enough so he could use his mouth on her. She came almost as soon as he licked her nub and he chuckled.

"Stop laughing at me."

"I'm actually not laughing at you."

"What then?"

"Man, after being with you a guy could really get a God complex."

"Well, God, you have months to make up for."

"I do, huh?"

"Uh huh."

"I'd better get busy then," he said, doing just that.

Later, after she'd finished more times than she probably had the right to, he stood from the bed and shed his pants. He took a minute to slide her panties the rest of the way down and off.

"They're even red."

"I know," she said.

"I should feel incredibly used right now, sweetheart."

"Do you?"

"No," he said. "I think I could do that again for another two hours and be happy."

"But you're not going to?"

"No, I do need your help, though."


"I, um, I'm not sure how to do this without," he said, running a finger along her belly. "Well, without hurting either of you. I mean, you say it's fine and I believe you. Clearly pregnant people have sex, I know this. I am just not versed in how they go about it when the baby is so pronounced."

She felt a little bad that she had done very little to him to this point. She'd touched him some, but while he'd gone down on her she hadn't used her mouth on any part of him that wouldn't be visible at a beach. He was clearly ready for her, though, and wanted to be in her that way. Besides there'd be time for her to do things to him later. Right now, God, she wanted him in her so badly she'd probably beg him if he made her.

She shifted onto her hands and knees then, scooting to the edge of the bed so he was behind her. She loved this position when she was pregnant. He slid his hands along her hips, running his thumbs along her ass cheeks before sliding inside of her. She lowered herself even more on the bed, lifting her backside to him even further and she thought he might have sworn a bit at that.

"Claire," he hissed when she clenched around him.


"I don't want to hurt you."

"You're not!"

"You're sure?"

"Oh, God, John, you're not going to hurt me. I promise. I swear to God I need you so bad right now there's no chance you're going to hurt me."

"You'd tell me?"


He chuckled a little at that, but didn't argue with her or ask her again. He gave her exactly what she wanted and needed. He slid a hand between her legs, fingertips sliding along her nub and lips there as he drove into her. A couple of times he apologized when she cried out at how deep he'd gone, but she pressed against him so he evidently realized it hadn't been too much. That's why she loved this way when she was pregnant. It satisfied exactly what she needed most of the time.

He came hard and fast, buried so deep inside of her that she swore she could actually feel him doing it. She tilted her head, resting her cheek against his bed, humming softly.

"Oh sure, you're the picture of contentment there and I feel like I just ran a marathon."

"I hope this was more fun," she said, lifting her head a little to look at him behind her. He hadn't stepped away from her so he was still inside of her.

"Uh yeah." He slid a hand from between her legs to her belly. "We're okay?"

"We're okay. We're very protected in there."

"Just making sure."

"I wouldn't let you hurt him."

"I believe you, but I'm not sure you were thinking too straight a few minutes ago."

She snorted. "I was thinking very straight."

"Straight for my man parts. I see how it is."

"They're very good man parts."

"I appreciate the compliment, but I'm pretty sure you bring out the best in them because that was pretty fucking incredible."

She groaned with a whimper as he slid out of her.

"Oh God," she said.


"I think I'm going to be a little sore tomorrow."

"Sweetheart," he said, running a hand along her ass. "I'm sorry. I told you to stop me."

"No, in a very nice way."

"Okay," he said. He slid onto the bed then and she shifted so he could lay next to her. "Why's he moving so much? You sure I didn't hurt him?"

"I think he had fun, too."

"That's a really weird thought."

She laughed softly. "Well, when I finish, you know, my body…"

"Oh, I gotcha. He maybe feels it then."

"I would assume."

He left his hand there. She smiled a little as she saw his hand move a couple of times in time with the kicks she was experiencing inside of her.

"I feel so used," he said.

"I know, it's awful, isn't it?"

"It is. I should call the police."

"You should?"

"Yeah, or I could ask you when we can do that again."

"Which would you prefer?"

"I have no desire to have the police come to my house ever."



"Hmm, how fast can you be ready to go again?"

"Faster than you can say John Bender."

"I find that hard to believe."

He slid his hand from her stomach to her hand, clutching it and bringing it between his legs. "Believe it."

"I guess I should."

"I feel I at least should offer you something to eat first."

"It's too late for that."

He chuckled, kissing her shoulder. "Yeah, I feel bad enough about that already."

"You're fine. I'm not that hungry yet anyway."


"A couple more hours of that and I'll be famished, I'm sure."

Return to Top

***Chapter Ten***
Word Count: 5,471

It'd been a hell of a long time since he woke up in the morning so incredibly hard he had no choice but to give his body the release it was demanding. Apparently, that part of him wanted more of what it had gotten the night before.

He did, too, for that matter.

At the moment, though, he only had his hand to satisfy that need. She was gone. She'd left. God. He glanced at his alarm clock. It was after two o'clock when she left. She'd probably been up for hours already. They never did make it to dinner. He made her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich eventually, bringing it to her in his bed. She hadn't asked for it, but he'd insisted she needed to eat something when she let it slip that she hadn't eaten since lunch. He didn't know much about pregnancy and growing babies, but he knew they had to need nourishment. She'd eaten the sandwich and downed the glass of milk he'd brought with it in about five minutes so obviously she was hungrier than she'd let on.

And that had made him feel like a complete and total asshole.

Until she'd used that same mouth that had just eaten the sandwich and drank the milk to let him know she really, really wasn't done yet. He was pretty sure the image of her going down on him would always be a source of arousal for him.

It took them a while to get to her doing anything to him. Evidently she wasn't exaggerating about her needs because he was pretty sure eight hours of sex was a record for him. He'd do it all over again right now if she showed up asking him to.

God, she was amazing. And sexy as hell, though he knew she didn't believe him when he said so. She saw herself as pregnant and evidently her husband hadn't found that appealing. She hadn't said so exactly, but that was the impression he'd gotten when she mentioned thinking he was lying when he'd told her he liked how she looked. He wasn't going to go looking for another pregnant woman anytime soon or anything, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with any part of her. She'd obviously taken very good care of herself in between her kids because she was toned and fit everywhere that wasn't where the baby was temporarily being housed.

He decided sometime well before midnight last night that if her husband had been alive he probably would have beaten the shit out of him. John had nothing to compare her to when she wasn't pregnant, but anyone who wanted him behind her the way she'd wanted him their very first time was not someone to cheat on.

Maybe she was different when she wasn't pregnant. He found it hard to believe she'd be less enthusiastic about sex, just perhaps the frequency of her need not quite so off the charts crazy. After being pregnant she'd have had a baby to take care of, so he certainly couldn't fault her for being not quite as needy as she was now. That wasn't her fault.

And absolutely no justification for cheating in John's book. Someone gives you kids, they deserve so much more than having people who know them aware of your cheating.

He'd never doubt her again about anything. He'd assumed, incorrectly, a couple of hours and she'd be sated, ready to move on to something out of his bedroom.

He had many images from the night before to choose from to satisfy his body's need for release. He could honestly say there wasn't a bad one in the bunch his mind called upon. Oddly, the one he found himself focusing on the most was the way she came when he used his mouth on her breasts. The first time he had no idea that would happen. He'd done it again, though, knowing full well what the result would be. He'd kept going, too, sucking and using his fingers to bring her off a few times in a row. She'd been hesitant the first orgasm, probably waiting for him to pull away or something. When he didn't, though.

Holy shit had she let go.

And had he gotten hard because of it. There was little more arousing in his opinion than a woman who wasn't afraid to let him know what he was doing felt good.

She let him know very well. He even had a little mark on his forearm where one of her fingernails had scratched a little too deep when she was touching his wrist, showing him where on her to touch at that specific moment.

He gave a soft groan as he achieved the release his body was looking for, wishing he could just stay in bed and go back to sleep. He had shit to do, though. He went to the bathroom, washing himself off real quick before returning to his bed and picking up the phone.

'Standish residence.' John couldn't help but chuckle at the way Bill answered the phone.

"Hi Bill, this is John. Uh, Mr. Bender," he added quickly.

'Yes, Sir. Hi.'

"How are you today?"

'I'm good.'

"Yeah? And your brother? Did you have a good time with your grandma last night?"

'We did. We had leftover turkey. Grandma made it into sandwiches," which came out sounding more like samwiches. "And she played Candyland with us. Justin was too little, though, he kept throwing the men.'

"Really? I'll bet that was fun, and I'm sure he'll be old enough to play with you soon." He vaguely remembered the game he was talking about. "Did you win?"

'Yes, Sir.'

"Well, good job then. Is your mom around?"

'Yes, Sir, just a minute.'

"Okay, thank you."

'Mommy, Mr. Bender is on the phone for you,' he called as he set the phone down.

He really hated the Mr. Bender and Sir business, but it was important to her for whatever reason so he kept his mouth shut.

'Hello,' she said softly.

"Good morning."

'Hi. You're awake already?'

"You should talk."

'I have no choice but to wake up early.'

He sighed softly. "Now you're making me feel even guiltier."

'I'm not trying to.'

"I just wanted to be sure you got home safely and everything."

'I did. I left you a message when I got here. You obviously fell asleep.'

"Funny. Someone wore me out."

'Hmm. That means no more?'

"You name the place, sweetheart, and I'll give you more."

'You're not just saying that?'

"I'm sorry. You were with me last night, right? I mean, what part of that would you think I didn't enjoy? Or want to do more of right now if you were able."

'I don't know. You maybe this morning…'

"This morning, I woke up needing to jerk off for the first time in so long I can't even remember the last time."

'Men always wake up like that.'

"Oh, that's true. It just comes with the male territory, I guess. I said needing to, though. Wanting and needing to are not the same thing. Um, it didn't want to go away, though."

'I see,' she said.

"You really should look into getting your own phone line again."

'They're actually coming on Monday.'


She laughed softly. 'Yes. I sort of figured since the second line is already there installed just inactive I may as well. I'm going to connect my computer up to it, too. Mom missed a phone call last week because I was checking my email.'

"Ah," he said. "Makes sense. So, we're okay?"

'Yes, why wouldn't we be?'

"You talk about me waking up this morning wondering about what we'd done. You could have woken up this morning thinking some things, too."

'No, I didn't.'


'Maybe a little. I've never done that before in my life, but your calling sort of makes me feel better about it.'

"Well, I'm glad I called then. Sore?"

'I, uh, yeah.'

"Not alone?"

'Not anymore.'

"I see. Well, I won't ask any more questions then. I just wanted to say good morning. I do have a busy day ahead of me."

'I know. I remember you mentioned it last night. Say. What are you doing next Saturday?'

"Next Saturday? Boy you really wait until the last minute to ask a guy what his plans are."

'I'm serious. Scott thought I'd like to take the boys to the Bulls game. They're playing the Celtics. There's a fourth seat.'


'Amanda doesn't have tickets to them behind my dad's seats, too, does she?'

He chuckled. "I don't think so. And even if she did, I wouldn't care."

'Well, if you'd like to go with us, you'd be more than welcome to the fourth seat.'


'Yeah. Maybe pizza afterward. And then you could come back here and watch a movie. Or something.'

"Or something, huh? Yeah, I could work that into my busy schedule. You sure you can wait a week?"

'No, I'm not sure at all,' she said with a sigh.

"I was kidding."

'I'm not.'

"Wow, okay. Um, well. Hmm. I'm not quite sure how that will work."

'I know. See, I shouldn't have done that.'

"No, don't you dare do that. Don't you dare say last night was a mistake or shouldn't have happened. If you don't want it to happen again, I can accept that. It was not a mistake."


"Now if you do want to. We'll figure something out."

'Yeah,' she said. 'I kind of do right now.'

"That duct tape isn't such a bad idea now, is it?"

She laughed. 'Still illegal.'

"Well, you want to try that dinner thing again tonight?"

'I can't ask Mom to babysit again tonight.'

"Well, I could go over there. I'll pick up some sandwiches or something on my way so this time I know you will eat. That wasn't good, going that long without food even I know that."

'I know. You were helping in other ways, though.'

"That is very good to hear."

'The kids may not go to bed until late.'

"Then they don't go to sleep until late."

'You'd be okay with that?'

"Sure. Why not?"

'I don't know. I know you're not crazy about kids.'

"I know nothing about kids, which is the reason I tend to avoid them. As long as you're not going to leave me alone with them for long periods of time I should deal capably."

'No, I wouldn't do that.'

'You're not going to make me watch Barney with Bill, are you?"

She laughed at that.

'No, but it'll probably be something along those lines. They like to watch something before bed.'

"I'll deal with it."

'Okay. Well, come over whenever you want then.'

"Oh, sweetheart."

'Bill doesn't take a nap anymore. Neither does my mother.'

"Now that is a shame. Actually, I have an idea. You have them ready by five o'clock."


"Yup. And your mom, too."

'John,' she said cautiously.

He chuckled. "Don't worry, I'm not really going to duct tape them to anything. Just be ready. We'll go get dinner and do something else I just thought of might be nice. At least with your mom along I'm sure to feed you tonight."


"And on that note, I do have to go. I have things to do today."

'You say that. If you're busy…'

"I will see you later. I'm not going to blow you off and it will be fun. Well, at least I bet the boys will have fun."

'Okay,' she said, sounding intrigued.

"See you later then, sweetheart."

'Why do you call me that?'

"I," he paused not sure how to answer her. "Why?"

'You called me that even in August.'

"I guess I did. I don't know, it's just what comes out when I talk to you. Should I stop?"

'No, it's okay. Just wondering if you call every woman in your life that.'

"Only every other woman, the others I call something else."

'Very funny.'

"That's me, I'm a funny guy. I'll stop if you want me to. I guess I don't even pay attention."

'It's okay.'

"No, it must make you uncomfortable or something if you asked. I'll work on it."

'As long as it's just to me.'

"I can assure you I don't call anyone else that."

'No, I mean, you know, in front of anyone else.'

"Hmm," he said. "I guess I can see why that could be bad. I don't think I have, have I?"

'No, but I'm just not sure how I'd explain that.'

"Right. Too soon. Gotcha. I'll be careful, sorry."

'You're fine.'

"Okay, then, see you later."

'Yeah,' she said.


He didn't get nearly as much done as he'd wanted to because he'd ended up dozing off on his couch for a couple of hours before having to get ready to go to her place. If anyone had told him even six months ago that he'd have reason to go to Shermer this many times in the past few months he'd have called them a liar. He had room in his SUV for everyone, so he cleaned it out so if she wanted him to drive he could fit everyone in there. It wasn't overflowing with trash or anything. He took better care of it than that, but there were a few things there that didn't need to be in there.

He was a little early, pulling into their driveway around four forty-five. He wasn't sure she trusted him enough to just go with him like this, but the idea came to him when he noticed walking her to her car and following her to the gate to ensure she got out all right that one of his neighbors had used his holiday off from work to put Christmas lights up. He had none to put up. He'd go shopping tomorrow maybe to rectify that. However, the idea that Claire's kids and mom might like to see some Christmas lights occurred to him. And he knew of no town that did Christmas lights better than Chicago.

"Hi," she said when she answered the door. He was very glad it wasn't Bill this time.

"Wow again," he said. She was wearing another dress. Not nearly as nice as the one last night had been, but it still looked nice on her.

"Thanks," she said. "I hate maternity pants so I avoid wearing them if I can."

"It's nice, but I like the red better," he said.

She blushed deeply. "Well, I couldn't wear it twice."

"Why not?"

"I guess I don't have a real reason other than you just don't do that."

"I see. Well, I still like the red better."

"I could wear it to the game next weekend."

"I would have absolutely no complaints about that." Well, he might because he was pretty sure wearing that dress he wouldn't be the only one to notice pregnant women could be very, very sexy.

"I'll see."

"All right then. So, is everyone ready?"

"Yes, Bill went to help Justin find one of his mittens."

"Ah, okay."

"Did you want to drive? Or you could drive my car if you wanted to avoid moving the car seat since you know where we're going and I don't."

"Sure, you know I've been waiting for the opportunity to drive it."

"You have?"

"Sure, it's a nice car."

"Well, tonight's your chance then I guess."

Her mom was skeptical, John could tell. She had a few drinks at dinner, which he knew Claire wasn't happy about. She wasn't drunk, though, as they made their way from dinner downtown.

"Mommy, look," Bill said when they were driving past the Art Institute.


"The lions have wreaths and bows."

"They do," Claire said.

"We should come down here sometime when the Bulls are in the playoffs. They put a jersey on them, I think," she said. "I think Scott sent me a picture of that once."

"I think you're right," John said.

Justin was too little to really care, so it was probably a good thing he was in the middle of the back seat. John couldn't tell if Mrs. Standish was enjoying herself or not.

"Cool," Bill added, noticing the cement block below each lion was gift wrapped.

It was almost ten o'clock when they got back to Claire's house. They'd stopped for some ice cream because Bill had seen a Baskin Robbins and begged to go there. John couldn't say when the last time he'd had ice cream was so he didn't mind.

Justin was about ready to fall asleep. Bill's eyes were getting pretty droopy, too. John offered Claire's mom a hand to help her out of the car while Claire saw to her kids.

"I can't remember the last time I did that," her mom said. "Frank and I used to take Claire and Scott down every year. That was back when Field's, JC Penny's, and all the big stores did real extravagant holiday windows."

John had absolutely no clue what she was talking about, but he nodded pretending he did because he didn't want to admit that he'd grown up in Chicago and never seen those things.

"I'm glad you came along."

"Thank you for dinner," she said.

"You're welcome, Ma'am. Thank you for the ice cream."

"It seemed the least I could pay for."

"You can go ahead and go downstairs, find a movie to watch if you want while I get Bill and Justin settled," Claire said once they'd gotten inside.

"Sure," John said.

"You remember how to turn everything on."

He smiled a little at that and she blushed again. "I think I can remember, yeah."

"Do you want to watch a movie with us, Mom?" Claire asked.

"No, you kids go on ahead. I'll have a bit of sherry and then head to bed myself."

"Okay," Claire said.

John wasn't sure if the invitation was a legitimate one she thought her mom might take her up on, or just something so her mom wouldn't think she wanted to be alone with John in the basement for the next couple of hours.

John turned the TV on, not knowing how long it would take her to get both kids to bed. They both seemed pretty tired.

"Hmm, should I tuck you in, too?" she asked, sitting next to him on the couch. Evidently he'd dozed off because he hadn't heard her come downstairs or even noticed her sitting next to him.

"Very funny. I can't help it that someone kept me awake until two o'clock in the morning."

"You were free to send me home whenever you wanted to."

"Send you home? Are you nuts? I didn't want you to leave when you did!"

"I know. Did you get your things done today?"

"A little. I got the wallpaper in that small half-bathroom off the garage and laundry room taken down anyway."

'Well, that's something."

"It is. You? What did you do?"

"Nothing. Played with the boys and planned the grocery list with Mom for cookie baking next week."


"Mm hmm."

"Do I get some Saturday?"

"I suppose I could be talked into giving you a plate of them."

"I haven't had homemade cookies in ages."



"You could bake them yourself."

"I could, but then I'd eat them all."

She laughed at that. "I'm sure you could find someone or a few someones to help you out there."


"So," she said.

He took her hand then, slipping his fingers through hers.

"I'm not here to do anything you don't want to do."

"Oh, I want to very badly."

"Your mom?"

"She'll tell me when she's going to bed. It shouldn't be too much longer. That was very nice what you did, including her tonight. Thank you."

"Hey, I figured she'd enjoy it, too."

"She did. I know she was quiet and everything, but I know she did as much as I did. You made me think of all the times we did that when Scott and I were little."

"She mentioned that when we were walking to the house from your car. I'm glad I could make you remember some nice things."

"Yeah. It was good, thank you."

"You're welcome."

"I was thinking," she said, letting go of his hand and moving off the couch again.


"I could say thank you in a better way."

"Oh?" he asked.

She moved in front of him, kneeling between his legs and working the fastening on his pants.

"Your mom?"

"She won't actually come down here. She'll just open the door and tell me she's going to bed."

"You're sure?" he asked. She pushed the front of his pants open as far as she could get them for the moment and touched him through his boxers.

"Yeah. I think she'd rather not know what I might be doing down here."

He chuckled softly.

"She'd be mad?"

"Mad? No, probably not mad. Disappointed maybe."

"You're human and you're not dead, sweetheart."

"I know," she whispered, pushing the waist of his boxers down enough that she could slide her mouth over his tip. He slid a hand to her head, watching her for a while as she took him deeper and deeper into her mouth. She'd said last night that she didn't think she was very good at doing this, but he had absolutely no complaints whatsoever about her ability to give him head. She was pretty slow about it, not seeming to be in any particular hurry to bring him off and he was okay with that. Her mouth around him felt very good so eventually he let his head settle back against the couch and he closed his eyes, just letting himself enjoy what she was doing to him. It certainly wasn't a hardship.

She was right about her mom. She called downstairs to say she was going to bed, reminding Claire to lock the door after John had left. She stopped sucking on him only long enough to answer her and then she went right back to what she'd been doing.

"Claire," he whispered a little while after her mom went to bed.

She tilted her head back enough to look at him with her mouth still full of his shaft and he groaned softly at that.

"Not that I am not enjoying what you're doing," he said. She ran her tongue along his head, darting it along the small opening there. "Immensely. I can't help but think this isn't helping you with your, uh, predicament."

She slid her mouth off of his length and he instantly missed her there.

"I didn't do much to you last night."

"No, you didn't need to do much to me last night. You turned me on without having to even touch me."

"Yeah, well, it seemed rude."

He chuckled.

"There are no manners in sex, sweetheart. Well, you know, I suppose there are, but I don't think you'd hear any guy in their right mind complain about any part of last night."


"Are you kidding me? I came so much I was surprised I had anymore left to come out this morning."

"Do you still?"

"Have more left?"

"Uh yeah."

"Plenty where you're concerned it seems."

She moved then, settling herself on his lap. Her mouth met his as he worked the buttons on the front of her dress. He groaned none too softly despite them kissing when he discovered she'd taken her bra off while upstairs. She'd been self-conscious about her breasts last night he knew, not just the leaking him sucking on them caused either. She said she thought they were too full. Whatever that meant. As far as he was concerned they were perfect. They fit nicely in his hand, responded to what he did to them, and were very nice to look at. She'd mentioned the area around her nipples being darker than they normally were, but he had nothing to compare them to and he didn't care. They could be blue for all he cared as long as she responded to him the way she did when he touched her.

Her bra wasn't the only thing missing he discovered as he slid her skirt up over her hips.

"Jesus. You walked around like that with your mother upstairs?"

"I don't think she was going to check to see if I was wearing underwear."

"I suppose not. It just surprises me coming from you."

"Oh," she said.

And then she was sliding him inside of her, biting her lower lip to stop from making any sounds. He could tell she wanted to, knew from last night that she made some very nice sounds when he slid inside of her.

"We have to get somewhere alone again," he whispered, finding her neck with his mouth.

"Why?" she murmured.

"Because I don't like you quiet."

"Oh God," she whispered.

He slid his mouth lower, taking a peak into his mouth and latching on. He'd discovered last night she seemed to come more intensely when he was latched on and sucking harder than when he was just being sort of lazy about it. He liked when she came intensely a lot.

She gasped as he swirled his tongue around her nipple, teasing it so it got even harder timed with her sliding him deep inside of her. She settled completely along his length then, grinding her hips against his lap. He agreed wholeheartedly with her murmured "feels so good".

He knew when she was about to come. He could taste it and sucked even harder, getting all that he was going to get out of that one before switching his attentions to her other breast for when she came again. She seemed to get aroused even more when he did that, flooring him a bit that something so simple was doing it for her that much.

And again he couldn't help but think her husband was an ass because if he had this in his grasp for the past eight years he was pretty sure he'd do whatever she wanted him to do if it meant she reacted the way she did. She pressed herself into his mouth even more as she rode out her second orgasm, settling against the base of him for a minute or two before she started again.

Behind her had been incredible, hot as hell because she was fantastic to look at that way. He'd come a little too fast, though. Well, a little faster than he wanted to. She just felt too good and when she clenched around him it was his undoing every time.

Tonight, though, she didn't seem to be in as much of a hurry. She was riding him almost leisurely, bringing herself off and then slowing down again so he lasted longer. A lot longer. Eventually, though, he had to come. He couldn't help it.

He rested his head against her chest, listening to her heart racing and eventually slowing. His was probably doing the same thing, except she'd done most of the work this time.

"So, when does this stop?" he asked.

"It doesn't."

"Are you kidding me?"

"No. Well, it stops once they are born."

He chuckled. "I should hope so."

Eventually, they moved to the floor with him behind her again, though she'd shown him that she was still agile enough to sit on his lap on the floor, too before he had to leave.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm helping you button up your dress."


"Because I like touching you," he said softly, watching her as he worked the buttons in question. "I'd much rather it stay off for the rest of the night, but we'll have to work on that for another time."

"I know," she said.

He leaned in and kissed her then, settling a hand over a breast he'd just finished covering up.

"Remind me to tell my friends who never want to come out when their wives are pregnant that I now completely understand."

"Oh God, don't you dare. And I don't know that everyone is like this. I just know I'm like this. I've never asked anyone!"

"No? Why not?"

She sputtered and he chuckled.

"You might find out you're not the only one."

"It's okay."

"Hmm," he said. "I'll keep it to myself, but I will certainly appreciate the sacrifices they're making a lot more."


He kissed her.

"Yeah, you know, it's not enough we get you pregnant. We have to be at your beck and call for nine months afterward."

"John," she said, pushing away from him.

"Relax. I'm joking, sweetheart."


"Geez. You think I'd really complain?"

"I don't know."

He sighed softly. "Dan did, I suppose?"

"He wasn't happy with how needy I was, no."

"Yeah, well, I'm not banging anyone else so you can be as needy as you want with me."

"John," she whispered.

"What? It's true. It probably made it real hard for him to engage in his extracurricular activities if you were providing him an outlet so regularly. And willingly."

She sighed.

"Are you different normally?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Just curious after you have them. What's normal?"

"Well, I've never said no."

"Hmm. Are you an initiator?"

"Sometimes. I mean when I'm in the mood, sure."

"And is the mood drastically less than now?"

"Not really, no. I mean, several times a night probably not."

He chuckled.

"If you'd been getting any this whole time I bet it wouldn't be several times a night now either."

"Maybe not."

"So, this is fairly normal?"

"Yes. I mean, it's just I need to. I can't describe it."

"You said that last night."

"You probably think I'm a freak."

"No, I don't. I'm just curious, you know. I've never been in a position to ask."

"Well, you can't for a couple of months after the baby is born anyway."

"I suppose," he said. That sounded pretty logical to him.

He slid a fingertip over where he knew her nipple was even if he couldn't see it. "And you still like that when you're done being pregnant?"


"More comes out I assume?"


"Hmm," he said.

"I wouldn't expect you to do it then."

"You don't expect me to do it now, but you like it. Clearly a lot."


"I make no promises," he said. "But I'm certainly willing to try it."

"It's fine. It's not like that's necessary anyway."

"No, but you come so much better when I'm doing that."

"I do not!"

"You do, too. It's pretty hot."

She rolled her eyes.

"So, are you going to be able to go all week now?"

"I don't have much of a choice."

"Well, I could probably come here one night during the week if you want me to."

"You have to have other things to do."

"Oh, I do, plenty. None are nearly as enjoyable as making love to you so forgive me for being willing to do that."

She settled herself against his chest then and he held her. She stayed like that for a while, her breathing evening out some and he knew she had to be close to falling asleep. He picked her up then and she cried out.

"You can't do that."

"What? Why not?"

"I'm too…"

"Oh God, don't say it. You're not that heavy. I was just going to tuck you in. Seems maybe you deserve that tonight."

"Hmm, that does sound nice."

"Is your mom going to wake up and come after me with a shotgun or something for crossing the threshold of your bedroom?"

"I don't think so."

"Well, that's better than a definite yes, I guess," he said, walking up the stairs with her and following her directions to her bedroom. He set her on the bed, drawing the covers back and then around her. It was a little chilly tonight so he imagined she'd need all of them.

He leaned down and kissed her, lingering a bit.

"Good night, sweetheart. Sleep well."

"You, too. Drive safe," she murmured.

He chuckled a little, but he doubted she even heard him. It wasn't much past midnight, but after a long night last night and little to no sleep because of her kids waking up at their usual time in the morning she had to be exhausted.

There was that guilt again.

"I will."

He left her room and made his way downstairs. He had no way of securing the deadbolt behind him, but he did pull on the door once he'd left to make sure it was secure and locked before heading to his SUV and home for the night.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eleven***
Word Count: 5,136

December 1994

"So did your dad have bad seats to any of these games?" he asked once they'd found their seats and were settled.

He found out that getting settled with two kids wasn't nearly as easy as it was for two adults. There were coats and mittens and hats, all of which had to be accounted for so they were still there at the end of the night. It was December in Chicago, hats and mittens were a must for kids, even John knew that. It had gotten above fifty today, but it wouldn't be that warm when they left the United Center after ten o'clock.

"Well, he had season tickets for years and was able to move to better seats as they became available. These seats have been pretty much the same because he had them before Michael Jordan came into the picture. The Bears, though, once Walter Payton retired and they seemed not to be able to win consistently better seats started becoming available so he was able to trade in for better ones."

"I suppose."

"Are you complaining?"

"Well, no, of course not. Your kids, though, are going to think this is normal."

She shrugged. "Is that a bad thing? I grew up thinking it was normal."

"Yeah. I think you just kind of made my point for me, sweetheart."

She rolled her eyes at him.

"At least you're not sending Bill to school in Armani or something. You're not, are you?"

She laughed softly.

"No. I dress him normally."

"Normal for you is not normal for most people."

"I dress him like the other kids he goes to school with."

"Really? I find that hard to believe."

"I'm not going to say his things aren't better than some of the other kids he goes to school with, but only their parents would know that."

"Ah ha. Old habits die hard then."

"You're faulting me for dressing my kids well?"

"No, not at all." He glanced at both of them then, sitting in between them. "They are pretty cute."

"Thank you!"

"I told you a while ago you make cute babies."

"Well, it wasn't just me."

"See, and I like to think it's all you. So we'll leave it at that."

The game was fun, ending with the Bulls winning. They hadn't been doing that too consistently without Michael Jordan playing so there was no telling each day what would happen. A win against the Celtics was never easy, though, even if they were having an off season this year.

"See, Bill, you're not bad luck at all." John said once the game was over.

"I guess not. I can't wait to tell Tommy and Jackson at school on Monday we went."

"Yeah? Are they Bulls fans?"

"Tommy is. Jackson likes," Bill paused. "Someone else."

"It happens. Not everyone likes the same team."

"They wouldn't believe me I went to the Bears game with Mommy."

"Why not?"

He shrugged.

"I didn't send him to school with the program," Claire said.

"Ah. Mommy will do that this time, though right?" John asked.

"Yes," she said. "Mommy learned her lesson."

John chuckled as she finished getting Justin into all of his gear for going outside. Bill could do most of it by himself, though he needed a little help with his zipper. John helped him out with that since Claire had her hands full with Justin.

"Take Mommy's hand, Bill," she said once she'd settled Justin against her hip.

"I'm not going to get lost."

"I know you're not going to wander off. You're very good about staying by me, but I still worry that someone might take you."

He frowned slightly at that, but he took his mother's hand.

"You know I can help," John offered.

"With what?" she asked.

"Well, why do you need to have both of them?"

She stared at him for a minute. Had he said something wrong? He was just trying to be nice and not look like an asshole for sticking her with two kids when he could do something. Never mind he'd never see any of these people again in his life. It still didn't sit well with him that anyone would think he was that kind of guy.

"Like what?"

"Uh, I don't know. I could walk with Bill. If that's okay with Bill anyway."

"Go ahead, Bill, it's fine if you want to go with Mr. Bender," she said.

He let go of her hand and took John's offered one.

"You're sure?" she asked.

"I'm walking with him to your car. I think I can handle that, yes. If we happen to get separated from you I do remember where we parked and at least this way I know you're not going to leave without me."

"I have no plans on leaving without you tonight, John."

"Yeah, I suppose you don't," he said.

He liked the sound of that immensely. He'd managed to see her Wednesday for a little while, but it wasn't for nearly as long as the two nights over the weekend had been. Not that he ever put a huge amount of thought into it, but he'd never been in a position before to think of an hour of sex with someone as being only an hour. For them after last weekend that wasn't a lot of time at all. It was all they'd had time for really since both of them had to work the next day and John had a drive back to his house and a drive in the morning to his work site.

Both boys fell asleep on the way home, not unexpectedly as it was well after eleven o'clock by the time they pulled up in front of Claire's mom's house.

"If you want to wake Bill up I'll get Justin," she said.

"Wake him up?" he asked.

"Well, yeah, he's kind of big for me to carry right now."

"Oh," he said, glancing into the backseat at Bill. "Well, that's ridiculous. I can take him."

"Are you sure?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'm perfectly capable of carrying him, yes, and it certainly beats waking up a soundly sleeping kid to get him from here to his bedroom."

"You just don't want him to wake up again."

"And you do?" he asked.

"Of course not," she said, and sounded as though she meant it.

He wasn't exactly sure. He understood her kids were along tonight, but she'd seemed sort of different. Distant. As if she wasn't really sure she wanted to be there with him. Maybe she didn't. She'd asked him, but she'd asked him after spending hours in bed with him. Had she changed her mind as the week wore on? About all of it?

He slid the seat belt out from around Bill and grabbed him like she told him to. Evidently there were even tricks to picking up sleeping kids without waking them. Who knew? It was a little awkward for him never having done this before but he managed to get Bill settled against him well enough to where he didn't feel as though he was going to drop him.

He followed Claire into the house, opening the door she said was Bill's while she took Justin to his room. He set him on the bed, sliding his mittens, hat, and coat off and setting them at the foot of the bed before taking his shoes and socks off as well. Those he set on the floor by his bed. She hadn't mentioned pajamas, so he imagined she'd come in and change him or let him sleep in his regular clothes for the night.

Bill mumbled softly as John drew the covers around him.

"Good night, Bill, glad you had fun," he whispered.

"Night Daddy," he murmured.

John sighed softly as he regarded the boy. He knew he wasn't calling John daddy. He was probably so sleepy that he thought his dad was putting him to bed as he'd probably done hundreds of times over the course of his lifetime until the past six months anyway.

He turned then, frowning slightly at Claire in the doorway. She didn't look mad, so either she hadn't heard what Bill said or she had and knew the same thing John did that he was just talking in his sleep. Wishful thinking.

"Did you need to put him in pajamas?" he asked.

"Nah, I didn't with Justin either. They'll both be fine like that for the night. I'll have to do their laundry and get them their baths tomorrow anyway. Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

"Are you okay?" she asked once she'd shut Bill's door behind them.



"What? That?" John shrugged. "Don't worry, sweetheart, I didn't take it personally or anything. He was just talking in his sleep or dreaming or something."

"Just making sure."

"I'm more worried about you, thinking I'm saying something or doing something he thinks that."

"No, I know. He's said it to Scott a time or two when Scott's here and tucks him in. Even when he's wide awake sometimes he'll say Daddy first and then Uncle Scott."

"It's normal I'd have to think."

"I guess."

He touched her cheek then. "He'll be fine, Claire."

"I hope so."

"You know if you don't want…"

She scoffed.

"Okay then, lead the way," he said.


"You know I stopped smoking like two years ago, but I swear sex with you makes me wish I hadn't stopped."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because sex with you deserves cigarettes afterward," he said with a chuckle.

"I'm not sure that's good."

"It's very good, sweetheart." He ran a fingertip along her hip. "And thank you for wearing the red again."

"You're welcome. You really like it?"

"You have no idea."

"You don't think it makes me look…"

"It makes you look incredible, which is what it's designed to do and it succeeds."

"Thank you."

"Thank you. You thought I was going to get mad he said that, didn't you?"

"Mad, no. If I hadn't heard him say that to Scott maybe I would've. I just wasn't sure how you'd react."

He shrugged. "If he did it while he was awake and was purposely calling me that I'd probably react very differently, but I know he's just a tired kid tonight. And he probably misses his dad who had to have tucked him in a few times."

"He did."

"I'm glad he was decent to them anyway."

"He was. He wasn't horrible to me either."

"I'm not going to talk about that with you, because your idea of horrible and mine obviously don't mesh. Okay, no he didn't beat you or anything, but like I said when we were driving here it was no less hurtful and harmful to you."

"Why don't you have a girlfriend?" she asked.

"Well, I did. Remember?"

"Yes, I remember, but you broke up with her like over a month ago. Why aren't you seeing someone else?"

"I kind of am," he shrugged. "Aren't I?"

"I guess you are."

"I certainly wouldn't make love to you and see someone else."

"I suppose."

"That wouldn't be fair to either of you. I couldn't see someone else knowing I was having sex with you. I couldn't have sex with you knowing I was seeing someone else."

"Is that the only reason?"

"You? Yeah."

"Oh," she said. "What if you met someone?"

"I'm not looking to meet anyone, but if I did," he shrugged. "Well, I guess I'd tell you I'd met someone. It took me a while to get to that point with Amanda, I'm not in any hurry to get there again."

"Still not good with relationships?"

"Probably the right relationship I would be."

"Makes sense."

"Can I ask you something without pissing you off?"

"I'm not going to get mad at you."

"You say that, but I've heard those hormones can do all sorts of things."


"Are you into me?"


"I mean, am I just handy or do you actually want something from me?"

"You're not just handy."

"Okay," he said, cautiously.

"I'm not ready for something."

"I understand that. I do. I'm not pushing and I'm not asking for anything. I just wondered. I mean, the kid comes and your hormones are back in check are we back to just friends or what? If we were even that."

"We had this conversation once before, didn't we," she said with a soft laugh.

"This isn't then, Claire. I'm asking you a sincere question."

"I guess that's up to you."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I'm not ready for something. You even said it yourself, I married the first guy I ever dated. I'm in no hurry to get married again."

"I understand."

"And I come with kids, John."

"I'm very aware of that fact, Claire. I can see and taste that very plainly when you're naked and having sex with me."

"I don't know if we'd go back to just being friends, but I can't say I'd have sex with you every day either."

He chuckled.

"I was just curious."

"It's a lot for you, too. I mean, you're asking me but you haven't seen Bill and Justin when they're fighting. You haven't been up all night with a crying baby, or unable to sleep when you have to go to work the next morning because of a baby. I just don't want to jump into something."

"All valid things, I'm not pushing. I swear I'm not. I do have to admit that I'm very glad you came to me for this issue."

"Who else would I have gone to?"

"I don't know. The guy from the Bears game I'm sure would've been a willing participant. You said he gave you his number. I'm sure there are others, teachers at your school. You are very attractive, Claire, pregnant or not."

"Yeah, well, I think most people wouldn't do it."

"I'm not most people."

"Why do you think I'm here with you?"

"And here I thought it was my male parts."

"Those, too, most definitely. I can't really answer your question. If you're asking me if I want to date you, I'm not opposed to the idea when I'm ready."

"No pressure, Claire. I swear. I'm not asking you for anything. I was just curious, I guess. I mean, if you can't even think of me like that potentially I guess I just wanted to know before thinking this meant more than it does to you."

"I think with time I could."

"I can give you time. We have nothing but that."

"You don't think I'm a bad person?"

"For what? Wanting to have sex with me without some formal commitment? No. I'd be worried if you wanted that right away. You're going through a lot." He kissed her shoulder, lingering a bit. "Crying babies wouldn't bother me, by the way."

"You say that, but when they're newborn it's every couple of hours."


"And he's not yours."

"Yeah. Doesn't mean it'd bother me or that I'd treat him or your other ones any less than I would if they were mine."


"I'm just saying," he said. "Don't assume I can't handle it and use that against me as a reason to stay away. I mean, if that's the only thing holding you up – when you get to the point of being ready – whether I'd be cool with things at least give me the chance to prove I am or not."

"I would."

"That's all I ask."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"You could go from having sex with me to not?" she asked.

"I didn't start having sex with you until a week ago. I didn't even know sex with you was a possibility until that night."

"Yeah, you had a girlfriend."

"That's not fair. I didn't have her when I came over here on Halloween. I didn't tell you we broke up until you specifically asked. Clearly my goal wasn't to have sex with you. I was trying to be your friend."

"Why anyway?"

"Because I didn't want you to think I broke up with her for you or that I expected anything from you. What happened with her has nothing to do with you or our being here today."

"You know you can't ever tell Bill about his father."

"What the fuck does that mean? I didn't know the guy."

"No, I know that. The things I've told you. I see the way you look at him sometimes when he talks about Dan. You think he wouldn't think his dad's so great."

"He wouldn't!"

"He can't ever know, John."

"I'm not a moron or an asshole, Claire. I'm not going to tell a kid his old man couldn't keep it in his pants despite having you as his wife."

"We go to things like we did tonight, people are going to think they're yours."

"We covered this already the night we went out for pizza on Halloween. I don't care what people think."

"That was once. Tonight was a second time. We date, you'd be seen with them more frequently. Around Shermer because I can't drive all the way out to see you all of the time with three kids I have to put to bed."

"You think I haven't thought of these things? You think I don't know my friends would think I'm all kinds of insane?"

"For going from someone like Amanda to me, you mean? I'm sure they would. I already told you I didn't blame you for not wanting to kiss me when you had her to kiss instead."

He sighed softly.

"No! That's not what I mean. I mean, yes, but not for the way you think I mean it. I've already told you it wasn't not wanting to that stopped me from kissing you more than I did that night in August. You're no slouch in the looks department yourself, you know? I mean, I realize you were pregnant even back at your dad's funeral and just didn't know it yet, but you were more beautiful than I remembered you being. And believe me, I built you up in my head over the years as being pretty beautiful."


He shrugged. "Incentive to stay away, I guess. I don't know. Proof that a good woman wouldn't really be interested in me."

"I was!"

"You were not. You were interested in being my friend nothing else, and that's fine. Having you as a friend taught and gave me more than having you as a girlfriend at that time would have."

"I was interested in you, John. You can think we were better off as friends, that's fine, but I was very interested in you."

"I couldn't have given you what you needed."

"You don't know that."

"I know I wouldn't have married you when you were still in school."

"I probably shouldn't have done that anyway."

"You wouldn't have the kids either and you clearly love them. I admit I can't wrap my head around the you I knew then being the same you as today, but I guess being a mom is good for you. I couldn't have given you that."


"Christ, Claire, I have never lied about the fact I don't want kids."

"Then why are mine okay?"

"Because they're yours? I don't know. Don't ask me questions I have no answers to."

"I find it hard to believe at our age you've never dated anyone with kids."

"Nope, never. Honestly, Amanda's the first woman I've really dated."

"Hmm," she said.

"What was the point in dating someone I didn't want to get involved with?"

"John," she said. "You make no sense. Why on earth would you want to get involved with me then? Forget my being a widow, unless you plan on dating me for the next eighteen years without taking things further than that you'd be around kids."

"Yeah, I told you, my friends would say I'm nuts for even contemplating what this means."

"I really wish you hadn't brought this up."

"I couldn't not. I like you. I like you too much to not know what this means. I don't want either of us to get hurt, but especially you. If this means something to you and I don't know that," he shrugged.


"I don't know you see me with someone."

"You going to bring many someones to Shermer, John?"

"You know what I mean. I don't want to fuck up. I can go from having sex with you to not. I can do that because I know ordinarily we wouldn't even be here right now. I'm fine with that."

"You're fine with my having sex with you for the next couple of months and then stopping?"

"Yes. I'm not stupid enough to think it means you love me or anything. I get it. You have a need that I'm more than willing to fulfill it and I don't see you as the pickup a stranger at a bar type of person."


"So, I get it, and I'm cool with that, but I guess I figured when one time turned into four times now some idea of where your mind is was called for."

"We're fine. I don't expect anything from you. If you found someone tomorrow I wouldn't get angry."

"What did you want to do?"

"What?" she asked, turning to face him now with a frown?

He chuckled.

"When you went to school. What did you want to do?"

"Oh," she shrugged. "Nothing."

"Come on, sweetheart. What did you want to do? I know it wasn't a teacher."

"No," she said, and he knew that wasn't easy for her to admit.

"Well then. What did you want to do?"

"I wanted to be an architect."

"Really?" he asked. That surprised him for some reason.


"Huh. And now that you're back in Chicago with your mom and brother around to babysit. Any thoughts of going back to school to be able to do that?"

"With a newborn?"

He shrugged. "Why not?"

"John. I have to work."

"Why exactly?"


"You're living with your mom. Is she charging you rent?"


"Your father didn't leave her or you destitute, did he?"


"You already have your Bachelors obviously because you're teaching. So I assume it'd just be going back and taking the courses you would need to take for that major, right?"


"So, you're telling me your mom wouldn't babysit the kids while you went to school for a couple of years? That she'd be mad if you stayed here for a couple of years to do that?"

"Well, no, I guess not, but the kids need clothes. The baby will need diapers and they go through clothes like crazy the first couple of years."

"Come on. Really? That's your excuse? Your mom isn't the Evil Queen from Snow White, sweetheart. I bet she'd help you out if she knew the end result would be you being able to provide well for your kids not just averagely."

"I don't know," she said.

"And you realize, you do know this guy who you're currently sleeping with happens to know people who design buildings for a living in a city and the surrounding area that's always putting up new buildings. Have you looked at towns like Arlington Heights lately?"

"No, I know," she said softly. She ran a fingertip along his shoulder and collarbone so he guessed she wasn't mad at him. "You'd do that?"

"Do what?"

"Refer me to people?"

"I wouldn't tell them it's because I'm sleeping with you," he said with a chuckle. "But, sure, I would. I mean, I couldn't get you the job, you'd have to do that yourself but I could certainly get you in touch with the right people to at least get an interview. Some of these places I know claim they aren't hiring, but if the candidate is good enough they're always hiring."

He slid his hand to her stomach, touching her lightly. "You must like the idea."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because he's moving a lot right now. That seems to coincide with you getting excited and since we're not doing anything at the moment to excite you I'm going to guess the conversation, the idea excites you."

"It does."

"I'd babysit."

"You have to work."

"Yeah, I do, but if you had a night class or something," he shrugged. "I'd do it."

"Didn't you just say I couldn't leave you alone with them?"

"Yeah, we were talking about something else then. Like me being a daddy figure. We're not talking about that right now. We're talking about you doing what you wanted to do. Why'd you stop anyway?"

"Well, a teacher seemed more logical when we were married and I had kids."

"Architects have kids."

"Yes, but Dan didn't have a nine-to-five job, acting doesn't work that way."

"I suppose I can see that. Well, it's just you now, you know. You need to think about what's best for the four of you."

"I know. I hadn't thought about it."

"You have money from your dad?"


"I'm not asking how much, sweetheart. I don't care. I'm wondering if you have enough to pay for school without taking out loans."

"Oh, yeah, there's enough there."

"Well, maybe he was telling you something."

"He didn't know he was going to die this summer, John."

"No, of course not, but he was a practical guy so I bet the thought occurred to him especially if you mentioned getting a divorce to him that you might be needing school again."

"I wish you didn't have to leave," she said.


She shrugged. "It'd be nice to go to sleep like this."

"It would," he agreed. It would be very nice, probably too nice and very dangerous.

"You know getting a couple more beds and putting them in my house wouldn't be a big deal."


"You could bring them with you."

"I can't sleep with you when they're there."

"Would they have to know you slept with me?"


"Well, surely we'd go to sleep after they did and you could wake up before they did. I'm sure we could come up with some logical explanation as to why you're in my room if Bill woke up earlier. I don't think we have to worry about Justin thinking too hard on your sleeping arrangements yet."

"John, I can't."

"Well, you change your mind let me know. It's not like I don't have the room."

"I know, that's not the reason for you to furnish your house, though."

"Well, it's better than the rooms being empty. I swear the place looks like I just moved in yesterday."

"You're working on things."

"Just throwing the option out there. I admit it would be nice. I feel like kind of an asshole for leaving you like I do."


"You give me this amazingly mind-blowing sex and I leave you afterward and you wonder why that bothers me?"

"That's not why I don't want you to leave."


"No, it'd just be nice. I miss it."

He sighed softly at that. "I can imagine," he said softly. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, really. I wish there was something I could do to make it better for you. If doing this with me makes you feel worse."

"No, it doesn't, not really. I'm sorry if I seem overly needy."

He snorted at that. "You're not needy, not in a way any guy in his right mind would complain about."

"Thank you."

"Want me to take you up to your room again?"

"I can walk."

"Want me to help you get dressed."

"You can if you want to."

"I may never get home, but we can try. You need your rest."

"I know."

He found her dress, helping her put it back on.

"You have the most awesome curves I think I've ever seen."

"Shut up."

"You do."

"It's all the baby."

"It is not. I saw what you looked like in July. You looked very fine then, too."

"I should be mad at you for looking at me while you had a girlfriend."

"I'm not dead, sweetheart. First time in years I saw you, I'm going to notice things about you like your curves."

"You still shouldn't have been looking at me like that."

"I'm sorry. Does that make it better?"

She laughed softly as she worked the dress into place while he got dressed himself. "Sure."

"So, are you going to be able to go a whole week?"

"I will try."

"We both have to work during the week."

"I know."

"Well, you want me to come over on Wednesday let me know and I'll cooperate."

"You will huh?"

"To the best of my abilities, yes. Or if you think your mom would babysit you could come see me again. It wouldn't be such a late night then for either of us that way."

"I'll ask her."

"Okay then."

He offered her his hand once he was done getting dressed, which she took. She led him up the stairs to the door where she leaned in and kissed him.

"Wow, I even get a kiss good night this time."

"You do."

"That must mean I did an exceptionally good job at giving you what you needed."

"You did well, yes."

He kissed her again, lingering a bit. "Thank you for the game. It was fun. And so was the rest of it."

"Yeah, it was."

"Three more months huh?"

"Give or take. Why? Counting down the days until you're done already?"

He scoffed. "No, just realizing it's a good thing it's winter and work isn't quite as busy as usual or the during the week thing would never fly."

"Oh," she said. "I suppose."

"Good night, I'll see you Wednesday. Here or at my place let me know, unless you change your mind."

"I won't, John. Quit saying that. I'd see you even if not for that."

"Good to know."

She frowned and he chuckled.

"Relax, I'm teasing. I mean, I'm glad you know, that you'd still want to see me. That's good. So we're good. Now, go get some sleep."

"You, too."

"I will."

She shut the door behind him, turning off the light near his car once she'd heard him turn his SUV on. He probably shouldn't have asked her the things he asked her tonight, but he kind of wanted to know where she was. He still wasn't sure he had any answers, but at least she hadn't said once the baby came she'd tell him to get the fuck out of her life. That idea had bothered him more than just a little.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twelve***
Word Count: 7,951

New Year's Eve 1994

She took a deep breath, opening the door. God she was nervous. Why? She wasn't sure. She'd gone to this type of thing many times before, both with Dan and when she was younger with her parents. This was nothing new to her, but in those cases she knew the people she was dealing with. At the very least she knew what kind of people she was dealing with. When she was younger she hadn't been allowed to be nervous. She'd been taught how to behave at things like this from before she could walk probably, not that she remembered that far back. Her mom wasn't here tonight, though, to lecture her about her posture or how to behave one last time before she left.

This day had not gone well at all. It was probably the worst day she'd had overall since her dad died. Thanksgiving and Christmas had been hard, but she'd expected those days to be difficult. No surprise there really, her first holidays without her husband and her father. Her first holidays having to watch her boys struggle with understanding why their dad couldn't be there to eat with them.

Her mom was mad at her. Not mad exactly, disappointed was a much better word for it. She believed Claire was behaving inappropriately. The things she'd done with John to this point could be dismissed as being friendly, hanging out. Her mother vaguely remembered him from high school, so it was a plausible excuse for him coming around now. A formal New Year's Eve party not even seven months after her husband died was not just friendly. It bordered on being a date. Claire knew that as well as her mother did.

Claire insisted that it was just friendly. John was just being nice and making sure she didn't sit at home being depressed. She'd done that enough on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Wasn't that the point of New Year's Eve?

Out with the old and in with the new?

She was ready for a new year. Claire's mom hadn't thought it was a good idea, though. She was afraid people would see her. Do what? Go to a New Year's Eve party? She wasn't going to have sex with him in public. She wasn't even sure she'd get a kiss at midnight out of the night since they were going to be around people. They'd never done anything remotely physical or intimate in front of anyone. The closest they'd come to anything that suggested intimacy was John walking with Bill when they were out the four of them.

She'd gotten a babysitter for tonight because some of the women from the club convinced her mom to go with them to the annual party held there for a little while. There were a couple of girls in the neighborhood who were old enough to babysit. Two were old enough to have their own New Year's Eve plans so they had been unavailable. Both said they'd be happy to some other time as neither had jobs. One, though, was evidently not old enough to have any plans for tonight and had agreed to babysit. Claire had never had to pay for babysitting before and about had a heart attack when her friend Jaclyn told her what the going rate for two kids was.

This party John was bringing her to better be a hell of a good time for the amount of money she was spending to go to it. Between a new dress and a babysitter she was lucky to have much of her paycheck left so soon after Christmas. The dress was completely unnecessary since she'd never have reason to wear it again, possibly a second time if something else formal came up in the next couple of months. She couldn't possibly wear the red one a third time in front of him and he'd said it was a formal party.

He gave a low whistle, knowing her mom was already gone because she'd told him when he called to say he was leaving that she was just waiting for the sitter.

"It's just a coat."

It was an old coat really. She was pregnant during the winter with her first two kids, too. Her mom had given it to her as a shower gift when she was pregnant with Bill. She was pretty sure it had cost her mom a small fortune because it was a long cashmere coat but it looked almost as nice today as when she'd first taken it out of the big Lord & Taylor box it had been wrapped in eight years ago. It had certainly come in handy living in New York because she didn't use her car just to run to the corner grocery store or to walk Bill to school when she was pregnant with Justin.

"It's a very nice coat, even I can tell that. I've never seen you wear it before."

"No, I haven't really had a reason to wear it around you until tonight. It was kind of nice out the two nights I wore dresses and went out with you."

"You didn't go out with me the first night at all."

She blushed deeply at that because he was right and he chuckled softly at her reaction. "That may be, but there was still no need for a coat then."

"How do you make all these things look so stylish?"

"I don't feel remotely stylish at all anymore these days, so I'll just say thank you and leave it at that."

"All right then. Fair enough. Are you ready?"

She grabbed the small purse she was taking with tonight before sliding her gloves on.

"Yes. The boys are downstairs with Shelly watching a movie. I've already said good night to them."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. They're having a good time. I don't want to go down there again and risk getting them all excited or freaked out."

"Okay," he said. He opened the door, letting her pass through first before closing it behind him. He checked to be sure it shut completely behind him she realized. "I just wanted to be sure. We're not in that big of a hurry that if you wanted to say good bye it'd be bad."

"They'll be fine. I gave her your cell phone number. You did bring it, right?"

"Yes, Claire, I have it," he said, walking with her toward his SUV. "I told you I'd bring it. I can remember things, Claire, and I do know how important it was to you."

"Thank you. I didn't mean to imply you'd forget, I was just making sure."

"It'll be fine, Claire. Really. Nothing is going to happen to them. People leave their kids with babysitters all of the time."

He opened her door for her, which surprised her a little.

"I know. Those kids aren't my kids. I can't help but worry. I've never left them with someone they didn't know well before. I also hate fighting with Mom."

"She'll get over it. She's not going to stay mad at you over a New Year's Eve party. Maybe she'll have a good enough time where she's going tonight that she'll understand why you didn't want to be here all night and mope."

"I wouldn't have moped," she said.

He closed her door and going around to his side to get in. He started his SUV and let it idle for a minute before putting it in gear.

"You would have moped. You would have watched Dick Clark or whatever else is on until the ball dropped. You would have wanted more than the half glass of champagne that I bet you would have allowed yourself to drink."

"You're probably right."

"See. This will be much more fun."

"God, I hope you're right, John. It won't be worth the argument with Mom if I don't at least have a good time."

"Come on. If I have to get all dressed up I may as well have a date with me out of the deal."

"You couldn't have found someone not seven months pregnant to take?"

"Well, sure, I could have if I really tried. I didn't want to try, though, because there's no one else I wanted to take."

She realized this was the first time he'd driven them in a while since the kids weren't along. She wasn't used to being a passenger anymore because at home she'd always driven. Dan usually took the subway when he worked nights so only having one vehicle never posed a problem for them. He'd hated her car because she'd had it since her freshman year of college. It was still reliable even if it looked pretty awful by the time she'd sold it to her friend.

"No, you don't," he said when she reached for the handle to open her door.


"Nuh uh, you stay right there."

"John," she said.

"Sit tight, all right? Geez."

He grabbed his wallet and cell phone from the glove compartment before getting out. He walked to her side of the SUV and opened the door for her. She took his offered hand after a second's pause.

"Why didn't you just say that's what you were going to do?"

"Because a guy likes to surprise a woman once in a while, you know? Do nice things for his date? You deserve having a car door opened for you. I did at your house."

"Thank you," she said, sliding out of his SUV. She wasn't sure she'd be able to ride in it in another month without his help getting in or out so she supposed she shouldn't complain he wanted to tonight.

"You're welcome. Thank you for looking nice."

"I'll pretend I'm not at all insulted you think I'd look anything but nice when you said formal. I do know what formal means. You do realize that, right? So, I'll just ask you what this party is for."

"For? Well, it's for New Year's Eve. It's being thrown by one of the companies I do a good amount of work for because they own a lot of buildings. It's kind of a grand opening of the building the party is at tonight, too. You know, the two birds one stone thing."

"Oh," she said.

"Anything else you want to know?"

"I don't know. Is there anything else I should know so I don't sound clueless if people say things to me?"

"You couldn't sound clueless if you tried, sweetheart. It'll be fine. No one's going to interrogate you. This isn't a job interview or anything. You're not going to get drunk and dance topless or anything else that some might see as embarrassing."

"You wouldn't?"

"Well, if you want to get drunk and dance topless at my house one night after you've had the baby I wouldn't say no."


She wasn't sure after the baby came what she'd do where he was concerned. She knew what she wanted to do with him, but she knew that was mostly her hormones and grief influencing her right now. No matter how well she tried to hide it there were days she still missed Dan. John could say he wasn't good to her all he wanted, and realistically Claire knew she deserved better. It didn't mean she didn't love and miss him, though.

"Relax, though. It's all for fun. I'd say drink the champagne, but I guess you can't do that."

"I could have one glass."

"Yeah, I remember you said that you could do that."

"Just one."

"I might have more than one."

"Should I take your keys now?"

He chuckled softly.


"Nothing, the day of the football game I saw you at Amanda and I had that argument."

"What argument?"

"Me driving us home after I'd had one too many beers at the game."

"Oh. And?"

"I wasn't too keen on giving them up when she asked for them." He held out his keys, jingling them. "You have room in that tiny purse for these?"

"I do. Thank you, John, very much."

"Yeah, well, I'm not going to feel doubly guilty for the rest of my life if something happened to you and the baby because I was a proud ass."

She grabbed onto his forearm, stopping him from walking further.

"What?" he asked before she leaned up to kiss him.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Say, did I mention Amanda's probably going to be here tonight?"

Oh God, that put a new slant on the entire night. Claire still couldn't get over how absolutely gorgeous and perfect Amanda was, especially now that no matter what she did she felt as if she was exactly what she was. Very pregnant. She still didn't understand how she could even compete with someone like his ex.


"Yeah. That company I do lots of work for, it's the one she works for. She works for the residential part more than the commercial part, but I'm sure she'll be here just the same."

"And you waited until now to tell me this?"

"Does it matter?"

"Well, no, but I probably would've rethought my dress."

"Why? What's wrong with your dress?" He frowned. "There's nothing wrong with that dress, Claire, I've seen it. It looks very good on you."

"You haven't seen the dress I'm wearing tonight."


"I went out and bought one."

"Oh, I didn't know. Not red though?"

She laughed softly. It surprised her he liked the red as much as he had. "Not red, but I guarantee you'll like it just as well."

"If you say so."

"Had I known your drop-dead gorgeous, amazingly thin ex-girlfriend was going to be here I may have chosen something else."

"Well I'll let you know later if I'm glad or not that I didn't tell you. She won't care. I'm sure she's bringing the guy she's seeing anyway. And you're beautiful, Claire."

"Is that why you invited me?"

"In part, yes. I mean I admit I didn't want to go alone. If you had said no, though, I probably would have gone to a party at one of my friend's houses instead of this one. This one, though, well, it looks good for me to be here. You know? Grease the palms that feed you."

"I understand."

"I bet you do. I'm sure your mom went to her share of these with your dad for just the same reason. You and Scott probably tagged along to a couple, too."

"Yeah, they were together, though."

"Well, sweetheart, for now until you get over your need for me at any rate I'm pretty together with you. So, you were my choice in dates. You didn't see any presents under my tree for anyone else, did you?"

"No, I was kind of surprised you had a tree."

She had been, too. He'd invited her and the boys to his house during the day on Christmas Eve, knowing Scott and his family were going to be at her mom's house for a pretty early dinner. He'd put lights up the weekend of Thanksgiving on the exterior of the house she knew, but he hadn't done anything inside. So, seeing the tree had surprised her.

"It was pretty bare, wasn't it?"

"A little, but it was nice."

"Yeah, Bill told me I needed some decorations."

She closed her eyes, shaking her head a little. "He did what?"

He chuckled. "It's okay. I asked him what he thought. He told me."

"He still shouldn't have said that. That's rude and he knows better."

"Relax, Claire, it's all right. If it had bothered me I would have said something to him or you. He gave an honest answer, and he's right. I've never done the tree thing before, but it seemed appropriate to do it in a house for some reason. Plus I've never had a reason to buy presents before."

"I'm still sorry. He knows better. Where was I that I missed that anyway?"

"I think you were in the bathroom."

"Oh." His tree had been pretty bare. He had some generic glass ball ornaments and some lights, but that was it. He hadn't even had a star or angel to put on top of it. Had she known he'd gotten a tree and needed things she would've gotten him something for it for Christmas. Instead, she'd gone the very safe route of a CD he'd mentioned wanting.

His present to her had been a gift certificate to a local spa that specialized in prenatal massages. It was a way more expensive gift than a CD and she'd felt bad, but God was she looking forward to using it. The boys he got a new Disney video she'd mentioned wanting to add to their collection if they didn't get it.

"Wow," he said when he helped her out of her coat and saw her dress.

It wasn't anything like the red dress was really. You could still tell she was pregnant, but then this far along that was just the way it was with anything she wore. It wasn't form fitting at all though. It was designed to make an attempt at being discreet as to how far along she might be. It was an absolutely beautiful shade of green and velvet. She'd spotted it after Christmas at a maternity store downtown when she was shopping the sales at a toy store.

She went shopping the day or so after Christmas every year in New York because she always found some great deals on things that were priced real cheap even though they weren't suddenly less popular than they had been before Christmas. She found good birthday presents that way.

The dress had been marked down, too. The price reduction was so drastic that Claire hadn't been able to resist trying it on. She had planned on wearing the red dress for a third time in a little over a month as wrong as she knew it was to do so until she'd seen this one.

Where red was a color she usually avoided, green was typically her friend. A very good friend and this dress was no exception. The skirt was short, not so short as to be indecent, but short enough that she knew if her mother had seen it she would have scolded her for wearing it. She didn't care if it wasn't appropriate she'd loved it and wished it wasn't a maternity dress because it would definitely be something she'd wear again otherwise. She'd already had shoes to go with it and the coat he commented on so she hadn't had to splurge on anything else at least.

"Is that a good wow?" She ran her hands along the velvet skirt a little nervously. She thought it looked nice on her, but her frame of reference these days was a little skewed.

"It's an exceptional wow. Thank you. Again."

"Thank you for saying so. And for inviting me. You're right it was good to get out of the house."

"The night hasn't even started yet."

"No matter what happens so far I've had a better time than I would've otherwise."

"Well, I'm glad."

"You look pretty nice, too. What's with the tuxedo?"

"What do you mean?"

"Is it yours?"

"It is," he said with a sigh.


"Yes, this isn't the first of these type of things I've been invited to. I rented one the first time, it was some big publicity thing with the mayor and everything. I priced the difference the second time around and realized it wasn't that much more really. And I get more than one use out of it."

"True. It looks very nice on you."


"Mm hmm." She was underselling it because he looked more than just nice in it. He wasn't Sean Connery's 007 in a tuxedo, but he looked very, very good just the same. She couldn't remember seeing anyone wear a double-breasted tuxedo jacket before but he wore the look well.

"Good. I'm glad I chose right then."

"You chose exceptionally well."

She reached then, brushing off a small piece of lint from his scarf off of the lapel of his jacket.

"Thank you," he said.

"Sure," she said with a shrug.

"Are you ready then?" he asked, offering her his arm. She took it with a deep breath. Was she ready? She was as ready as she was going to be, she supposed.

It was a little weird for her being here, but she'd been around her dad and Dan at these types of things enough to know how to act. She listened and she knew how to do it very well. Men always preferred to be listened to versus talked to, at least in Claire's experience at these types of things.

John never strayed too far from her side. He only did so when he seemed to know she was comfortable with whoever she was talking to not throwing some weird curveball topic of conversation her way. She knew nothing about construction or real estate. Hell, she'd never owned real estate and at the rate she was going wouldn't for years yet.

He grabbed her hand, surprising her because until that moment he hadn't done anything to suggest to anyone at the party that they were more than friends. He tugged her to him gently, sliding a hand to the small of her back.

"Excuse us, please," he said as he started them in the direction of the dance floor.


"Didn't you say earlier how much you loved this song and hoped they played it tonight?"

She had no idea what in the world he was talking about, because she really had no deep desire to dance. She could dance, she loved to dance, but well things just weren't super comfortable anymore. Not to mention she hadn't been dancing in a long time.

"That was rude," she said. "He was talking to me."

"He'll get over it."

She slid an arm to his shoulder instinctively. She knew how to let herself get lead on a dance floor. She wouldn't say it was second nature exactly, but it was pretty darned close. When she and Scott had been younger they'd had one another as dance partners if there weren't other children around to dance with.

She glanced at him with a frown. Had she done something wrong? Was she talking too much? She didn't think so. Had she done something to embarrass him somehow?

"John. I thought you wanted me to get along with these people. Isn't that why you brought me here? To help make you look good? He had just been to New York recently and we were talking about the city."

"I do, very much so. I'm glad you're getting along with everyone."

"Then what? If you've reconsidered bringing me here then we can go."

"Don't be ridiculous." He drew her to him then, settling his mouth against her ear. "So, yeah, Amanda just walked in and she is not here with a date."

"Oh," she said.

"She's with one of her friends, and well, I just wanted you to know that. I really thought she'd bring the new guy."

"Well, you could've just told me…"

"Yeah, no, I didn't want to tell you that with anyone able to hear what I said to you."

"Is this the first time you've seen her since October?"

"Yeah, pretty much. I've seen her at a couple of sites, you know, but just in passing and we didn't talk or anything."

"Hmm," she said.

She glanced around the part of the room that she could see, looking for Amanda. She couldn't see her, though.

"I'm not sure she's going to recognize you as the woman from the Bears game or not."

"Oh God," she said softly. "I forgot she thought I shouldn't have brought the boys there."


So she was here without a date and if she spoke to John Claire was supposed to be nice to someone who criticized her and her ability to parent. More or less that's what she'd been doing by suggesting Bill and Justin were too young to be at the game.

"You don't expect me to dance all night, do you?" she asked.

"No, we can sit down whenever you want after this song since I said you liked it."

"At least you picked a song I actually like so I don't look like an idiot for liking Boys II Men or something."

He chuckled. "You mean you don't?"

"Very funny."

"I see you still know how to dance."

"You've learned somewhere along the way." He danced pretty well, better than she'd expected since he probably hadn't had anyone to teach him how.

"I can do this type of dancing just fine."

"You can." She sighed softly, resting her head against his shoulder. "I almost wish I wore the red dress now."

"Why? I mean, I like this one, don't get me wrong. It's very nice, but the red is… You make me appreciate how you got pregnant to begin with."

"Yeah, and well, because it shows how far along I am."


"This one doesn't so much. I mean you can tell I'm pregnant."


He sounded confused, rightfully so most likely.

"I don't want her to think…"

"That it's mine?" He chuckled at that, drawing her a little closer against him. As close against him as he could at any rate. "I wouldn't care."

"I'd care! Because to be showing that'd mean I would have had to get pregnant…"

"Oh," he said, seeming to do the math in his head. "I get it. Don't worry, I'm sure she won't even pay you any attention. She wasn't overly observant about things that didn't affect her specifically."

"You make her sound so charming."

"I told you I think I had this thing where, you know," he shrugged.

"You deserve to be happy, John, and loved and to have someone you can make happy and love back."

"Yeah, I do deserve those things, sweetheart."

He let her find somewhere to sit once the song had finished, taking a seat next to her. The dinner portion was over so no one was sitting where they'd sat during the meal anymore. People were mingling, many of them were drinking and were already several drinks in and it was fairly early yet.

"Can I get you something? Water? They have mixed drinks so they must have some juices like orange juice or cranberry juice."

"I'm fine, but thank you."

"Are you sure. You're not just being polite? You haven't had anything to drink since dinner."

"John. I'm fine."

"Yeah, well, you have this habit of forgetting to eat around me and I worry."

"Not in situations like this I don't and it was just once."

She blushed at the thought of that night at his house. She'd never been that bold before not even with Dan. If he'd rejected her a second time she wasn't sure what she would've done. August wasn't really a rejection, she knew that. He probably wouldn't have gone much further even if Amanda hadn't been a factor because he knew she was being needy and raw.

"You distracted me."

"I didn't do a damned thing but what you wanted me to do."

"I wasn't expecting you to be good at it."

"I'm sorry. What?"

She sighed softly, closing her eyes and counting to ten. Had she actually said that out loud? She hadn't meant to. God, that was the last thing she should've said to him.


"No, no," he said, standing from their spot and taking her hand again. He wasn't overly nice about it this time as he had been before the dance they'd just shared.

She could go with him or pull away from him. Pulling away would draw attention to them, him, at a party he was at for his job. A party he was at to look good to these people. She followed him, cursing her stupidity under her breath. He led her to a stairway, down the stairs to the next floor and a small room. He closed the door behind them and stared at her. He looked … Mad wasn't the right word, but he certainly wasn't particularly happy with her at the moment.

"What are you doing?"

"No, no, you're not going to question your way out of this. What did you just say?"

"I didn't say anything."

"The music wasn't that loud, sweetheart. You weren't expecting me to be good at it. Why not exactly?"

"Oh God, I don't know." How was she supposed to explain it without sounding like a complete and utter bitch? "You had this reputation you know? Guys like that are never as good as they say or think they are."

"And you know this how exactly in your vast experience of two men, including the one present?"

"I have friends. I listen to what they say."

"So your friends tell you that men with experience aren't good and you believe them?"

"It's not just experience. Can we not talk about this?"

"No, we're going to talk about it. So, you what? Came over that night thinking it'd be awful? That I wouldn't know what I was doing? And while I admit you were partially right because I had no clue what to do where you're concerned not having done that before with a woman in your situation. So, you what? You'd get the sex you needed out of your system and that'd be that?"

"Kind of," she said softly. God, it sounded so awful hearing him say it. He didn't understand, though. He never would!



"You were okay with that?"

"I just needed! I told you," she answered. He didn't seem so mad anymore now more confused. She wasn't sure why.

"Oh, I get that part. I do. I've experienced your need for hours now and I tell you with all sincerity I consider myself a very lucky guy to be on the receiving end of you wanting your needs met. What I don't understand is why you'd have sex with someone you didn't think would even do it for you?"

"I didn't say that!"

"You just said you thought it wouldn't be good."

"Yes. No. I don't know. I figured it'd be enough. I don't know. I certainly wasn't expecting you to call me the next day."

He closed his eyes, resting his head against the wall behind him and she could see him doing what she'd done earlier and try to calm himself.

"You weren't even going to see me again?" He was back to being mad. His eyes didn't need to be open for her to know that.

"I didn't say that! I wasn't expecting you to want to see me again. You know? I figured you'd sort of get your curiosity about me settled."

"And you were okay with that?"

"John. I didn't have anyone else!"

"Don't give me that crap. You could find someone else if you want to."

"What kind of person do you think I am? I wouldn't do that!" Of course she had done that really when it got down to it. The fact she'd known him already wasn't really relevant or excusable. She'd chosen him for a reason beyond his convenience. She'd always been kind of curious about John herself. She knew back then he'd liked her but for whatever reason he'd never asked her out.

"I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that you were going to let yourself… Get used by me and you were okay with that? Why would you do that? Why would you do that for what you assumed would be mediocre sex at best?"

"I didn't know! I wasn't planning it. You reacted to me in the dress."

"I'm not blind or dead. Of course I'm going to react when you show up in front of me looking like that."

"No one has ever looked at me like that when I was pregnant."

He stared at her then.

"Shut up," he said.

"John, I'm serious. I've always felt fat and frumpy and huge and not at all sexy. Those things do not go together for me when I'm pregnant. Dan hated having sex with me because like you discovered I could go forever and it wouldn't be enough and he thought there was, like something wrong with me or with Bill or Justin."

He laughed at that. She didn't think it was very funny. Talk about humiliating to have her husband tell her no more times than she could count. He always gave a reasonable excuse, but no was still no.

"Trust me when I tell you I could've been wearing that dress with nothing on underneath it when he came home and he'd have found some excuse not to do anything."

"You did that and he didn't?"

"No," she shook her head. She'd never gotten quite that bold. She'd been too afraid if she'd done something like that he'd tell … someone and she'd be embarrassed on top of humiliated. Knowing there were other women was bad enough, knowing those women might know things about her was the worst feeling in the world to Claire. John talked once about what Dan did being as bad as someone hitting her. She agreed, but to a point she'd almost have preferred the hitting. Not that she'd ever want to get hit, but there wasn't a third person involved in hitting. There was no one else who knew intimate things about you or about Dan out there. In Dan's case quite a few someone else's. That had bothered her immensely. That he shared… details with them. "I'm just saying, that's what it was like. He didn't see me that way."

"Then he was a moron."

"You say that, but…"

"Claire, sweetheart, you're beautiful. You were beautiful in July, you were beautiful in August, September, October, November, and now in December closing in on January. Are you more pregnant than you were? Sure, but you're no less beautiful."

"Can we just forget this conversation and go back in there?"

"No. I still want to cover this bad sex thing. You thought what? I wouldn't know what to do? I wouldn't do it for you? That I'd finish so fast and leave you unsatisfied?"

"Kind of."


"Don't be mad at me." She wasn't sure what she'd do if he got mad at her. It wasn't even the fact it was New Year's Eve. She'd miss him if he got mad at her and stopped calling or coming around.

"You know, the funny thing is I'm not mad at you because you have no basis for comparison. So, I can't blame you for listening to your friends and thinking anyone you're not committed to or in a relationship with is going to fuck you and leave."

"Then what?" she asked.

"It makes me sad, sweetheart, that you think you deserve to settle for that. That you think you're not worthy of hours and hours and hours of mutually beneficial love making. You think I like leaving you the nights I'm at your house? I hate it. I feel like shit because you're not the kind of woman I want to have sex with and get up and leave. You deserve to have me next to you in the morning. You deserved so much better than someone who cheated on you. I don't claim to be an expert or anything, I'm sure there are better guys out there."

"I'm not looking."

"I hope not."

"Why not?"

"Why not she asks."

"Yes," she said. "Why not?" She really had no idea why he'd be happy about that. She'd think by now he'd be getting sort of tired of being the only person she had really. She had some friends still from high school she saw once in a while. She was making some new friends at school even, but none were male. And none made her feel the way John did.

"Because I like knowing something about you nobody else knows. I loved sitting at that Bulls game with you. Men around us probably thought I was a big dumb sap who didn't know how to use protection to knock you up three times. I loved them thinking that because I knew they had no idea what you're like and if they did they wouldn't be thinking I was a big dumb sap but instead one of the smartest guys in the world."

"One of the teachers asked me if I had a TV at home."


She laughed softly. He sounded so genuinely confused at why she'd bring that up right now and why the guy would ask it in the first place.

"He's forty something and never been married, no kids. He asked me if my husband and I didn't believe in TV."

"And you let him get away with that?"

"No, I told him that I liked having kids and that we had plenty of TVs."

"You only have one that I've seen. That's yours I mean."


"That's not plenty, sweetheart."

"It was plenty for us. Besides I'm sure he's not the only one who thinks along those lines. He was just the only one willing to actually say it."

"Point taken."


"So you really thought I wouldn't call?"

"I wasn't sure."

"I wouldn't have done that to you ten years ago, Claire. I certainly wouldn't have done it to you today."

"Why not?"

"Why not?"

"Yes," she asked. She was curious. She wasn't trying to fish a compliment out of him. She truly wasn't sure what his feelings for her had been back then. She thought he'd liked her, but after that day of detention he'd never pushed for anything to happen between them. He certainly could've and she was willing.

"Because," he said. "I need a reason beyond I wouldn't?"

"You'd just told me you'd broken up with Amanda and I knew you felt sorry for me."

"Turn around," he whispered.


"Turn around."




"I need to show you something."

"What?" she asked, completely confused. She turned around though. And then he was right behind her, hands at her hips. He groaned softly.

"Wow. Feels very nice and soft."

"I know," she whispered. "It's why I figured you'd like it."

He gave another groan as his hand slid to her thighs, lifting the skirt of her dress up a bit.

"You're wearing stockings?"

"Uh huh."

"Real ones?"

She frowned. "What's the alternative?"

"Never mind," he said with a soft chuckle. "I should've known better than to think you'd wear those things with the elastic tops."

"Oh no," she said softly. She'd seen those in stores, but never tried them.

He reached to the front of her panties, touching her enough to cause her to gasp. She heard the soft sound of a zipper and instantly grew wet at the thought of him wanting to have sex with her here.

"What are you showing me?"

She gasped as he slid inside of her. Little warning and he hadn't done a whole lot to ensure she was ready, but he knew by now that her being ready wasn't an issue.

"We're arguing and I still want you. Do you feel how hard I am for you?"

"Yes," she whispered.

He slid one hand from her hip up along the bodice of her dress to a breast.

"No, don't," she whispered.


"It'll show I think."

"Ah, yeah," he whispered. Apparently he'd forgotten the fact that even when he didn't use his mouth on her breasts if he was stimulating them anymore she leaked when she came. That was new for her, it hadn't happened with Bill or Justin. She wasn't sure if it was because he actually used his mouth there, almost encouraging the fluid to come out when he was bringing her over. He slid his hand back to her hip then, groaning softly as he thrust deeply into her.

"You want to know why I wouldn't do that to you then or now?"


"Because I fell in love with you that day, sweetheart. From the moment you told me to stop antagonizing Vernon I was gone."

She gasped as a fast and deep thrust up and into her accompanied his words, accentuating them a bit. He expected her to be able to respond to that coherently?

"God am I glad you know what you're doing."

"I told you once it's you, sweetheart. You make me do the right things because I promise you I can't remember it being as good before."

"You're just saying that."

"No, I'm not. I want to make you feel so good that you never want to think about going to someone else for this."

"John." He was saying too much right now. She couldn't handle it. Not tonight. Not now. Not with him inside of her making her feel so good. Making her wonder why she couldn't date him. Why she couldn't have her mom babysit and spend the night with him.

"You know I've never been inside anyone without a condom before."

"Really?" she whispered. That surprised her immensely. She just assumed he'd been with women who were on the pill or something.


"Why did you with me?"

"You're already pregnant," he said with a soft chuckle as if that should've been obvious. No need for condoms when that was already in play.

"Yes, but."

"You've only been with Dan and you said you've been tested."

"I have." She'd made them test her for everything under the sun when she was pregnant with both Justin and this one. She didn't want anything harming either of them and she knew there were some things that could spread to the baby via the birth canal.

"That's why. I've never had any desire to before either."


"And now I have no desire to ever wear one again."

"John." There he went saying things that she had no business liking, loving right now. They were just words, but he had no idea the effect they had on her. Dan never said these kinds of things to her.

"You say it feels like you can feel it when I finish. I want you to feel that every time. Does that sound so bad?"


"Does it sound good?"

"Yes," she whispered.

She absolutely shouldn't have admitted that. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not anytime soon. He wasn't playing fair, though, because he was thrusting so deep inside of her right now that she'd probably tell him anything he wanted to hear to get him to let her finish. She needed his help though like this and he knew that, sliding one of his hand inch by inch closer to the front of her panties.

"Real good?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Push back against me a little," he prompted. She did as best as she could, settling her hands against the door and sliding her feet a little further apart. "Yeah, like that. God you are amazing like this. Every way, really but I'll never forget you brushing your ass against my hard on that first night, inviting me to take you this way."

"You liked that?" She'd been scared to death that her doing that, inviting him to take her that way would step over a line somehow. It was the easiest position, though, really. She just knew it was an odd one for their first time.

"More than you will ever possibly know or imagine."

"I'm glad."

"Not as glad as I am, sweetheart." He slid a fingertip along her nub, groaning softly as he thrust a little deeper into her. "Now finish for me," he whispered as he stroked her.

She about broke a nail on the door her hands were propped up against because she pressed them into it so hard from the feeling of what he was doing to and inside of her. He finished at the same time she did, letting her calm down a bit before drawing away. After sex with him always scared her the most because she didn't want it to end. He made it so good for her. Dan had always gotten up to go to the bathroom right away. Always. For whatever reason in all of the times they had sex he couldn't go to sleep not cleaned off.

"Happy New Year, sweetheart," he said.

"It's not midnight yet."

"Consider that a down payment on lots more of that in the coming year."


"We could bail from here, you know. Go back to your place, send the sitter home, and do more of that."

"It's your party."

"It is." He glanced at his watch. "God, it's not even ten o'clock. We have two more hours and I suppose kissing you at midnight here is out of the question."

"Kind of." That bothered her immensely, but she couldn't say that. It was too soon, though, and he seemed at least to understand that.

"An hour and we'll head back to your place."



"Yeah," she said. She had no real desire to stay here any longer than he did. She was here for him, obviously. She had been having fun earlier and thought she was helping his cause with the people he worked with not harming it or anything.

"At least leaving at eleven you won't make me watch Dick Clark when we get there."

"I think I have all of the dick I can handle for the night right here."

"You made a dirty joke."

"I did, didn't I?"

"And the world hasn't stopped spinning."

"I know, right?"

He chuckled softly.

"You look fantastic still. I, however, look like I need my clothes pressed again. How do you do that?"

"Just lucky I guess," she said.

She helped him with his shirt, tucking it back into his tuxedo pants and fastening the cummerbund and jacket. He didn't look that bad really. No worse than some guys there would look after hours of wearing a tuxedo. Shirts got wrinkled from dancing and all sorts of things that weren't sex.

"There. No one will know," she said.

"You say that. I think they'll suspect."

"Do you care?"

"I'm more worried about you caring. I know you feel guilty."

"It's not guilt, John. Because I'm still not entirely comfortable with the fact I'm not married anymore or the fact my husband wasn't even gone for six months before I had sex with you. There are lots of people like my mother out there, you know."

"I sure don't think like her or feel guilty. There's nothing wrong with what we're doing, only if you think there is. We're adults. You're not dead, Claire. I'd tell them all if you let me."

"Not tonight."

"Do I get another dance now?"

"You think because we had sex I'm going to dance with you?"

"I think because you informed me that you came to my house to use me and cast me aside I deserve another dance."

"I wasn't going to cast you aside." She wasn't. She just never expected him to want more from her. She sort of expected him to take one look at her that far along and tell her to get lost.

"You just thought I would."

"I just thought you'd get your curiosity about me fulfilled."

"And move on?"

"Something like that."

"I'm more than just curious about you, Claire. I meant what I said earlier. You didn't comment on it, and I don't expect you to. I'm just telling you I didn't say anything tonight to get you to let me into your panties. I'm not going anywhere unless you tell me to."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirteen***
Word Count: 5,167

"Why are you leaving your coat on?" he asked.

"To take Shelly home."

"You said she lives in walking distance, right?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, sounding cautious.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to make her walk home by herself. I'm not going to drive her either. I will walk her home, though, you go check on your sons."

"But I have to pay her."

"I'll pay her."


"You wouldn't have had to get a sitter if it wasn't for me asking you out tonight, so I'm paying for the sitter. It seems a pretty fair trade off to get to see you in another very nice dress. If you hadn't admitted to buying it I may not be so inclined to pay for the sitter."

"Really, I can pay for the sitter."

"I know you can, obviously. You were planning to. You said five dollars an hour right?"

"Yes," she sighed.

"We left around four o'clock."


"So, forty dollars should cover it, right? We're home before midnight."

"Yes," she said.

"Okay then. You go check on Bill and Justin, I know you want to and I'll go get her."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Thank you for coming out with me."

They'd ended up leaving the party earlier than eleven. He'd shown up, he'd stayed for hours, and didn't mind having to use the excuse of Claire having a sitter to get home to leave early. If they'd wanted to stay longer they could've, but she didn't seem to want to any more than he did. She'd told him the sitter didn't have any particular set time to be home by.

"Thank you for inviting me."

"You had fun?"

"I did," she said and he knew that wasn't easy for her to admit. She felt guilty about going not just because Dan had only been gone since June but because she'd gotten into an argument with her mother because of it. They'd been getting along fairly well to this point and he knew it bothered her that they'd fight over something like this now.

"Good. I'll see you in the basement then?"

"Actually, you can come up to my room I think tonight."


"Mom won't be home for a while yet."

"You're sure? I don't want to be responsible for you two getting into an argument twice in one day."

"I'm positive," she said, leaning up to kiss him. "And thank you for walking the sitter home."

"You're welcome. I'll be back in a bit."

"Oh," she said, stopping at the stairs and turning around again.


"You'll need keys," she said, reaching into the little purse she brought her with her for the night to fish her keys out of it.


He went to the basement to find Shelly who seemed surprised to see him rather than Claire.

"Hi. Everything went all right?" he asked.

"Yeah, Justin was asleep before eight o'clock and Bill went to sleep about ten o'clock."

"They didn't give you any problems?"

"No, none at all. They were good."

"Good. Thank you for doing this. I'm sure there were other places you would have rather been."

"My parents wouldn't let me go anyway. The only reason they let me sit for Mrs. Abbott was because it was in walking distance."

"Yeah, I'll walk you home. If that's all right."

"Sure," she said, standing then to grab her coat and stuff from the chair she'd set them on.

"I'm John, by the way, John Bender."

"I'm Shelly Bauer."

"Any relation to, uh," what the hell was the guy's name? John hadn't known him real well, hadn't known he'd lived in Claire's neighborhood. He certainly hadn't dressed or acted as if he came from Claire's neighborhood. "Kenny?"


"Yeah, I knew him as Kenny I guess. Years ago now."

"He's my older brother."

"Ah, okay. Claire, Mrs. Abbott and I went to school with him."

"Yeah, I know," she said, sliding her hat on now that her coat was fastened. "Mrs. Abbott told me that. She said she thought I was older than I am."

"I honestly didn't know he had a younger sister."

"I'm the baby."

If memory served him correctly, Ken Bauer was a year behind them, making him twenty-seven now. He was pretty sure Claire mentioned Shelly being fourteen. Thirteen years wasn't a huge difference, he supposed.

"How many in between," he asked.


Ah, that made a lot more sense.

"Both boys?" he asked. He seemed to recall vaguely Kenny bitching about his younger brother.


He let her go up the stairs first, checking to be sure everything was off down here before heading up the stairs himself. He imagined Claire would come down here herself to check, but just in case.

She only lived down the block a ways so it didn't take him long to walk her home, pay her, and get back to Claire's house. He let himself in, feeling a little weird doing it but she'd given him her keys for a reason. He'd only been in her room a couple of times before tonight when he was putting her to bed because their sex had exhausted her. Her admission not his getting a big head about his ability to satisfy her. He wasn't sure there was such a thing as satisfying her, not completely anyway. He'd felt guilty those couple of times, but she'd assured him she was fine just things made her tired that even a couple of weeks ago didn't.

He knocked lightly, opening the door when she told him to come in.

"Shelly got home all right?"

"She did."

"Good. Thank you."

"Sure. The boys are all tucked in?"


"Good. She said Justin went to bed before eight and Bill by ten."

"That's reasonable. I told her if Bill wanted to watch some of the New Year's celebration stuff on TV with her or an extra movie or something he could."

"I didn't know her brother was Kenny."

"You knew Ken?"

"Yeah, we partied together a few times."

"Oh," she said with a nod. "Yeah, he was that type."

"Listen to you. You were the first to join me in smoking up on school property."

"I was at school on a Saturday! Who could blame me for wanting to erase that thought from my mind for a little while at least?"

He chuckled. "Good point."

"You're all the way over there."

"Yeah, still wondering if you've thought this through. Your mom."

"She's not going to be home for a while. Her friends don't leave those parties until at least one o'clock. She hasn't been to the club in months. She'll be glad she went and talk to people she hasn't seen since Dad's funeral."

"I suppose," he said cautiously, walking to her and her bed.

He spotted the dress she'd been wearing draped over a nice armchair she had near her closet (it was a walk-in, of course). Next to the closet was her bathroom.

"It seems you're ahead of me."

"I didn't want to waste time."

"Undressing you is not a time waster as far as I'm concerned."

"I didn't take everything off."


She drew the covers back so he could see that she still had the stockings on.

"You left them on for me?"

"You seemed to like them, or at least the idea of them."

"I do," he admitted, sliding a hand to her calf. He grazed her skin there with his thumb. "Do I have to take them off?"

She laughed softly, shaking her head. "No."

"Good," he said. "I should've brought a change of clothes with me."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because it's going to be a pain in the ass taking all this shit off only to put it back on again."

"You don't have to put it all back on. You're just going home."

"True," he said, undoing his bowtie and sliding it out from around the collar of his shirt. She propped herself up on the bed a bit to unfasten his cummerbund and dropped it to the floor before working the fastenings of his tuxedo pants. He unbuttoned his shirt, watching as she reached for his shaft through the slit in his boxers.

She worked the waistband of them down a bit over his hips, he did the rest letting them fall to the floor before stepping in between her legs.

"You're okay on your back like this?" he asked.

She'd told him their first night together that his being on top wasn't good because laying on her back for long periods of time cut off oxygen to the baby. That didn't sound like a good thing to him so he'd never even tried to initiate anything remotely resembling missionary position with her.

"That's why I put the pillow here," she said. He hadn't noticed the pillow under her until now. He'd been too busy focusing on the stockings and the sexy as hell garter belt she wore with them.

He slid inside of her then, getting all kinds of turned on at the sounds she was making with him inside of her like this. She wrapped her legs around his waist then, gripping him tightly preventing him from moving at first. He was deep inside of her, the pressure of being in her like that and her clenching her muscles around him almost had the same effect as thrusting in and out of her did. Almost. Not quite because nothing beat the feeling of moving in and out of her.

She loosened her grip at his waist with her legs a bit, letting him move as he touched her breasts. He loved how dark they got when she got turned on like this. It drove him crazy, knowing he was causing that reaction in her. He was careful not to lean too much of his weight onto her as she ran her heel along his hip.

She slid a fingertip around one of her nipples, gathering the bit of fluid that came out there before bringing her hand between her legs.

"Fuck," he cried out, finishing not too long after that. The idea of her using that as a bit of lubricant while touching herself was his complete undoing. She finished right after he did, so she evidently liked it, too.

He joined her on her bed then, not waiting very long. He didn't care how much she assured him she was okay he wasn't going to let her lay on her back like that any longer than she had to. She turned onto her left side as she always did when they were done, better for the baby for whatever reason. She had difficulty sleeping anymore. He knew that only because she admitted it to him one night when they were talking on the phone and he commented on how tired she sounded.

"I like your bed better," he whispered, kissing her shoulder. She laughed softly.

"Better than yours?"

"No, I mean, well, yes, your bed is much better than my bed. I won't lie and try to claim it isn't, but I meant over your floor or couch downstairs."

"You didn't mind my couch on Wednesday," she quipped, glancing at him over her shoulder.

"Well, no, put like that, of course not. I don't mind any of it."

She'd knelt on the couch on Wednesday, facing the back of it so he could enter her from behind that way. It had felt incredible to be in her like that. He wasn't sure why it was different than just being behind her normally, but it had been. Maybe it was the fact it was on a couch versus a bed. He would probably never know. He always felt as though he came too fast when he was behind her. Then he hadn't lasted too long tonight either.

"You were worried about the baby just now, weren't you?"

"Well, yeah, a little. I mean, I trust you know what you're doing and everything, but it is a bit of added pressure."

"At least you were still able to."

"Still able to?"

"Have sex with me."

"Well, of course, I can have sex with you. Have I ever given you any indication I can't?"

"No," she said softly. "I just meant, you know, you stay wanting to."

"Stay wanting to? What does that even mean?" he asked.

"Sometimes when I was this far along with Bill and Justin, Dan couldn't."


"No, he," she shrugged. "You know."

"I know?" No, he didn't know. Then he stopped. "Really? He couldn't even, uh, stay physically interested?"

"Not always, no."

He sighed softly, kissing her shoulder again. He grazed the spot there with his cheek. He really hated that anything they did together made her think of Dan. He hated it more than he could explain to anyone without sounding like a complete and utter jealous idiot. "Well, I don't know what to say. It sounds like that was his issue not yours, Claire. Clearly, I have no problem getting and staying hard for you."

"You say that now."

"Yeah? I'm not him, you know? I know that's your only base of comparison, but you feel good to me. What's not to get turned on about that?"

"I'm already bigger than I was with either Bill or Justin, I have over two months to go."

"Yeah, I know. You told me you being on top may not work so well anymore. I'm okay with that. I told you the first night this happened between us I could lay here and go down on you for hours and be happy with that."

"That wouldn't be very fun for you."

"Speak for yourself. It'd be very fun for me, and well, if you wanted to use your hand to help finish me off I wouldn't complain about that."

"You wouldn't, huh?"

"No. Whatever works is fine. If tomorrow you said we can't anymore, well that'd be fine, too."

"You wouldn't be mad?"

"Mad? What's to get mad at?"

"You've been getting fairly regular sex for the past five weeks or so."

"Yeah, so have you. You're the one who needs it every waking moment."

"John," she whispered.

"Relax, sweetheart. I'm only teasing. I wouldn't get mad. I told you when this is done and if you decided we couldn't again I wouldn't get mad."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"I am sorry, though, that he ever made you feel undesirable. On that I'm not teasing."

"I know."

"Thank you for the dress, by the way. It must have cost a lot. I know maternity clothes aren't cheap to begin with let alone formal ones. You didn't have to do that."

"I did. I couldn't wear the same dress three times in a row."

"Why not?"

She sighed. "It just isn't done."

"Claire, I wouldn't have cared and no one but me would have known it was three times in a row."

"I would have known. My mother would've."

"Claire," he sighed with a soft chuckle. "It's a whole different world you were raised in and seem to still cling to than anything I'm used to. I just feel bad you thought you had to spend money for me."

"I didn't have to."

"I'll pretend I understand and just say thank you."

"Glad you liked it. I thought you'd like how soft it was."

"You're going to be able to sleep now?"

"Yes, for a while at least. Sex with you always does that."

"You and the boys could come stay with me for the next couple of months so you could sleep well every night."

"That is tempting."


"A good night's sleep every night. You have no idea."

He sighed. "More rules?"

"Yes, and it would just be wrong to do not just to the boys but you."

"What about you?"

"I'd survive."

"But you'd get hurt, too. Right? That's what you're saying?"

"Well, sure, living with you that'd be weird. I'm not sure I could go from seeing you every day, sleeping with you every day to not."

"It'd smack of commitment."

"That, too."

"Get some rest. I'll leave in a little while."

"Okay," she said.

There was a knock at her door a while later. John hadn't fallen asleep but he wasn't completely awake either. Claire moved beside him so obviously the knock woke her. He wasn't sure he'd locked her door when he came in here or not. He couldn't remember. He panicked momentarily, wondering if he should make a dash for her closet.

"Yeah?" she murmured, sounding as sleepy as he imagined she was.

"Claire?" her mom said.


"Just making sure you got home safely and that Shelly did, too."

"I did. She did. John walked her home for me. I'm glad you did, too."

"Happy New Year," she said.

"You, too," Claire said.

Silence, but he hadn't heard her walk away from the other side of the door. He hadn't noticed her approach the door either, but he hadn't been listening for it either.

"And Claire?"

"Yeah, mom?"

"Please make sure John is gone before the boys are awake in the morning."

"I know, Mom, I will," Claire said.

No good night, no opening the door to see what they were doing, no arguments. He heard her walk away from the door, though.

"Oh God," she said, raising her head to look at the alarm clock beside her bed. "How did she know you were in here?"

"Uh, Claire, you realize my vehicle is sitting right on your driveway, right?"

"No," she said and he chuckled.

"It's not funny. She knows you're in here."

"Yeah, and I imagine you'll hear about it tomorrow. Relax for now, it's not good for you to worry about it. She's going to get mad or she's not. Maybe she had a good time and realizes you're allowed to do the same thing."

"This is totally different! This is not a good time!"

"Claire," he whispered.

He slid a hand along her lower back to her hip. He knew she didn't mean what she'd just said to be insulting, but it took him a second to convince himself she hadn't meant it that way. He considered the things they did a very good time. Their conversation at the party earlier was still floating around in his mind, though. The fact she had entered into this type of relationship with him, even if it only ever amounted to what it was currently, thinking it may not be good bothered him. He didn't care that she didn't think he'd be good when it got down to it. Her experience with Dan he could understand why she'd believe pregnant he wouldn't want to have sex with her.

"Do you want me to leave?"

"No," she whispered.

"No? Are you sure?"

"I'm positive. She already knows you're here in my room. I can't undo that."

"No," he said with a soft sigh. "You can't. I asked you if you were sure about being in here."

"I just wanted to be with you in a bed again for a change."

"I'm completely down with that thought process. Set your alarm, sweetheart. I'll get dressed and leave when it goes off."

"You're sure?"

"I'm positive."

"I'm so sorry."

"What do you have to apologize to me for?"

"My mom knows."

"Yeah. You're an adult. She'll get over it. Or she won't. I guess if I can't come around here then I can't."

"She likes you."

"Well, hopefully that will influence her decision and make her realize I'm not out to cause some scandal or anything."

"I know."

"What is the normal period of mourning for people like you anyway?"

"My mother would probably tell me a year."

"Oh," he said.

"The counselor at school has told me that everyone mourns and grieves differently and when I'm ready to not be in mourning anymore I'll know."

"You've talked to her? It's not still Ms. French, is it?"

"It is," she said with a soft laugh. "I haven't really talked to her, no, but she asked how I was doing. She remembers me, I guess, and is just trying to be nice I'm sure. She sits with me when I have lunch once in a while. She just offered some advice."

"Oh," he said. "She wasn't bad. She was pretty young when we were there I guess thinking back. Cute. I remember that so young enough for me to think that about her."

"You saw her?"

"A few times. You know, showing up late for classes, skipping classes, cigarettes found in my locker, and showing up for school with unexplainable bruises and stuff. So, yeah, we had a few chats during junior high."

She shook her head. He knew him talking about his childhood bothered her. He didn't do it often, because he refused to dwell on it. Sometimes, though, things came up in conversations between them that made him think of things. He wasn't afraid to say them to Claire. He never would have talked about Ms. French to Amanda that was for sure.

"I wonder why she's still Ms. French."

"She's not. She's Mrs. O'Mara now."

"Oh, so someone else evidently thought she was cute, too."

"I guess so," she said softly.

"Is she someone you consider a friend?"

"Yeah, I guess she is."

"Is it weird?"


"Being friends with people who fifteen years ago were authority figures? People in charge?"

"Oh, a little, but she's nice, and you're right she's pretty young. She's only like ten years older than us."

"Yeah, I figured she was pretty close to right out of college when we were at school there."

"You had a crush on a teacher?"

"It wasn't a crush. She was cute. She was nice. I didn't have many nice people in my life at that point so she's memorable. I didn't like fantasize about her or anything."


"And you? Any teacher crushes?"

She laughed softly.

"Yeah?" he asked. "Who? I'll bet it was, hmm, Mr. Fraser."

"Ew. He was like older than my grandpa."

John chuckled kissing her ear.

"So, not Mr. Fraser. Mr. Nowicki, I bet. I could see him being considered nice looking."

"He was kind of cute, but no."

"Who then?"

"Mr. Sloan."

"Really? The art teacher?"

"Yes. He was cute and way more talented than a junior high art teacher should have been."

"Yeah, now that you mention it, he was. Makes you wonder if he did something naughty somewhere along the way to be delegated to junior high art teacher."

"I got the impression he just liked teaching that age bracket. Talent is still blossoming, presenting itself. He liked being the one to encourage it," she shrugged against him. "That's why I liked him. He was caring."

He grunted softly at that.

"Too sappy?"

"No, it sounds like something a thirteen year old you would think."

"And he was cute," she said softly. "Then we got to high school and had Mrs. Peterson who didn't have an encouraging bone in her body."

"God, I haven't thought of some of these people in years."

"Me neither, not really."

"No? You didn't get your reunion invite?"

"I did, but it was right after Dan had died so I couldn't go."

"Oh," he said. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."

"You didn't get an invitation?"

"I did. I opened it, saw what it was, and promptly threw it in the trash."

She turned to face him then. "Will you go to the twenty year?"

"I don't know. I guess it depends on whether I have a reason to go."

"You had no reason to go this time?"


"Why not?"

"You were the only person I was remotely curious about seeing. You were off somewhere happily married. I figured you wanted me to know about your life away from here you'd have let me know somewhere along the line. I have nothing to prove to anyone and there was no one else I cared to see. I mean, I've kept in touch with a couple of people, but I didn't give any more of a shit about anyone else than they did about me. Mr. Vernon can suck my left nut as far as I'm concerned before he ever finds out I'm doing all right for myself."

"Mr. Vernon can't do that."

"No?" he asked.

She brushed her thigh between his legs and he closed his eyes at the feel of her touching him there. It never seemed to matter where she was concerned that they'd just had sex a little over an hour ago, that her mother was home, or that she was tired and would never deny him sex despite that. There were times he felt guilty about coming over here during the week knowing she'd be in bed as soon as Justin went to sleep instead of down in the basement with him.

"No, because that's my job."

She slid on top of him then, brushing her lips along his chest before going lower along his body. He reacted just as she (hopefully) wanted him to.

"You're supposed to be sleeping," he whispered as she closed on in her target.

"Blame my mom. She woke me up."

"Yeah, I'll get right on having that talk with her. When I'm dead."

She chuckled softly and slid her mouth over him. She groaned softly as she slid a hand to the base of him, stroking his sac as she was so fond of doing whenever she did this. He was pretty fond of it, too, because contrary to what most people seemed to realize it was nice to get all the parts that made him a man tended to.

He closed his eyes, running his fingers through her hair a bit as she used her mouth in all kinds of good ways. He loved the feel of her tongue working along his shaft and her hand stroking the base of him the way he showed her he liked it done. There wasn't a bad way necessarily, but there were ways that worked to the desired end result better than others. Clearly that was her intent here and he groaned softly at the idea of finishing in her mouth.

He loved when she did this yet hated it at the same time. It clouded things, made it more confusing to him as far as what she felt for and wanted from him. Her going down on him and making him come that way made it clear she wasn't wanting sex from him at this moment. He couldn't stay here all night as much as he'd like to. It just confused him. Was she doing this because she really wanted to? Or out of some sense of obligation or guilt that he was having sex with her with no strings. The no strings part was suspect to him. He was pretty sure strings were developing for both of them. He was just ready for them a lot sooner than she was.

She propped herself up against him a bit. He knew kneeling for this long wasn't comfortable for her back. She hadn't said so, she wasn't a complainer beyond telling him she felt fat (which was ridiculous, even him in his inexperience with pregnant women knew that wasn't the case).

He groaned a little less softly than he'd intended when he felt the evidence on his thigh that this was exciting her. That had never happened without some sort of stimulation or full-blown excitement on her part. These days the stimulation wasn't entirely necessary but the excitement was.

It didn't take him long to finish after that. What she was doing combined with the fact that it was turning her on just as well as it was him were enough to send him over the edge. It was hard to know when a woman was going down on you how much enjoyment they got out of it. Until tonight anyway.

She settled next to him on her left side, head against his thigh as she ran her hand along the length of him lightly.

"I didn't realize you liked doing that that much."

"Is that bad?" she whispered.

He chuckled.

"No, it's very good. Notice I came just as soon as I realized that."

"I did."

"I didn't hear an 'I'm sorry' out of you either."

"Because I'm not sorry?"

"That is very good to know"

"I'm tired of being sorry."

"That is also very good to know because there's nothing to be sorry for in anything we do." He dropped a hand to her head, touching her there. "Come here," he whispered.


"Because I should go."

"You wanted to stay until morning."

"Yeah, but if I fall asleep now after that delightfully unexpected treat I'm not going to want to wake up in four hours."

"I'm sorry."

"You just said you're done being sorry, sweetheart."

"That you feel you have to leave."

"Ah," he said. "Yeah, well, one day maybe."

"That'd be nice," she murmured and he knew she was close to drifting back to sleep again.


"Mm hmm."

"We'll work on it."


"I think our secret's out," he said with a chuckle. "But what could she say if we went somewhere for a weekend?"

"I can't leave the kids with her for a weekend, John."

"Bring them with. We could go somewhere in Wisconsin. I could teach Bill how to snowmobile, ski, or ice skate while you hang with Justin and drink hot chocolate in front of a fire."

"Really? That sounds nice."

"Yeah, you know, something fun, a break, before the baby comes."

"I'll think about it."


He stood from the bed then, hating to do it but he had to go. If he didn't leave now he was pretty damned sure he never would. He helped reposition her on the bed the way she needed to be. He worked the fastenings on the garter belt and slid it and her stockings off. He would've much rather removed them from her when she was awake, but maybe another time he'd get to. He just knew falling asleep with them on for the night couldn't be comfortable. He set them on the chair with her dress before setting the covers around her. He placed his hand against her belly for a minute. He sure had been quiet tonight, John wasn't sure if he'd just had one too many glass of champagne to where he didn't notice the kicks that usually accompanied her excitement.

He kissed her lightly before dressing and leaving her room. Her mom wasn't there in the hallway, waiting for him so he figured things were at least not terrible. He made his way down the stairs, closing the door behind him and checking to make sure it was secure as he'd done a few times now when leaving her house late like this.

Return to Top

***Chapter Fourteen***
Word Count: 6,337

She couldn't believe she was doing this. She was absolutely, totally insane. John was going to be here at any time, though, and their bags were packed so that meant she was doing it.

She and her mother had argued again. This one was a little lengthier than the argument on New Year's Eve had been. Oddly, her mother had not said much to her New Year's Day. She'd just told Claire to be certain she knew what she was doing for her sake and the sake of her kids.

Claire wasn't at all sure she knew what she was doing, but somehow during their phone call before bed the night of New Year's Day she'd agreed to go away with him one weekend. That was where they were going today as soon as he got here. He'd called her saying he was leaving his house about an hour ago, so he should be here any minute. He'd gotten done early as had been typically the case the past few months because of the weather. He still had elevators to service and repair, but there was no new construction going on requiring his services for installing new elevators.

Justin's car seat was with their things because they were taking John's SUV, which would handle the snow much better than Claire's car would.

Bill was beyond excited. John had told him the cabin they were going to had a snowmobile they could ride. He'd mentioned other things, too, but Bill had brightened up at the word snowmobile. Claire couldn't do any of the stuff. Oh, she imagined she could ice skate if she really wanted to, but she only would if Justin wanted to while Bill and John were doing whatever they were doing.

Both boys had already eaten so had Claire, though she was at the point where she couldn't eat much of anything anymore at one time. That was probably why her mother had stopped arguing with Claire after a while. She was six weeks from her due date her mom probably didn't think Claire was remotely interested in anything happening with John. She'd never talked to her mom about that aspect of pregnancy because she had absolutely no desire to know about her parents' sex life in any way shape or form.

Her mom answered the door. John had only seen her mom briefly since New Year's Eve when he'd come over on Wednesday nights between then and now.

"Hello, Mrs. Standish," he said and Claire could see the look of uncertainty in his eyes when she stepped into the hallway with Bill and Justin. They hadn't said more than a handful of words to one another since New Year's Eve either not that they'd ever had deep conversations before that night or anything. She could still tell that he was never sure if there was going to be a delayed tongue lashing aimed at him for that night one of these days.

"Have fun," she said, giving Bill and Justin hugs while John took their things out to his SUV. He came back, grabbing Justin's car seat.

"Come on, guys," John said. "Bill you can help me be sure I get Justin's seat put in right while your mom and grandma say good bye."

"You're sure you want to do this, Claire?" her mom asked.

"Yes, Mom. It's just a weekend away for some fun. The boys are going to love it, and so am I. I haven't had a weekend of doing nothing in so long."

"Just take it easy you don't want the baby to come early."

She'd almost be grateful if the baby came early at this point. She was so over being pregnant. He or she was making it more and more difficult for her to breathe every day, which she knew was supposed to happen but God it was just so much worse this go around.

"I'm not going to do anything, Mom. I'm going to sit with Justin while Bill and John do things. Maybe we'll go for a walk to the lake or something, but that's all I'm going to do. I figured it'd be good for Bill, you know," Claire shrugged.

"He's not Dan you know."

"Mother. I'm fully aware who he is and isn't. I'm not trying to make him into anything else. He offered to spend the time with Bill. Who am I to say no? Scott can't be the only man in his life."

"Well, that's true, but I really wish…"

"Yeah, I know what you wish, Mom. I'm sorry, okay. No one from here is going to see me with John at his friend's cabin in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. So unless you tell people I went off for a weekend with him no one will know."

"Bill will tell people."

"Sure, Bill will tell his friends that his mom's friend took him to a cabin where he got to snowmobile, ice skate, build a fire in a real fireplace, and toast marshmallows over that fire. How is that bad?" She sighed softly, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Mom, I know this bothers you. I'm not doing anything wrong! I'm not running off and marrying him. It's a weekend."

"I know," her mother said.

"We'll be back Sunday night."

"Be safe."

"We will."

Her mom stepped outside onto the porch with Claire and watched them as John pulled out of the driveway.

"So, am I in trouble?" John asked.

Bill giggled in the backseat.

"What's so funny?" John asked.

"You can't get in trouble."

"Why not?"

"Because you're an adult."

"I guess you have a point," John said.

"No, she'll be fine."

"And you?"

"I'll be fine, too."

"Okay then," he said, driving out of her neighborhood.

It was a little over a three hour drive to where they were going. She hadn't been north of the Dells in ages. There was seldom any reason to go further. When she and Scott were little her mom would bring them up to Baraboo and a store that sold all sorts of cheeses and stuff, but that was the last time she could remember going beyond the Dells.

They'd stopped in the Dells for some groceries. Claire was kind of excited to cook it'd been so long since she had because her mom did all the cooking at the house. Claire tried to help, but her mom's kitchen was her mom's kitchen and Claire's help wasn't needed. She'd been much the same way in her house so she understood the feeling of not wanting someone else messing with her things.

"Wow," she said when he pulled up in front of the cabin.

"I told you it was nice," he said.

"Yeah, I know, but this is way nicer than I was thinking."

"Well, I told you he had seven brothers and sisters growing up."

"I know, but I just figured the rooms were real tiny."

He chuckled. Evidently his friend's parents didn't want the responsibility of the upkeep on the cabin any longer. His friend Greg was the only one of the seven kids (sadly, one of Greg's brother's passed away when he was a child) who wanted the responsibility. All of the kids were able to use it if they wanted to, but the property was Greg's to do with as he wanted.

"You've been here before?"

"Yeah. He invited a few of us up here a couple of falls ago to go deer hunting."

"You went hunting?"

"I sat around and drank mostly. I have no real interest in killing something I'm not going to eat."

"Do you fish?"

"Sure. I can clean a fish with the best of them."


"Yes, really. Too down and dirty for you?"

"No, just wondering."

"You've never been?"

"Fishing? Uh, no."

"Hunting either, I imagine."

"No," she said, shaking her head.

"Well, just think if we get stranded up here I'll at least be able to feed us."

"Ha ha. That's not even remotely funny."

"Oh come on, it's pretty funny."

"You going to deliver a baby, too?"

"Uh no, that probably exceeds my area of comfort. There something you need to share with me that you're asking me that question?"

She laughed softly. "No, I'm fine. We're fine."

"That's good because yeah, that would probably freak me out."

"Delivering a baby."

"No, I mean, well, yeah, but no you needing to do that now."

"Well, it could happen pretty much anytime. Another couple of weeks and we're considered term and wouldn't be premature if born."

"Well, a couple of weeks isn't this weekend."

"No," she said.

He came around to her side, helping her out of the SUV. He did that pretty much anytime he drove anymore. She'd lost her footing the weekend after New Year's and almost fell. Since then he hadn't let her get in or out without him there. Her shoe had been wet!

"Do you need me to get Justin?"

"No, I can get him."

"Oh, I know you can."

"I'm fine, thank you, really."

He helped Bill out of the SUV then while she got Justin and followed him to the door.

"So, just how good of a friend is this person to you?"

"Pretty good. I don't know. I went to his house on New Year's Day to watch the Bears game. They have a party every New Year's Day. His wife makes the best bloody Mary's I think I've ever had in my life."

"Ah. It's nice of him to let you use the cabin."

"He's a nice guy. He said they had no plans to use it."

"Does he know there are going to be kids here?"

"He has kids so it's okay."

"Oh," she said. "I thought you said you weren't around kids."

"I'm not, not really. I mean, I go to their house, sure but the kids are down in the basement or something not hanging around the grownups so I don't pay them any attention."


He unlocked the door and took a minute to find the light switch.

"Bill, boots off," she said.

"Yes, Mommy," he said, sitting on the bench there to take them off.

Justin hadn't walked anywhere so his weren't wet but she set him on the same bench and removed his boots, hat, and coat setting them and his mittens there, too.

"There's a bedroom downstairs with bunk beds, maybe they'd like that room?"

"Is it too cold down there?"

"Greg had a neighbor come by Thursday and kick the heat up to a livable temperature so it should be fine down there."

"Okay, do you want to go check it out, Bill?"

"Sure," he said, sliding his coat and hat off, too. He followed John in what she presumed was the direction of the basement. Once Justin woke up a bit and had his wits about him they followed Bill and John.

"Mommy, there's a pool table."

"I see that."

"John said if I'm very careful I could play."

"Sure, but he's right you have to be careful not to scratch the material or it ruins the whole table and it's very expensive to replace."

"Did Mommy have a pool table growing up?" John asked.

"Yes, we did, and Scott had a party once and someone did exactly what I'm warning Bill about and my dad was furious. Scott had no idea who it was who'd done it so we couldn't really accuse anyone or make them pay for it."

"Right. Nice friends."

"They were sixteen."

"Drinking I suppose?"

"Yes," Claire said.

"All right, Bill and Justin, the room is this way. If you don't like it we can find another one, I'm sure, but Greg says the bunk beds are pretty comfortable."

"I've always wanted bunk beds," Bill admitted.

"You have?"

"Yes, Mommy said we could have them at the old house, but now I don't think we'll get them."

"Why not?"

Bill glanced from Claire to John as if looking to her for the answer.

"Because the baby will already have its own bedroom so they don't need bunk beds," Claire said.

"Oh," John said. "Well, see here, you can sleep in bunk beds tonight and tomorrow."

John and Bill made the bunk beds up with sheets John found in the dresser in the bedroom. Claire took the opportunity to look around the basement with Justin. It was too early to put him to bed yet. Even with traffic leaving the city they'd still gotten here before nine o'clock. Justin had dozed off so she knew he wouldn't go right back down anyway.

"Now," John said. "There are nightlights in the hall. Your bathroom is right here. You don't need to go over there," he said gesturing to the other direction of the hallway. "It's just more bedrooms. All the cool stuff is in the main room just like in your grandma's basement."

"Do you sleep down here when you come here?" Bill asked.

"I have. I've slept upstairs, too, a couple of times when I was the first one here besides my friend Greg anyway."

"Cool," Bill said.

"Do you want something to eat before you settle down for bed?" Claire asked.

"Sure," Bill said.

"Okay, let's go then. You're sure you're going to be all right down here?"

"Yeah," he said.

Justin didn't seem to care, but that was normal at his age. The nightlights seemed pretty bright, so she imagined they'd be able to find their way upstairs if they needed to easily enough.

She made them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, splitting it in half because she knew neither of them were that hungry. They'd eaten before they'd left her mom's house. A glass of milk each and she told them to go downstairs.

"I'll get it," John said when she went to grab their small suitcase.

"I'm perfectly capable."

"I know you are. I'm still doing it. The purpose of this weekend is you relaxing."

"Lifting a suitcase…"

"Is not relaxing. Come on," he said, leading her downstairs. He set the suitcase in the bedroom the boys were sleeping in. He watched from the doorway as she handed each of them their toothbrush and some toothpaste. They darted past him to the bathroom.

"Sorry," she said.

"For what?"

"They should've excused themselves."

"They're kids, they're excited. It's all right."

They came back a few minutes later and Claire helped Justin into his Batman pajamas while Bill got into his own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas by himself. She grabbed a book from the suitcase and sat on the bottom bunk with Justin and read to them for a little while.

She closed the book once she'd finished it, setting it in the suitcase. She gave Justin a good night kiss, squeezing Bill's hand as an alternative since she couldn't reach him on the top bunk right now.

"That went pretty well," John said.

"I was kind of surprised myself."

"How many times have you read that story?"

"I've lost count it's been so many."

"Justin likes it."

"Bill did, too. I think he still does, but he's too old for it now."

"Of course. What seven year old wants his mommy to read to him?"


"So is Mommy ready for bed, too?"

"I don't think quite yet. Why?"

"Well, I could build a fire if you wanted."

"You're just full of surprises. Fishing and building fires."

"Okay, smart ass. It's a fireplace. I'm not doing it with like a piece of flint and a magnifying glass or anything."

She smiled at that. "Better be glad Bill didn't hear you say that or he'd inform you that you called me a bad word."

"I did. I'm sorry."

"You don't look very sorry."

"What can I say? I just have one of those faces."

She followed him upstairs.

"You've never built a fire before?"

"No. What possible reason would I have to build one?"

"You had a fireplace at your place in New York."

"Yeah, we never used it. We tried I think the winter we first moved in there and it hadn't been used in years so we couldn't get the flue open and it made a huge mess when we tried."

"Your landlord probably could've paid to get it unplugged."

"It wasn't a big deal."

"Huh," he said. "You want me to show you?"

"Sure," she said.

It took him a little while to get it going, but it was because he showed her step-by-step what she needed to do.

"It's not the greatest. Tomorrow I'll do better for Bill and Justin," he said.

"I don't deserve the greatest?"

"I bet they've never seen a real fire before. That gas fireplace your parents have doesn't count. No offense."

"None taken and no, they haven't."

"Their first fire should be the greatest."

They settled on the floor against the couch nearest the fireplace. John had gotten himself a beer where Claire had a bottle full of water. She drank more water than she probably should've been, but she was constantly thirsty anymore.

They were quiet, just sitting together watching the fire. It was nice. The house was quiet aside from the furnace, which had to be in the basement from where the sound was coming from. There was no traffic outside, the lake was frozen over so there was no waves, and it was too late at night for the snowmobilers to be out. His hand was resting against her stomach. She thought it was kind of cute he did that, even if he didn't realize he was doing it any longer. He liked feeling the baby's movements.

"So, I applied at Northwestern."

"What?" he asked.

"I applied at Northwestern," she repeated.


"Yes," she said. "I talked to Mom about babysitting and how she'd feel about the four of us being with her for the next couple of years so that I could do it."

"I take it she agreed."

"She did." Her mom had actually happily agreed. She had to say she hadn't seen her mom that happy about something Claire had told her in a while. John wasn't the reason for that. Claire wondered if the conversation she'd had with her dad about Dan and a possible divorce had been shared with her mother. She didn't ask, her mother would never say, but Claire knew that there tended to not be secrets like that between husbands and wives. Claire knew about all of Dan's friends, more than she probably needed to know.

"I knew she would. When do you find out?"

"Well, it certainly should be just a formality. I had a 3.7 GPA at Michigan, but I should know in a couple of months. I asked Nancy, Nancy O'Mara, if she'd write a letter of reference for me to go with the application just in case since it's been a few years since I've been out of school."

"For the fall, I presume?"


"The job?"

"Assuming I get accepted I'll talk to the principal. I won't need to work. Mom has said she'll pay for whatever we need until I graduate."

"You knew she would."

"It doesn't mean I feel right about it."

"No, I'd worry if you did, but your mom wants you to be in a good position, better than a teacher's salary. So do I. You and your kids deserve so much better. Dan and your dad left you some money, they'd want you to use it to establish good roots not just get by."

"I know. I was thinking of seeing if the hospital there has a daycare, you know for their staff. Maybe I could work there part-time around my school schedule. I mean it'd be something. The campus may even have one, I don't know."


He kissed the top of her head, sliding his hand away from her belly to drape his other arm around her to gather her closer.

"I'm glad, sweetheart. If nothing else your kids need to see you do what you want to do not what you had to do to make do."

"Thank you for planting the idea."

"You're welcome. You know," he said.


"My house is only like thirty minutes from Northwestern."

"Yeah, I know that."

"You do?"


"That means maybe you could stay late after class and visit me?"

"You'll be working!"

"I suppose I will," he said with a soft sigh.

"I doubt they're going to have any night classes available for what I'd need to take, but maybe they will and I could keep teaching for a while."

"Claire, if you don't need the money, why do that to yourself? You're going to be going to school with three kids one of which is going to be a newborn baby. Take a couple of years off to be a mom and a student. Get your work done so you can do better than 3.7."

"3.7 is about as close to perfect as I could get!"

"Yeah, I still say you could have gotten perfect. You're smart enough."

"Thank you."

"Since we're confessing things."

"Yes," she said.

"Amanda thinks you're after my house."


He chuckled.

"Yeah, one of the guys in her office who I got to be sort of friends with overheard her talking after the party."

"Why on earth would I be after your house?"

"I'm not sure. Because it's a nice house?"

"Doesn't she know that my husband just died?"

"She does."

"Anything else I should know?"

"No, that's about it, I guess. You're using me for my house."

"If only she knew!"

"Other men should be so lucky to not have to worry about getting taken to the cleaners for the kind of sex we have."

"I think you have to be married for the sex to do any harm."

"Oh, you'd be surprised if longevity and living together starts being factored in."

"I'm not living with you."

"I know that. My friend knows that and told her that. I think she might have been jealous."

Claire scoffed. "Of what?"

"You, sweetheart. I'm not sure she'd be functioning the way you are right now if she was in your position. She's an absolute perfectionist. Everything has to be done this way. She washed her car twice a week because she couldn't risk a potential buyer thinking she didn't know how to take care of her car. I picked up her dry cleaning for her once because she was on the other side of town and I could do it. The instructions they had to follow for one blouse. Soft press, roll the cuffs, and on and on. It was crazy."

"You went out with her!"

"Well, yeah, I didn't know these things at first. We started out meeting for drinks. She's nice, personable, and obviously attractive."


"So are you, sweetheart, and that's why I think she's jealous. That you can have kids and still be attractive. They'd throw her life too off-kilter I think, you know?"

"I do."

"I was told by someone that we looked nice together."

"At the party?"


"Hmm. Why?"

"I don't know. I didn't ask. I could still ask them if you want to know."

"No, I was just curious."

"I imagine it's because we actually like one another and I think the fact we've gotten to know one another as well as we have the past couple of months. Well, I think it shows that we like one another. And I don't mean that in a romantic way, don't worry, I don't think anyone thinks I'm idiotic enough to hit on a pregnant widow."

"Ha!" she said.

"Right? If only they know, but don't worry you're secret is safe with me. I haven't told a soul."

"I do like you."

"I know, sweetheart."

"I'm sorry I can't give you more."

"When you're ready, I'm in no hurry."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

It was close to midnight by the time the fire started going out. He hadn't put more than a couple of logs on, knowing neither of them were going to be up all night. They'd spent an hour or so talking about things. Nothing in particular. It was nice. He talked about some work things and so did she. He was more interested in hearing about her work than he was talking about his work. He liked hearing her stories for some reason. She suspected he liked hearing her reaction, how she handled the so-called trouble students because he'd been one of those himself.

He helped her up and she saw concern in his eyes when she struggled to do that. She was just so off balance anymore, but he'd just never understand what she meant so she didn't bother explaining too deeply.

"I'll finish putting this out and be in in a second."

"Okay," she said.

She got ready for bed and pulled the covers back. She wondered if his friend's friend who came in to turn the heat up had made the bed, too, or if they left it this way. They must just leave this one this way because John and Bill had had to make the bunk beds downstairs.

"Whatcha thinking about?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said, sliding into bed. She groaned softly because it felt wonderful to be laying down, completely off her feet and everything.

"You okay?"

"Yes, it just feels nice."

"I'll be right there."

"Okay," she said.

She rolled onto her side, regarding the room. It was a nice room. A woman had obviously decorated it because the bedspread and the curtains had a floral print on them. The lamps on either side of the bed were antique and also had a floral print on them. The paintings on the wall were nice, but very obviously feminine as well. Greg's wife seemed to like flowers. Claire couldn't blame her. There was something about flowers even in something like a painting or on a lamp that just brightened a room.

"Greg must really love his wife," she said.

"Why?" he asked when he came out of the bathroom.

"There isn't a manly thing about this room."

He chuckled. "I guess. Notice there's not a flower or pastel downstairs, though."

"I guess you're right. The guys hang out down there while she's stuck in here reading or watching TV?"

"Something like that."

"At least he brings her with."

"Yeah, he does. They're kind of a set, where one goes the other does, too."

"That's nice."

"It used to drive some of us crazy, but we've gotten used to it."

She laughed softly. "I bet it did."

"It wouldn't anymore, though, to me at least."


"I don't know, you've made me see things a little differently than I used to. You know you actually had me wondering for a while there if I was somehow enabling my married friends to cheat. Go out for beers with me and use that as an excuse or a way to see someone else."

"I'm sorry if I made you think like that."

"No, that's probably good for me, because honestly I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who did that."

"Says the man who doesn't want to get married."

"Sure, but that doesn't mean I think people who do get married should cheat. You make that commitment, that promise, you should keep it."

"I agree."

"I know you do, and I'm sorry you didn't get that back, and I completely understand that there's a part of you somewhere deep down in your heart that still feels married."

"I do."

"I hate that part because I feel guilty, like I'm doing something wrong, too, you know? Violating his memory somehow."

"You're not."

"Thank you."

"I don't feel married. It's just I guess I haven't gotten used to the fact that I'm not. I've been married since before I could drink. I'm not really sure I know how to be anything else."

"You'll do fine."

He trailed a hand along her hip. She always loved the way he touched her. His hands weren't soft and smooth like Dan's had been. Dan hadn't done a hard day's work in his life. Even acting he'd never had to do anything manual behind the scenes like hammer a nail or anything. John used his every day and had been since she had no idea when because she knew he'd helped his dad around the house and on their car.

"Is this what you wear to bed every night?"

"No, usually I just wear shorts and a t-shirt that still fits."

"You didn't buy this for me, did you?"

"No," she admitted, though maybe she wasn't supposed to. "It's old, but I haven't worn it in," she sighed. "I wore it once when I was pregnant with Bill."

"And never again?"

"No," she said.

He slid the covers off of her then so he could look at her.

"God he was an asshole. I'm sorry. I think that every fucking time I'm with you. You look at me as if you expect me to reject you or to suddenly find you unattractive. I really hate that look in your eye because I wonder if I've done something to put it there, add to your doubt about how you look."

"You haven't."

"Who gave it to you?"

She sighed softly as he slid a hand up along her hip to cup one of her breasts. He slid lower on the bed, taking the other one in his mouth without even bothering to move the fabric aside. She cried out in response.

"My friend, um, Monica," she said.

"Monica obviously knew what she was shopping for."

"I think you just like seeing me in things that show off my chest."

"I won't argue with that because it's a very, very nice chest."

"It is not."

"It is, too."

"Just wait."

"Yeah, I know, the kid gets all the fun then."

"He does."

"And honestly, I like things you wear showing me that you're a woman."

"Well, what else would they show?"

"I don't know, you don't hide what you are. I like that a lot."

"I don't think I could hide what I am this time around anyway."

He chuckled softly, sliding lower along the bed to her stomach. He grazed his thumbs along her there, brushing his cheek against her belly before helping her prop some pillows under her. He had no idea how good him going down on her felt right now. She slid her calves along his hips, wrapping her feet around him as he settled between her legs to do just that. He had to be as tired as she was so he was not as thorough as he usually was when he used his mouth on her, but she finished just the same so she didn't mind he stopped a little sooner than he usually liked to.

She moved onto her hands and knees, propping the pillow under her before he slid inside of her. He always knew what she was in the mood for. Sometimes she didn't want him as deep as others. He said she gave off signals. She had no idea what that meant, but tonight she wanted deep and he knew that from his first thrust inside of her. He slid his hand under the nightgown she was wearing, pushing it up as he worked his way toward her breast. She stopped being embarrassed at how easily they reacted to him anymore. It seemed all she had to do was think about sex with him and they started leaking. She hadn't told him that because there were times she thought of him places she had no business thinking about him, like in the cafeteria at school with kids around.

Ever since the night she'd put some on her own finger and used it on herself he'd done that regularly. It turned him on for some reason. She wasn't sure why and she certainly didn't mind it because it wasn't getting used for anything else right now anyway.

"Why are you so horny today, sweetheart?"

"I don't know."

"It's really coming out."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. Don't you dare I've just never felt this much."

She shrugged, gasping as he drew his hand away and brought it to his mouth. She couldn't see what he was doing, but she knew he was tasting it and she clenched around him in response.

"Hmm, you like that?"

"Uh huh."

He did it again and she pressed against him as he thrust into her. She let out a loud gasp at how deep he went with that one.

"You okay?"

"Uh huh."

"You need me to stop?"

"God, no."

He chuckled then, settling his hand against her hip so he could concentrate on moving in and out of her the way she wanted him to. Or at least that was what he seemed to be doing, because he was there, pressing into her she grabbed one of the spare pillows on the bed to muffle her groans a bit. He pulled out then, almost all the way out of her and she murmured softly in protest.

"Fuck," he whispered. "You are so incredibly wet right now."

"You don't think I know that! You're supposed to be fixing that."

"Fixing it?"

"Yes! Make it stop!"

"I don't ever want it to stop, sweetheart, but for now maybe for a little while."

"John, please."

He didn't talk again until long after he'd finished inside of her.

"Uh Claire," he said from the bathroom after he'd finally gotten up from the bed.

"Yeah?" she murmured.

"You're sure you're okay?"

"Yes, why?"

"I, uh, I think you maybe should come in here so I can see you're really okay."


"Just come here, please."

"Okay," she said, getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom. "Why wouldn't I be okay?"

"I'm pretty sure that's blood."

"It happens sometimes."

"It hasn't ever before."

"Yes, it has."

"Claire, I'd remember seeing blood on me."

"Maybe not on you, but the past couple of weeks it happens when you are that deep in me."

"Jesus, and you let me do that!?"

"It feels good."


"I asked my doctor after the first time! She said it was fine as long as there's no cramps or anything and there haven't been. She said something about the blood vessels thinning so they burst easier or something."

She leaned into the shower then, turning it on and sliding her nightgown up and over her head, dropping it on the floor by the tub.

"What are you doing?"

"Going to clean you off," she said, grabbing his hand and bringing him into the shower with her. He came willingly, of course, because she wasn't in a position to force him. She took the soap that was there and slid it along his body, before lathering it up in her hands and cleaning him off there. The shower had washed the blood away by now anyway. There hadn't been a lot. If he'd gone to the bathroom without a light on he probably wouldn't have noticed it.

He slid his arms around her then, holding her tight against him and she sighed softly.

"That scared the shit out of me."

"I'm sorry."

"I love you, you know that, right? Do you know how absolutely awful I'd feel if I did something to hurt you or him or her."

"I know. You're not. He's just lower now, you know, so I think there's more pressure there when you slide in as deep as you do. I like you that way."

"I like me that way, too, but a little warning might have been nice."

"It had just been some spotting before like during the night afterward I didn't know it'd do that!"

"Hmm. Maybe I was a little rougher than I usually am. I probably got a little carried away knowing I didn't have to leave right away when we were finished. That I'll wake up with you in the morning and be able to do it again. I'll be more careful. I like the idea of being in a bed with you and being able to actually sleep with you afterward I guess."

"I like it, too."

"I'm good now, thank you for the shower."

She giggled softly.

"You're welcome."

"Now let's get you to bed. I'll get Bill and Justin their breakfast in the morning. You sleep until you can't anymore."

"Well, that's no fun."

"You're here to get some much needed rest," he said, shutting the shower off. She found them both towels and handed him one.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing. I guess I've just never really taken the time to look at you before."


"No. It's always been dark or the lights have been really low."


"I like what I see, John."

"That makes me very happy, sweetheart."

"I can see that."

"Yeah, well, he obviously likes you looking."

"I guess he does."

"You're okay? No cramps?"

"I'm fine. I'd tell you, I promise."

"Yeah, well, there's feeling good, Claire, and there's maybe a line we shouldn't be crossing right now."

"I can't help it!"

"No, I guess you can't. I can, though. I'll be more careful."

She picked her nightgown up from the floor and he stilled her hand.

"Don't put that back on."


"When I get up I'll put it back on you. Until then, one night I want you next to me just like that."

"Okay," she said, blushing deeply.

"Yeah, he never wanted you sleeping naked either I guess."


"I do. If you were sleeping with me every night I guarantee you as nice as that is you'd never need it."

She followed him to the bed and got in again, drawing the covers around them. He kissed her shoulder as she settled against him.

"Good night, sweetheart."

"Good night."

Return to Top

***Chapter Fifteen***
Word Count: 7,385

John woke up earlier than he needed to. He hadn't asked Claire where the kids would think he was sleeping, but he knew being found together probably wasn't a good idea. It snowed a bit during the night but it hadn't accumulated much. His SUV had a light dusting of snow sticking to it, but that was about all.

As it wasn't his house there wasn't a whole lot for him to do being awake when no one else was. At his place there'd be tons to do. Here, though, well, about the only thing he could come up with was cleaning out the fireplace from the small fire they'd had last night. Greg had a bucket by the fireplace to collect the ashes.

There was a small partial ring of plastic on the carpet in front of the fireplace from when Greg scooped the ashes into a bucket too soon after the fire went out, melting the bucket. The bucket they had now was metal so that wouldn't happen again, but John still chuckled when he stepped on the melted piece of plastic imbedded in the carpet as a result of that mistake. Honestly, Greg was lucky he'd been here to notice it or it could've been pretty serious.

It was still funny, though.

Bill was the first to come up the stairs not long after John had finished in the fireplace. John heard the footsteps, chuckling softly at the uneven gait of the boy climbing up the stairs. He started up a couple of stairs and then stopped, started again and then stopped. John wondered if the boy wasn't sure it was okay to be out of bed yet. One disadvantage to the basement was there were only very small windows down there so it was difficult to tell exactly what time of day it was, especially during the winter like this when it was kind of a gray day to begin with.

"Good morning," John said.

"Morning," he said, sounding like he was still half asleep. Maybe he was.

"Is your brother still sleeping?"

"Mm hmm," he said.

"Do you want to still be sleeping?"

He shook his head.

"All right. Your mom is still sleeping."

"Really?" he asked, sounding surprised. John imagined he probably was. He knew Claire didn't get enough rest not to mention sleep. She was awake until after ten most nights and up before six every day. Anyone who thought being a teacher was easy didn't realize how much time went into things like grading papers, lesson plans, and working on tests.

"Yes," he said. "Are you, uh," he paused. What the hell was he supposed to say? "Supposed to get dressed right away or are you allowed to hang out in your pajamas for a while?"

"I can stay in them until after I eat."

"All right. I was going to make you and your brother some pancakes and eggs so you can stay in them until that happens I guess."

"I like pancakes."

"Yeah? Me, too," he said. He didn't know a kid who didn't like pancakes. "Do you like eggs?"


"Good. Bacon and sausage?"


"Well, then you'll eat just fine. Your mom bought some good stuff for us to eat while we're here at the store last night."

She hadn't bought a lot, knowing they'd be getting in too late last night to eat anything and would be leaving before dinner Sunday. They could bring the stuff home with them that they didn't finish. About the only thing he could imagine being left might be the eggs. Greg had told him to help himself to anything in the cabinets they wanted, just to let him know if they took anything so they'd know it was gone for their next trip up.

John had spotted the Bisquick in the freezer last night when putting the ice cream away they'd bought. He'd taken it out, figuring it'd make for a good breakfast in the morning.

"So," John said. "It's Saturday. We could go downstairs and see if there are some cartoons on."

"You watch cartoons?"

"Sure," John said with a shrug. He hadn't in years, but he didn't dislike them or anything. "The Ninja Turtles might be on. You like them, huh?"


"Who's your favorite?"



"Who's yours?"

"I don't know them well enough to pick a favorite, but if you like Raphael he must be pretty cool."

"He is. My friend Tommy likes Dona…"


He knew crap about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but he did know they were named after famous artists. He didn't know a lot about art or artists, but he knew who Raphael and Donatello were.

"Yeah, him better."

"My friend, the one whose cabin this is, he's got a son about your age. He likes Two Stupid Dogs. Do you watch that?"

"I've seen it."

"Yeah? I've heard my friend talk about it, it sounds kind of funny."

"The TV is downstairs?"

"Yup, there's one upstairs, too," John said, gesturing to the stairs leading to the loft. "We'll go down, though, so Justin doesn't wonder where everyone is when he wakes up."


John followed him down the stairs. The uneven gait he'd noticed coming up the stairs was gone now, so John imagined it was more an uncertainty of his surroundings and whether he should go walking around than anything else.

He turned the TV on. He had no idea what the channels were up here, so he just started flipping through the channels until Bill told him to stop.

"Captain Planet, huh," John said.

"Yes. I like him."

"Yeah? All right then," John said, setting the remote down on the arm of the couch next to him.

Justin didn't sleep too much longer. He came out of the room and climbed up onto the couch with John and Bill to watch the end of the cartoon Bill had turned on after Captain Planet had finished.

"You guys hungry? You can stay down here and keep watching while I get stuff ready."

"Sure," Bill said.

Justin leaned in toward Bill then.

"Will, nicely," Justin whispered. Well, he tried to whisper. He probably thought he was whispering, but John heard him say his brother's name pretty clearly.

"Yes, Sir," Bill said and John chuckled. "Sorry."

"It's all right." John supposed he shouldn't say it was, because that was undermining what Claire was trying to teach them. He sighed. "Please would work pretty well, though, instead of sir."

"Yes, please," Bill and Justin both said.

John couldn't remember hearing Justin say Bill's name before and wondered if he always called him Will. He had no idea and wasn't sure it was something he should ask Claire or not. What he knew about kids and how they learned to talk was nothing.

He went upstairs then, finding what he needed in the kitchen to make breakfast. Watching cartoons hadn't been that bad. He'd expected for some reason for Bill to be all over the place, hyper. Maybe he had been around the wrong kids or he'd just been around the right kids at the wrong time, but younger kids always seemed so busy. Part of the reason John stayed away, he didn't do well with people who needed his undivided attention, big or little people.

He fried up the bacon and sausage, figuring whatever they didn't eat this morning could be heated up later or tomorrow morning. Then he made pancakes and last fried up eggs. He hadn't asked how they liked their eggs, but he felt safe in making them scrambled eggs.

He thought about letting them eat downstairs, but decided against it because of the pancakes and syrup. Had it just been the eggs he wouldn't have had a problem doing it.

"All right, guys, come on up," he said, just as Claire came into the living room.

"It smells delicious," she said.

"Yeah?" He leaned in and kissed her lightly since the boys hadn't started up the stairs yet.

"It does."

"You going to join us?"

"I was hoping there would be enough for me."

"There is for sure," he said. He tapped her stomach lightly. "Even enough for that one, too."

"That's good to know."

"You okay?"

"Yes, fine."

"You're sure?"

She blushed. "I'm fine."

"All right. Did you sleep all right?"

"I slept great. I can't believe what a difference closing that shade made."

"I'm glad," he said.

He'd woken her up before getting out of bed. Despite what had happened last night he'd needed to be inside of her this morning. He wouldn't have blamed her for saying no, but she hadn't. He was more careful this time, going much slower and not nearly as deep as he had last night. She hadn't seemed too happy about that, but he didn't care what she said seeing even the remote traces of blood it had been on his dick scared the crap out of him. There were places blood just weren't supposed to be. That part of him was one of them.

"What did you do with your morning?"

"Nothing really. Just sat, looking at the lake," he said.

"It's beautiful. I can't wait to walk down there with Justin later."

"Just be careful. I don't want you falling while Bill and I are gone."

"I will be, don't worry."

"I worry. You tell me your balance is a little off. There are rocks and stuff down there."

"I know. I will be careful, John. Really. I've done this before."

"Yeah, you have and I haven't. I get it. I'm no expert." He walked to the stairway leading to the basement then. "Hey, guys, should your mom and I eat all of the breakfast or what?"

"Coming," they both said in unison and he shook his head a little at how similar they sounded.

"John, I didn't mean it…"

"Yeah, I know what you meant. I'm sorry for being concerned I guess that exceeds the limits of our arrangement. Don't worry about it."

"No, that's not it. Don't do this now, please. I will be careful. I'm always careful. I was just saying it's not like I haven't walked around this far along in the winter before."


She sighed and he saw tears in her eyes that she tried to hide as soon as she heard footsteps on the stairs indicating the boys were finally coming upstairs to eat.

"Thank you for worrying," she said softly. "You realize though he or she is pretty protected. If I fell or something he'd be okay."

"You think that's what I'm worried about? The baby? I mean, I am, sure, I wouldn't be human I don't think if that didn't pass through my mind. I don't want to have to bring you home to your mother's house having fallen or something."

"I know," she said.

The kids were sitting at the big table off the kitchen. It wasn't really a dining room since the whole first floor aside from the bedrooms was open and the kitchen was right there. With eight kids and a husband to feed, Greg's mom hadn't wanted to go far with food when they were little he imagined.

They ate and Claire went downstairs to get Justin dressed while Bill did the same thing. John came down a little while later and unlocked a door in the hallway of the basement he was pretty sure none of them had even noticed was there until he did.

"Why does it have a lock?" Bill asked.

"Because there's tons of stuff in here. Hunting and fishing stuff. Some of it could be dangerous if a kid got a hold of it. Or even the wrong adult. People know cabins like these aren't lived in all year long and know what the owners likely have inside of them. They built the door like this, flush into the paneling, so people would hopefully keep going. They've kept pretty much everything there was to keep over the years. Ice skates, snowmobile suits, and everything else you can imagine. With eight kids and grandkids they've accumulated a lot of stuff."

"What's that mean?" Bill asked.

"They have lots of different sized stuff. I'm pretty sure we'll be able to find a snowmobile suit to fit you."

"Oh," he said, brightening at that.

"You mentioned ice skating," he said to Claire, pointing at the shelves containing more ice skates than he'd ever seen in one place. "Help yourself. There should be some Justin's size, too. Greg says he was skating almost before he could run so I'm sure they have little sizes for Justin."

He wasn't sure how well she would be able to ice skate if she couldn't stay properly balanced with her feet planted on the ground, but he wasn't going to make that mistake again. If she wanted to ice skate who the hell was he to tell her no? He gathered what he and Bill would need for their ride.

She hadn't grabbed skates for herself he noticed and he felt a little better about that.

Claire helped Bill get ready first.

"You're surprisingly calm about me taking him on a snowmobile," he said.

"I trust you," she said with a shrug. "Besides, he's been looking forward to it since you first mentioned it. I couldn't say no to him now. He deserves something fun."

"So does his mom."

"I'm not a little boy who's lost his dad."

"No, I guess you're not. No skates for you?" he asked against his better judgment.

"No, I figure I can walk with him at the pace he'll go today anyway."

"Thank you," he said.

She smiled a little at that.

"You're welcome. You had visions of coming back here to me being sprawled out on the lake with Justin sitting there crying, didn't you?"

"Yes! He wouldn't be much help if you fell and broke your ankle or something."

"I know. I thought about that and I want you and Bill to have a good time. I don't want you worrying about me. I'll be fine. I promise."

"All right," he said.

Claire checked Bill one last time to be sure he was dressed and everything was closed up and zipped, all extremities covered.

"You listen to John and do whatever he says. If he tells you to sit still you listen immediately."

"I know, Mommy."

"All right. If you get cold or anything you need to tell John so he can stop."

"I can go now?"

"Yes. Have fun."

John helped him onto the snowmobile, checking to be sure he was secure. He wasn't going to go far with him. He didn't know the area well enough to go on the longer trails that led very far from here. He did know if he kept the lake on the same side of as when they left they'd be all right.

"Why are we stopping?" Bill asked a while later once John had slid his helmet off.

"I figured you could use some hot chocolate or something. You all right? You haven't complained about being cold once."

He'd stopped more than once to be sure he was doing okay and not scared or anything. John didn't go real fast, but there were no seatbelts and there were bumps and rough patches of snow that he was sure could be a little frightening to someone not used to it.

"But it's a grownup place."

"It is, but it's lunchtime, and it's one of the only places around here so anyone can go in there."

"Even me?"

"Even you. Now if hot chocolate doesn't sound good…"

"Yes, Sir, it does," he said.

"Good. Come on then," he said.

John ordered Bill a hot chocolate and some chicken strips because he said he was hungry. John was kind of hungry himself so he ordered a burger and a glass of Coke.

"So you like snowmobiling so far?"

"Yes, Sir."

"You're not cold?"

"A little, but it's fun I don't mind."

"Do you think Justin is having fun ice skating?"

"He'll probably fall a bunch."

"Probably. Your mom said you play hockey."


"You know when we get back if you want to find some skates that fit you we could."

"Sure," he said.

"What else did you do? Baseball?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Is your mom going to register you for Little League this summer?"

"I think so."

"That's good."

"Did you play?"

"No," he said.

"Why not?"

"I didn't have a mom like yours."

"What kind of mom did you have?"

John shrugged. How to explain it to a seven year old? He wasn't sure. "She didn't," he paused. He had to remember he was talking to a kid. "There are good moms, the ones like the one you have. There aren't so good moms. I had that kind."

"I'm sorry."

"Me, too, but you're lucky and I can tell you as a guy who knows what it's like not to be lucky."

"You don't like your mom?"

"That's a pretty tough question to answer. It's hard to like someone who's supposed to be nice to you and isn't."

"There's a girl at school I think she has one of those moms."

"Oh?" he asked.

"She never comes to anything. She didn't even get to go trick-or-treating on Halloween."

"Some people don't believe in it," John said.

"No, that wasn't why. Her mom just didn't get her a costume," Bill shrugged. "She didn't have a tree either she said at Christmas."


"Even you had a tree and you don't have kids."

He didn't always have trees, but he figured that maybe wasn't something he should say at the moment.

"She comes to school though?"

"Peggy? Yeah," Bill said.

"No, I mean her mom."

"Oh, no, not really. We had a show for Christmas and she didn't come for that."

"Your mom did?"

"Yes," Bill said as if his mom being there was a given. John was glad he had that confidence in her. John had the opposite experience. He prayed on those days that his mom wouldn't show up and cause a scene, embarrassing him even more.

"Is she all right?"

"Her mom?" Bill asked, sounding confused.

John shook his head. "No, the girl in your class. She's all right when she comes to school."

Bill frowned and John knew he'd exceeded the boy's understanding with that question.

"Never mind, it's not important. Do you like her?"


John chuckled then. Yeah, he remembered being in second grade and girls weren't anything that interested him. "I meant is she your friend."

"Oh well, she's nice to me. She's a good drawer. She colored me a picture of Raphael once."



"Wow. That was pretty nice."

"That's what Mommy said. Her name isn't really Peggy."


"No, it's something else that doesn't sound like Peg at all. We had a substitute one day and they called all our names and hers was different."

"Hmm," John said, thinking on that. "Margaret maybe?"


"Yeah, I don't know why people named Margaret are called Peg or Peggy, but they are. You be nice back to her."

"I am," Bill said, that frown back in place then.

"Yeah, I know, just keep being nice to her. Sometimes people with not very good mommies they need friends. You know?"

"Okay," Bill said.

John knew he didn't know, though. Maybe one day he would. Maybe that day John would still be around for Bill to ask him about what he meant. John wasn't sure where he was going to be if and when Peggy's situation revealed itself to be anything like John's. It could've been nothing. Maybe she was just a girl who had disengaged parents. Some parents didn't give a shit. John couldn't understand that thinking. If he had kids who were in school he'd go through the effort of being involved in everything he could.

John paid for their food, surprised Bill had eaten everything on his plate. The chicken strips were pretty big so he guessed he was hungry. He'd eaten pretty well at breakfast, too. Claire hadn't, but she'd assured him that was normal anymore. She ate less more often.

"Thank you," Bill said.

"For what?"


"You're welcome. I wonder what your mom and Justin had for lunch."

"Justin doesn't like much."


"No. Not as much as I do."

"Yeah, well, he's a little younger than you and probably still learning what things taste like."

"Will I be a big brother again?"

"What?" John asked.

"When the baby comes. Can Justin and me both be his big brother?"

"Yup. It'll be a very lucky baby."


"You're pretty lucky, too, because you'll be the oldest brother to both of them."

"Mommy says it's a ponsibility."

"Responsibility. And she's right it is because if you do things they'll want to do them, too. Good and bad."

"I don't do anything real bad."

"You do bad things?"

"Sometimes I don't brush my teeth even though Mommy tells me to."

John nodded slightly at that. "Well, I won't tell her, but you should brush your teeth. You should always do what your mom tells you. You know why?"


"Because she's smart and if she tells you to do something it's because she thinks it's the right thing for you to do."

"I know," he murmured.

"All right. You ready for more then?"

"Yes," he said.

John helped make sure he was all bundled up again since they'd gotten comfortable while eating. The gloves were a little odd to pull on, so John helped him with those, too.

John knew where they were because he'd been to the bar before. Bar was selling it short. It was one of those places in the little town the cabin was in that anyone could go to during the day. Once the sun set, though, that was an entirely different story. It was a nice place, though, that Greg said had been there since he was a kid and would likely be there when Greg's kids' kids came up here.

It was close to dusk when they finally got back. He could tell Bill was starting to get tired. Hours of fresh air could knock kids out he knew.

"Next time can I ride behind you?" he asked. They were in the garage. John was showing him how to cover it and stuff.

"Maybe. I think Greg mentioned he had a belt like thing that I could wrap around us so if your hold on me slips you won't fall off. I didn't want to take the chance today since you've never been on one before. Your mom would probably kill me if something had happened to you."

"She wouldn't have killed you."

"I bet if someone hurt one of you kids she'd be pretty mad."

"I've only seen her mad once," he said.



"What happened?"

"I don't know. Daddy did something."

John nodded. Daddy had done a lot of things that probably would've made Claire mad.

"Daddy's do that sometimes. Mommy's do too, for that matter. People get mad at each other. It doesn't mean they stay mad or don't like one another."

"You said Mommy got mad at you once."

"I did?" John didn't remember that, but he didn't think the kid would make that up. "But see we're still friends and that was a real long time ago before she'd met your dad."


"Oh, that's a long story. Maybe when you're older."

"Mommy said that, too, when I asked her why she was mad at Daddy."

"Well, then ask her when you're older. She still may not tell you why she was mad, though. She may not even remember by then."

"I'm the only kid at school without one."

"A dad?"


"I bet you are. Does that make you feel bad?"

"No. Different."

"Do people treat you different because of it?"

"No, not really."

"Well, that's good."

"He was famous."

"I know. Your mom's told me."

"I saw his picture on a bus once."

"Really?" Claire hadn't mentioned that.


"Was that cool?"

"He looked funny."


Bill giggled softly. "Because his face was so big."

John chuckled at that. He could see that, yeah. To fit on the side of a bus they'd have to really enlarge a picture.

"Do you have a picture of it?"


"Good. You hang onto that stuff. Don't lose it."

"Do you want to see it?"

"You have it here?"

"No," he said as if that should be obvious. John had no idea what a kid like Bill would bring with him on a weekend trip.

"Well, sure, some day if you want to show it to me. You can show me anything you want, Bill."

John had absolutely no desire to put a face with the name, but he wasn't going to say that to the kid. He certainly couldn't say he didn't want to see what his dad looked like.

"All right. Let's go see what Mommy and Justin did all afternoon."

"Wow, it smells good in here," John said.

"Mommy's making spaghetti," Bill said, sounding very excited about that.

"How do you know?"

"Because I can smell it," he said.

"Ah," John said. "Does she make good spaghetti?"


"Well, then I guess I can't wait."

No one had come to the door to greet them so John helped Bill out of his stuff, setting the boots on the mat by the door. He'd worn a helmet, but he'd lifted the plastic shielding off a couple of times to say something to John so his cheeks around his eyes were still a bit red from the wind.

"I bet your mom will want to put some lotion or ointment on that," John said.


Bill went to the bathroom that was upstairs just off the entryway while John went to go see where Claire and Justin were. He saw Justin's stuff by the door so he knew they were inside. The kitchen was empty, though John saw a pot on the stove that judging by what Bill said held spaghetti sauce.

He went downstairs then and paused at the base of the stairs when he saw them. Claire was on the floor on her side with Justin pressed as close against her as he could get. Even sleeping her arm was around him protectively, preventing him from going far. Justin and Bill were lucky kids because John was pretty sure his mom had never had a protective bone in her body when it came to him even at this age.

Bill started down the stairs and John turned around, shaking his head to tell Bill to stay upstairs. He settled a blanket from the back of the couch over the two of them and went back upstairs. The TV wasn't on, but there was a game on the floor so evidently Justin and Claire had been playing that when they drifted off. That explained why they hadn't come to see them when they got inside.

"They're sleeping," John said when he got upstairs.

"Oh," Bill said, sounding disappointed.

"You're hungry already?"

"No, I just wanted to tell Mommy about the ride."

"Oh, well, you still can when she wakes up. There's a TV up in the loft if you want to go up there we can."

"Sure," Bill said.

John had no idea what else to do with him. He was way out of his league, he'd discovered that this morning because he'd had no idea what to do with Bill then either. He could've gotten Claire up, but she needed her rest. He knew in a couple of months, less than that now, she wouldn't be getting nearly as much rest as she needed.

They found a movie on TV that John thought Claire wouldn't kill him for letting Bill watch and sat on the couch up there. Bill sat next to him, which surprised him a bit. He figured he'd sit on one of the chairs or something.

It didn't take long for them to be joined by Claire and Justin.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi yourself."

"You made it back."

"We did and in one piece."

"Obviously I wasn't that concerned."

"Or you were just that tired."

"Do I have you to thank for the blanket?"

"You do."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

John tried to keep track of the conversation after that. Bill and Justin seemed to be in some sort of competition with one another to share about their day as fast as they could right on top of each other so John couldn't understand anything either of them said. Claire didn't seem to have that problem, but she did tell them to talk one at a time. After that he had no problems.

Justin ice skated, not very well and he'd fallen and would likely have a sore ass for a day or two as a result. He'd had fun, though. Claire had not fallen.

"You took him to a bar?" she asked John.

"It's not. I mean, it is, but Greg brings his kids there all of the time."


"I didn't drink anything!"

"He had Coke, Mommy."


"Really, you think I'd do that?"

"No, I just had no idea."

"I just thought he could use a little break and it's the only place around here."

"That was nice of you, thank you. And if Bill didn't thank you."

"He did."

"Good. I made spaghetti. Well, I made sauce for spaghetti. I was going to wait until you guys got home and were hungry to actually cook the noodles."

"Bill told me you make good spaghetti."

"I do all right. I haven't cooked since we moved in with my mom, though, so I'm a little out of practice."

"It smells great."

"Thank you," she said.

"I'm not sure why you're thanking me. You made the sauce that smells very good, but you're welcome."


Tonight's fire had been way better than last night's. Bill and Justin had gotten to roast marshmallows. They'd eaten some plain by themselves, but had both loved when he and Claire had put them with chocolate on graham crackers. Both were young enough yet that sitting with their mom for hours doing nothing but playing a game and hanging out was still a cool thing to do. John imagined in a few years Bill wouldn't think it was so cool anymore. Then, maybe he wouldn't stop thinking it was cool.

The kids had gone to bed a while ago, leaving them alone up here until the fire went out. He could've put it out, but Claire didn't seem to be in any more of a hurry to go to bed than he was. He liked spending time with her like this, away from everything. That was probably bad because getting her away from everything again anytime soon wasn't going to happen.

His house was away from everything in a way. That was one of the things he loved about it. He could go home, close the gate, look out over the lake and forget about the traffic, his shitty day, or anything else he wanted to forget about for a while because it was his place.


"Have you met this Peggy girl he told me about?" he asked.

"No, why? He's mentioned her. She drew him a picture."

"He told me that. Just wondering. He mentioned her mom's not too involved. No Halloween costume and didn't show up for the Christmas thing."

"No, she didn't. I didn't know about the Halloween costume."

"Just wondering."

"You're worried about her?"

"I hear about a kid whose mom's not involved with her second grade aged kid, yeah I guess I wonder. Aren't most parents involved?"

"Most. Some aren't and some are just not as actively as others."


"I'm as active as I can be. I can't go on field trips with his class or anything."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm at work when they go on field trips."

"Oh, yeah, I suppose. You're not going to be working next year, though."

"No, I won't, but I'll be in school."

"True, but maybe you could go on one if your school schedule allows."

"I could, yeah."

"You'd like that?"

"Yes. I'm not sure Bill would."

"Why not?"

"I don't know I don't think the kids actually like their parents going along."

"Oh," he said. "I guess I don't remember."

"I don't remember you going on many field trips."

"That's why I don't remember."

"Oh," she said.

"What?" he asked. She looked as if she wanted to say something.


"No, it's something. What?"

"You were mad at me earlier."

"I wasn't mad at you. I was worried you were going to do something and get hurt."

"You said…"

"Yeah, I know what I said."

"No, don't do that. You said that exceeds the boundary of our arrangement."


"Is that what you view this as?"

"Isn't that what it is? I'm fulfilling a need you have."

"But after the Bulls game you asked me."

"You said you weren't ready for something, which to me implied this is what things are."

"What is?"

"I don't know."


"That I'm fulfilling your need. Once the baby comes you probably won't have that need. You couldn't anyway for a while."

"So, we're not friends?"

"I never said that."

"So how would worrying about me be bad?"

"It's not. It just bothers me, okay?"

"What does?"

"Nothing," he said.


He sighed.

"I have no rights. We're doing this. Whatever we're doing. Most people who are as intimate as we are have the right to be concerned. To worry. I mean, I know the baby isn't mine. You do know I know that right?"

She laughed softly.

"I'm serious. Sometimes I don't know what you think I think."

"I know you know that."

"That doesn't mean I'm not going to worry. I worry about you. I know you've done it before, but I wasn't there when you did it before. I've never been around someone as pregnant as you are before. So I don't know."

"I'm sorry. You think this is easy for me, John? You don't think I feel incredibly guilty."

"We're not doing anything wrong."

"Says you."

"You think what we're doing is wrong?"

"Not wrong, but it's not entirely right either."


"No, it's not, John. Not even seven months ago I was married. My life was what it was. I got pregnant."

"Yeah, I'm aware of that."

"I know you are, but I can't just stop feeling married. I can't stop feeling like I'm doing something wrong. I can't stop looking at my mom and know she's incredibly disappointed in me."

"Disappointed in you for moving on?"

"So soon, yes."

"Soon? Jesus. Claire, you thought about leaving him, does she know that?"

"I don't know. She hasn't said. It doesn't work that way and until I have stopped feeling that way I just don't think I can make any decisions."

"You know, maybe you should talk to your mom. Maybe she'd be a little more understanding if she knew the things I know."

"I can't!"

"Why not?"

"Because she'd…"

"Be disappointed?"


"Claire, you're her daughter. I'm sure if she liked Dan it was because he was your husband and she assumed it was because he was good to you. It sounds like overall he was. Bill talks about him fondly, so I have to believe he wasn't an asshole in general. What he did to you is wrong and maybe your mom wouldn't be so quick to judge you if she knew. Her loyalty's going to be with you not him."

"It'd just be weird."

"Yeah, I bet it would, but at least I wouldn't worry she thinks I'm out to sully your spotless reputation or something."

Claire snorted softly. "Sully, really?"

"Shut up," he said with a chuckle. "Is that all that's stopping you? Your mom?"

"No. I'm not ready."

"Fair enough."

"I still don't know what you want from me."


"You don't want a relationship. Kids."

"I actually never said that. You've put words into my mouth based on who and how I was ten years ago. I dated Amanda."


"As far as kids, no I don't want any of my own. I worry that somehow my DNA will be screwed up."

"John, there's nothing wrong with you or your DNA."

"You don't know that! I'd never hurt anyone, but what if I produced someone worse than my father."

"What if you produced someone better than you?"

"Well, you've said after that one there you're done."


"Well, since you're the person I'm interested in that would rule out more."

"And you'd be okay with that?"

"Sure. I assumed I'd never have any."


"I've just been busy. You know? I had a lot to overcome and I didn't want to repeat my parents' mistakes."

"I can understand that."

"I mean. I have friends. I do things. I think I've carved out a decent and solid life for myself. I've done that on my own, though, and I felt I had to do it on my own. It would've been easy, you know. You."


"You've mentioned your interest in me back then. I could've snatched you up and held on for dear life, but that wasn't what I wanted for myself."

"I know."

"And neither of us would've been happy."

"I know that, too."

"I knew I wanted to prove Vernon wrong, that was about the extent of what I wanted back then. That's been my focus since."


"Ultimately. I mean, I've stopped thinking about him, but the drive to be better than what anyone expected of me is still there."

"There was nothing wrong with you."

"You say that, and you saw things probably no one else did after that day. That's you, though, not me. I think that's what makes you a good mom and a good teacher."

"Yet you're encouraging me not to teach."

"Sure, because it's not what you want to do, but I'm sure your kids have been better off having you as a teacher the past five or so years you've been teaching."

"I like to think so."

"I'm sure they are. That doesn't mean that you can't be the house where all of your kids' friends come to hang out and be the cool mom everyone wants but can't have."

She laughed softly at that.

"I like to think that you deserve better than a built-in family, too."

"I like your family."

"Yeah, but you could have your own kids."

"I could and I guess if I really wanted them that badly we wouldn't be here. If I had my choice between kids and a chance with you and your kids I'd still take a chance with you."

"What if my being ready means I want to date people?"

He sighed softly.

"I told you a while back that you should do that."

"And you'd be okay with that now?"

"Honestly? No, it'd piss me off beyond belief and I'd hate every second of it. If that's what you needed to do. What could I do? Stop you?"

"No, I guess you couldn't."

"So if it was understand what you need to do or get told to get the fuck out of your life I guess I'd have to choose to understand."

"And be miserable?"

"Until you made a decision."

"Why would you do that to yourself?"

"Why wouldn't I for the right person?"


"You think I've ever told anyone in my life I love them? Ever?"

"I guess not."

"I can't even remember the last time I told my mom that. Maybe I was older than Bill, but I doubt it. That's why the things he said about that girl Peggy got to me. I remember what it was like to have the different parents and to be viewed as different because of them. Kids couldn't place what was different about me or why, but they knew that my life wasn't like theirs."

"I wish I could remember you from that grade."

"I remember you, but you were always memorable."

"It's because of my hair, right?"

He chuckled a little. "Yeah. It was because of your hair."

"I just don't want to hurt you."

"It's kind of too late for that, sweetheart. From Halloween on I kind of knew. I wasn't anticipating things happening between us the way they have."

"I know. How could you?"

"It'd bother me a lot more now than it would've then."

"I'm sorry. I really messed things up, haven't I?"

"You haven't, Claire, don't say that. I don't regret any of the past couple of months."

"Not even getting caught by my mother?"

"Well, she didn't really catch us. We weren't doing anything at the time."

"She knows."

"Oh, I know she knows."

Claire stood then. He always felt kind of bad, watching her struggle as she did. He wanted to help her, but he knew there was nothing he could do to help her. As she'd said earlier she had done this before. He just felt kind of guilty that he couldn't do anything.

"You know what I would like to do tonight?"

"Uh is that a trick question?"

"No, really," she said, offering him her hand.


He took her hand, following her in the direction of their bedroom.

"I'm going to ask again. Is this a trick question?"

"Be quiet, John."

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

They got ready for bed, John wondering just what she had in mind for tonight that she wouldn't even tell him what she was thinking.

He was staring at the ceiling, waiting for her when she finally got into bed with him.

"Hmm. You skipped the nightgown thing entirely tonight?"

"I did."


"Because you said you liked me like this."

"I do, very much."

"That's why I did."

"Thank you," he said.

She slid beside him and kissed him, lingering a bit before turning onto her side.


"I told you once that what I really missed was the other stuff. The rest of it. I mean if I wasn't pregnant my hormones wouldn't be so out of control and I wouldn't be like I am."

"Yeah, I remember and I get it."

"Tonight I want the rest of it."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

He snorted softly at that. "I think that's the easiest thing you've asked me to do yet, sweetheart."


"And the nicest." He slid his hand along her side, resting against her abdomen. "Hmm, he must think so, too."

"It would seem so."

"Did you have fun with Bill today?" He thought she'd drifted off she'd been quiet for a few minutes. He wanted her to sleep so he hadn't said anything else.

"I did. I didn't know what to do with him exactly, but I'll work on that if you let me."

"I'll let you."


"Maybe you could be at the house if we invite Peggy over."


"You'd know what you're looking for more than I would."

"You have good instincts, Claire. You'd know, too, but if I can be there, sure. She's the only girl he's talked about."

"She's cute. I mean, the picture she drew was cute and the way he describes her."

He chuckled.

"Just wait, a few years from now you won't think she's so cute. You'll think she's after your son or out to break his heart or something."

"Well, of course, but for now she's cute."

He kissed her shoulder.

"Did you have girls after you?"

He snorted.

"No, really. I mean, I know you had lots of girl friends, but did you have girls who actually wanted to be your girlfriend?"


"Their loss. I would've been, you know?"

"We've covered this already, Claire. I know, but I couldn't have been what you wanted."

"You think you can be now?"

"I don't think. I know I can be now, sweetheart. I would never hurt you."

"I know."

"Do you?"


"I'm glad. Now get some rest. I'll make more pancakes tomorrow."


"I thought so."

Return to Top

***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.

Return to Top

***Chapter Seventeen***
Word Count: 3,096

March 1995

John was surprised they released her already. For some reason he figured she'd be in the hospital for a couple of days. She'd called to ask him to get Bill to and from school, staying with Justin at the house until her mom could get back home at about five o'clock in the morning. It had been one of the longest days of his life because he had no idea what to tell Justin. He assumed she was at the hospital having the baby, but she'd had a couple of incidents of false labor the past couple of weeks. She was closing in on being ten days over her due date, though, so her doctor had mentioned something about inducing if the baby didn't come on its own.

He and Justin hung out, watching some TV and coloring some pictures in coloring books he had. John read a couple of books to him, too. He was so out of his league with the boy. He was four now, Bill would be eight next month. It didn't seem like such a huge difference in ages, but what Bill understood and could do was pretty different.

He made them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with some soup. Justin had eaten the entire sandwich, leaving most of the soup behind. John had sort of expected that, but he'd at least eaten some of it.

When he picked Bill up the older Abbott boy inquired after his mother like the concerned boy he was. John still hadn't heard anything. He knew babies could take their time about being born.

He'd been born around four o'clock in the afternoon. So by the time Claire had been released from the hospital later in the evening the next day she'd barely been there for thirty-six hours. It just didn't seem like that long.

The nurse came down with Claire to make sure that there was a car seat in the car and the baby was actually put into it. Justin and Bill were at home with their grandma. John wasn't sure how he'd been delegated as the one to pick her up, but he suspected somehow Mrs. Standish was trying to drive home some sort of point by making John be the one to bring them home from the hospital versus babysit the boys.

A third boy. He knew she'd wanted a girl, though as far as he knew she'd never admitted that want to anyone but him. He was healthy and everything, and he knew that was most important to her when all was said and done.

"Thank you for your help," she said once she was settled in the passenger's seat. John was driving her car since she'd already had the car seat in it.

"You don't have to thank me for helping."

"I do. It's way more than…"

"It is not. Please don't say that to me. Don't talk to me as if I'm doing you a favor or something."

"Still. You had to take a day off from work."

"It's fine. I don't mind."

"Justin was okay?"

"He was fine. We were fine. I was a little out of my league with him, I admit, but I made do."

"You didn't run away anyway."

He put the car in Park again and turned to face her.

"You think I'm going to run away? Is that what you think after all these months?"

"No, that's not what I meant. I'm just exhausted and sore and want to go home to my bed."

"Fair enough. I'm not going to get scared and run away, though. I'll learn. I told you a while ago, before you shrug me off give me the chance. Kids scare the shit out of me, I won't deny that. I see that little guy in your backseat there and I haven't the first clue what to do with him. I'm willing to learn, though."

"I know, John. You're fine."

"Is there anything you want before we take you home?"


"Yeah. I don't know you've been eating hospital food since yesterday. You want something?"

"A milk shake."

He chuckled softly at that. "Really?"

"Yes. A milk shake."

"You realize it's March, right?"

"I do. I want a milk shake."

"All right. If it's a milk shake the lady wants, it's a milk shake the lady gets."

"Thank you."

"Can I ask for one thing before we go?"


"Can I kiss you?"

She turned to look at him then. He'd surprised her with that question.

"I wasn't sure you'd want to."

He frowned, leaning in and doing just that. It wasn't one of their better kisses, but since they were sitting in the hospital parking lot and given the circumstances he wasn't expecting much. Just something.

"Until you tell me I can't I want to."


He stopped at a local fast food restaurant and got her the milk shake she wanted. She wanted chocolate and strawberry mixed, which didn't sound appetizing to him at all. She'd insisted she didn't want anything to eat or anything else. He imagined her mom would have something at the house for her anyway.

"Thank you," she said once she'd taken a couple of sips of the milk shake.

"You're welcome."

"I got it," he said when she started to grab her stuff from the hospital. "You take him. I can handle the rest."

"Thank you."

He slid his hand to her wrist at the car seat strap.

"Can you do me a favor, please?"


"Stop thanking me as if I'm doing some huge favor for you. This is what people do for each other. I want to do these things for you as much as you let me. I haven't been shy about telling you that."

"Yes, but he's not…"

"Mine. I know that. I'm aware of this, Claire. Jesus. We've been through this. I don't care! Haven't you figured that out by now?"

"You don't get it."

"What? What don't I get?"

She was crying now and he didn't understand where the tears were coming from. They weren't arguing or anything. He just didn't know where this sudden change came from as if he was going out of his way for her or something.

"I'd give anything for that not to be the case."


"Nothing," she said. "Just forget it. My mom's going to worry if we stay out here any longer."

He frowned again, shaking his head but he understood she was probably cold anyway and ready to sit down or lay down, whatever she'd need to do after having a baby yesterday.

"What's his name anyway?" he asked.

"Frank," she said.

"Ah," John said with a nod of understanding. Frank had been her dad's name. "Good name. Your dad would like that."

"I hope so."

"He'll do the name proud, I'm sure of it."

Since it was Saturday night Bill and Justin were both still awake when they walked in. Justin was way more interested in little Frank than Bill was. John imagined Bill wasn't too sure what having another little brother would mean for him.

"You want to help me bring this stuff up to your mom's and the baby's rooms?" he asked Bill.

"Sure," he said, running up the stairs ahead of John.

"You don't want to see your brother?"

Bill shrugged.

"Do you remember when Justin was born?"

Bill shook his head. "A little, I guess."

"Yeah? You and Justin and Justin and Frank are about the same difference. So, he'll probably remember a little bit, too."


"Thanks for the help," he said once they'd dropped the bag of the baby's things off in the nursery. John had helped Claire put the crib back together last weekend. He'd done most of the work, which was fine with him.

"Mommy's all right?"

"Mommy is fine. Doesn't she look fine?"

Bill nodded a little.

John stooped a bit so he could look at Bill at his level. "You were worried about your mom?"

"A little."

"Yeah, it can be scary. I suppose the only other time she's been away from you was when she had Justin and then moving here."

He nodded.

Both pretty life-altering events. John could understand why the boy might be a little scared. People didn't understand going to the hospital wasn't always a bad thing.

"She's fine. I promise. She even had me stop and get a milk shake for her on the way here."

Bill was staring at the crib, John hoped he was listening. John noticed tears in Bill's eyes and reached for him.

"Hey. You okay?"

He nodded.

"You can tell me, you know. I'm your friend."

"I just want my daddy here."

"Understandable, and you know if he could be he would be, Bill. I wish he could be here for you guys, too. I'm sure if he could do things differently, take a different way home the night of the accident or something he would. I feel bad for you guys."

"But you like my mommy."

"Well, sure I do."

"Tommy says you want to be my new daddy."

"I'm not sure what Tommy means by that. I'm not trying to be like your daddy, though. Your daddy is your daddy and you obviously loved him and he loved you. I wouldn't try to be that, I'm not trying to be anything. On the other hand, if you think you can love me, too, I'd be pretty okay with that."

"Isn't that bad, though?"


He shrugged.

"Loving me and your dad?"

Bill nodded.

"Nope. There's nothing wrong with that. I love you guys, but I'm not trying to be anything or anybody other than who I am. If you think I'm doing something wrong, I want you to tell me. I thought we have fun hanging out, don't we?"

"We do."

"Then we're good. Tommy doesn't know what he's talking about. Isn't he the one who didn't believe you went to the Bears game with your mommy in September?"


"Yeah, he seems to like to get you excited about things. No one but your daddy can be your daddy, Bill. No one can take that away from you either, no matter who your mommy might end up with one day. Your daddy will still be Daniel Abbott. And it's your job to make sure Justin and Frank know about him."

"I know."

John reached for him, hugging him. He was surprised when the boy hugged him back tightly. They hadn't been very touchy before now. In fact, other than riding with him on the snowmobile they hadn't really touched at all before now. John sort of thought a hug was in order after this conversation, though.

"I do love you guys, you know that. I'll always be your friend and your mommy's friend. I promise."


"I think you should go down and say hi to your mom and new brother. He may not remember you did, but you will, and it's your job as big brother to make sure he knows he's welcome and wanted here. And that you love him."

Bill pulled away then, running off, leaving John to shake his head a little as he stood. John wasn't sure what he was supposed to do now. Go home? Claire hadn't said. He glanced around the nursery, picturing Claire sitting on the rocking chair with the baby. He could picture her there easily enough because she was a good mom. It was something he could never picture with his own mom. She hadn't bought very many new outfits for the baby, and she'd told him once that she still had all of Bill and Justin's baby clothes so he doubted the baby would need for anything anytime soon.

He set the small box he'd carried in with him on top of the dresser. He hadn't had a clue what to buy a baby. He was way out of his comfort zone shopping for baby things. He'd seen the Chicago Bears onesie and bought it, figuring girl or boy it could still get worn. The girl at the store helped him decide on a size a little bigger than the newborn size so he could grow into it.

He sighed a little, heading back downstairs.

He heard Claire and her family in the living room. Bill and Justin were trying to whisper but neither were succeeding too well. John smiled a little at that. Claire's mom was there, too, taking pictures.

"Are you leaving?"

"Uh, yeah," he said. He was surprised Claire even noticed he was there.

"You don't have to."

"I don't want to intrude on your family time, Claire."

"John. Stay."

"Nah. Call me when you can."

She grabbed his wrist. "John, really, you can stay. Come on, you haven't even seen him."

"I can see him some other time when Bill and Justin aren't so excited about their new brother."

"Are you mad at me?"

"What? No," he said with a shake of his head.

"Then stay. I'm not going to go to bed right away or anything. I haven't seen you since last weekend."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

"All right then," he said, glancing at Mrs. Standish who wasn't obviously paying attention to them but John knew the woman knew everything that was going on in her house.


The house was quiet. Bill and Justin were tucked into their beds. Her mom had gone to sleep a while ago. She'd just finished feeding Frank. John had started to leave the room when he realized what she was about to do. She'd insisted he didn't have to, though. He'd seen her naked certainly she didn't care anymore if he saw her.

"What did you mean earlier? In your car?" he asked as she was trying to get Frank to burp.


"No. It's not nothing. You were saying something."

"It's not very nice."

"Just say it then."

She laughed. "That I wish somehow Frank could have been yours. For the past few months I've been wishing that."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart."

"I know. It's not your fault. I just God raising him completely on my own from the beginning."

"Scary, huh?"

"It is."

"You'll do fine. And I would be pretty happy if he was mine, that's why I asked you not to make that decision."

"Would you like to hold him?"

"I've never held a baby in my life."

"Well, no time like the present." She stood then, explaining to him how to position his arms before she settled Frank in them. She sat next to him on the couch then.

"What am I supposed to do with him now?"



"Nope. Hold him. That's what babies love. Just watch his head."

"His head?"

She laughed softly. "Yes, support it always."

"Oh, okay," he said. "He's pretty tiny."

"Actually, he's not," she said.


"He was over nine pounds. That's not tiny."


"Yes, Bill was just over eight pounds and Justin was a little less than that."

"He seems tiny."

"That's just because you're not tiny."

"You saying I'm fat, sweetheart?"

"No, I'm saying you're a big guy. You are not fat. I in fact think you look very good."

"You do?"

"I do."

"You've never said that."

"I'm sorry I haven't. I told you I like looking at you."

"You did and it's all right. I'm glad you said it now, though."

"So when do you have to, uh, feed him again?" he asked after a bit of silence between them.

"About two or three hours."



"Every two to three hours?"


"You should be sleeping then, sweetheart."

"I didn't want you to leave."

"You think your mom will get mad if I stay here?"

"It's not like we can do anything."

He chuckled softly. "Well, we could do some things where I'm concerned, but that's not on my mind right now."

"That's very good. I'm too tired."

"I bet you are."

"You want to stay here?"

"Sure. Someone has to make sure you get some sleep."

"I'll still have to wake up with him."

"Yeah, I know. You can feed him in bed, right?"


"I can put him to bed when you're done. Just show me how."

"You're sure?"



"Before we go upstairs. I should tell you that evidently Bill's friend Tommy is telling him that I want to be his new daddy."


"Yeah. You may want to talk to him. I tried explaining that I am your friend and I love all of you, but I am not trying to be his daddy. He may be a little confused, though."

"You told him you love him?"

"I did." He glanced at her then, obviously unsure he should've said that.

"Thank you."

"You're thanking me? Man, I thought you were going to be mad."

"No. You understood he was probably in a pretty unsure spot today, a new baby. He's a little older this time obviously than he was when I brought Justin home and I'm sure it's another thing showing that he's not a baby anymore. I mean, he'll always be my baby."

"Right. I get it," John said with a chuckle.

"I'm not mad. I'm sorry he said that to you about Tommy. I'll talk with him."

"You do realize I'd like very much to be that to him. To all three of them."

"I know, but he has to understand you wouldn't be taking the place of his dad."

"Hmm, that almost sounded as if you're not opposed to the idea."

"If you were to ask me today if I saw it happening I'd say yes."


"It's still so soon. I know you don't want to hear that, but I have to survive on my own for a while."

"I get it, and the fact that you even entertain it as a possibility is good enough for me."

"Thank you for picking me up and for the milk shake. Thank you for being there for Bill."

"You're welcome, but I told you that you don't have to thank me."

"I do have to."

"All right. Let's get you guys upstairs so you can get some sleep."

"Are you sure you want to stay here? Babies aren't quiet."

"I want to stay because someone needs to take care of you for a while, too."

"My mom…"

"Isn't me and doesn't love you like I do. Give a guy a break, will you? I want to be here."


"Thank you."

Return to Top

***Chapter Eighteen***
Word Count: 1,789

June 1995

"What is wrong with you tonight?" he asked. She'd been nervous and just jumpy in general all night long. The smallest sound in the house had her worried the kids were awake or waking up the baby.

"I'm just nervous I guess."

"About what?"

She shrugged. "The next week."


"I worry about Bill, that it will confuse him having them here."

"I guess I'm not following," he said.

Claire's in-laws were coming into town for the next week for Frank's baptism. John knew she talked to them, of course. He just hadn't been expecting that turn of events until she'd told him last weekend. She evidently thought she had mentioned it prior to then, but she hadn't. He assumed it was just an oversight. He knew she was busy. She hadn't worked since having little Frank, of course, but she still had two kids to feed and get places. Bill was in Little League. Her mom helped, John did, too, when he could, but overall she bore the brunt of it. As it was supposed to be given her circumstances he imagined.

She shrugged. "I'm sure it's just me being paranoid."

"And you don't want me to go with you to the airport?"

"I'm perfectly capable of driving to the airport by myself, John."

"Wow. Really? Have I suggested you're not?"

"No, I'm sorry. I just don't think that would be a good thing to do."

"Why not?"

"Taking you to go pick up my in-laws? How is that a good idea?"

"You can't have friends?"

She sighed softly. "If it wasn't the first time I was seeing them since his funeral."

"So, you want me to stay away for the next week?"

"I didn't say that! I just don't think taking you with me to pick them up from the airport is a good thing to do. Mom will stay home with the kids while I pick them up."

"All right."

"Thank you, though."

"You're welcome. I'm sorry you're nervous."

"It's okay. I just hope they don't think I'm doing a bad job."

"A bad job of what?"

"They haven't seen their grandparents in a year, but they see my mom every day."

"Yeah, you've been a little busy, haven't you? Working and stuff? No offense, but I didn't see them knocking down your door to come here during the school year. They could've. Bill and Justin flew on a plane here together back in August. I bet they could've done that just fine at Christmastime or something if they wanted to fly them out there to spend time with them."

"I know that. I still worry."

"You'll be fine, sweetheart."

She slid onto his lap, sliding her arms around his neck.

"Claire," he said cautiously.

"All three of the kids are asleep. Mom's out."

"You have nothing to worry about. You are fine. You do fine. You have two kids who are doing great despite their dad dying a year ago. Cut yourself some slack. They're not here to judge or critique you. They just want to see their newest grandson."

"You're right."

"Of course I am."

She laughed softly, leaning against his shoulder.

"I'm sorry I've been crazy the past week."

"You have absolutely nothing to apologize for. I knew what date he died."

"I just feel like I've been neglecting you."

He scoffed.

"You've been a bit busy."

"I was busy before I had Frank."

"You weren't as busy. Work has picked up for me, too."

"I know," she whispered, kissing his neck.

"You're sure you're okay for this?"

"Yes! I was okay weeks ago."

"Yeah, I know physically you were cleared, but I also know a year ago last week your husband of eight years died."

"I'm okay," she said, finding his ear and tugging on his shirt.

He stilled her hands, pulling them away. It would be so easy to let her keep going. He hadn't been inside of her for months and he really, really wanted to change that. He knew, though, the reasons weren't solid, right. He needed so much more from her than sex and if he did this now, tonight with her that'd be implying he was okay with just this.

"I can't, Claire."


"This, what you're initiating, wouldn't be hormones. Need. Whatever you want to call it that was driving you before. This would be sex because you want to have sex."


"I can't do that."

He was an idiot. A moron of the biggest kind. What man in their right mind turned a woman like her away?

"Why not?"

"Because I don't want just sex from you."


"Look at me," he said.

She drew away and looked at him.

"I can't do it. I mean, I'm flattered and glad as hell you want to, but I won't do that. You don't do sex just for sex."

"But we…"

"I've had months to think about this. You know? What I'd do. I wasn't sure you'd want to, you know?"

"Why would you think I wouldn't?"

"Because you've never had sex with anyone but Dan."

"I've had sex with you."

"Well, yeah, but that wasn't a willing choice. You didn't enter into it logically."

"I didn't realize there was supposed to be logic behind it."

"Sweetheart, I want to. You know I do. I know you can feel I want to, very badly. I can't do it. First of all, you're picking up your in-laws from the airport tomorrow morning. You'd feel guilty as hell if you picked them up knowing we'd just had sex tonight."

She opened her mouth and he shook his head.

"You can't deny it. Well, you could, but you'd be lying. I know you. Maybe not immediately, but tomorrow morning you'd wake up and think about what happened. You'd feel guilty or think they'd know somehow or if Bill says something about me you'd think they would figure it out."


"Claire. I love you. Do you get that?"

"I do."

"Do you? Do you really? I'm not just saying words to get you into bed with me or to make you feel better about having sex with me. I want the whole thing from you. All of it. Your heart, your kids, maybe one or two of our own. I want you in my house, in my bed every day. I can't start having sex with you now without something more than friendship."

"But you said…"

"Yeah, you can't use those words against me. That was months ago when I was thinking with my dick and the fact it was getting used regularly and very well at that. Or whenever it was that we talked about whether we'd still do this after the baby came. It's not a lack of wanting to. It's that you deserve better than that. You held out for being married for a reason."

"I'm not going to hold out for marriage again!"

"Well, no, but how about holding out for actually being in a relationship with someone? Preferably me, but whoever. And, well, I deserve better. I don't expect you to fall in love with me tomorrow, but I'd like some sort of sense that you want to be with me for more than that."

"I see you!"

"Yeah, you do, and I love that you call me to come over for whatever. I do, but I've had a lot of time to think on this since you had little Frank. I can't let my dick think for me, for either of us, anymore. I'm in a position to get my heart broken here. Do you get that?"

"I know," she said softly.

"I think so are you ultimately because of the fact you don't do casual sex. If we start down that road now I'm afraid you'll start feeling guilty or bad about yourself. You thought you felt guilty before I can't imagine what you'd feel like if you all of the sudden decide you want just live out the rest of your life as Dan's widow."

"I wouldn't do that!"

"If you decide you're ready for something from me that resembles some sort of commitment. Dating me is a start. I'm not talking marriage or an engagement, but actual dates without hiding what we're doing from people, including Bill and Justin. I expect then I could be persuaded to change my opinion on this subject pretty quickly."

She slid a hand to his chin, brushing her fingers along his jaw there and he let his eyes close at her touch. She didn't touch him like this often. He wasn't sure why because he always liked it when she did.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"For what?"

"I didn't think…"

"Don't worry about it. It's an easy habit to fall into, one I think you'd hate yourself for if you realized all we were meant to be was friends."

"You don't want to be just friends."

"No, I don't, but that doesn't mean you want more."

"I do…"

"You're just not ready. I completely and totally get that, Claire. I'm not pushing you. I'm not asking you for anything today."

"Can I kiss you?"

"I think that could be doable."

She leaned in then and kissed him, sliding her arms around his neck. He deepened it about the same time she did, groaning softly at the intensity behind it. His hands at her hips slid up a bit. He had to stop himself from going further. God he wanted to touch her, all of her. He knew she was self-conscious about her breasts right now, but God they were so appealing to him. Everything about her appealed to him, though, that was a given.

She drew away at the sound of the baby over the monitor.

"Is it that time already?" It seemed like just a few minutes ago she'd fed him and put him down again.

"I guess it is," she whispered, kissing his neck.

He chuckled softly.

"What are you laughing at?"

"Just thinking I can't remember the last time I spent two hours kissing someone."

"We've kissed for two hours."

"We weren't just kissing, sweetheart."

"Oh," she said and he chuckled again. "Is that bad?"

"No, I like it a lot."

"Do you?"

"I do."

"So, that's okay?"

"Yes, I can kiss you."

"That's good," she whispered. "Are you going to come to church on Sunday?"

"I don't think so."


"If it was just your mom I might, but no. Dan's parents would wonder why I was there. You're worried enough without having to deal with explaining to them anything about me. I'll be here afterward, though."


"Go get your son, Claire. I'm not going anywhere."


Return to Top

***Chapter Nineteen***
Word Count: 2,747

September 1995

"So, you're having a full weekend, I guess," John said, taking a seat on the couch next to her. Justin had let him in today. John was finding it difficult to wrap his mind around the boy he saw today being the same one he'd first seen a year ago. There was such a difference between three and four. Not that John had much reason to pay attention before now.

"Huh?" Claire said, glancing up from getting Frank ready. It was supposed to be nicer out today than it had been yesterday. She was still putting him in a coat, though, with a hat and stuff. He didn't think it was going to get that cold, but he understood babies required different things. This wasn't the first baseball game of the season they were going to, but likely it would be the last unless he could convince Claire to leave the kids at home for a day and use the tickets Bill and Justin use on two adults.

"Bill says you had lunch with Nancy yesterday."

"Oh, yeah, she met us for a while. Justin and Bill played, Frank slept, and we talked."

"Yeah? I guess I didn't realize you were that friendly with her."

She shrugged. "She called me after school started for her again and asked how I was doing."

"Seeing if you were reconsidering your decision to go back to school, you mean?"

"I think she may have been doing that, too, yes. Anyway, I asked her if she wanted to meet us sometime. She mentioned this weekend and I figured why not."

"Well, good."

"She asked about you, too."




"She knows I see you."

"And she hasn't called the police on you yet for letting me hang around your kids?"

"No. She wouldn't do that, John. I mean, I'm sure she would if she had a reason to, but she knows it was a long time ago when you talked to her."


"She just asked me how your job was going. I told her you were very busy."

"I get it."

"I think she finds it funny that we're friends."

"Mommy," Bill called down from upstairs.

"Yeah, Bill."

"Phone's for you."

"Okay, I'll get it down here."

"He sure likes answering that phone."

"I know. He thinks he's helping Mom and me out, which he is in a way I guess."


Claire stood then and went to the couch nearest the phone to pick it up. It blew his mind how many phones they had in the house sometimes. Then again he supposed if he actually started using more than a handful of rooms in his house he'd have more than the one regular phone and one cordless phone he currently had. He just didn't see the need for more than that.

"Hello," Claire said while John sat on the floor to keep an eye on Frank while she took her call. He was awake more and more every day. He even gave John a smile or two the last couple of times he'd seen him. John tried not to let that get to him, but man it was hard to shield his heart from the effects of a baby's smile on him. He was a pretty cute baby even when he was drooling like crazy from the effects of cutting teeth. John had never given something as basic as smiling as being something a baby would have to learn to do just as they learn to do everything else. He just sort of figured it was automatic, apparently that wasn't the case.

"Oh, hi, how are you?"

"No, I can't today. I'm going to the Cubs game."

"I'd love to, sure because after so long of not being in school I find it hard to get back into things. It's a lot different being on this end of things again."

Bill and Justin came downstairs, dressed and ready to go. They did not have mittens on, but they were wearing jackets and caps. Likely, Frank's hat and mittens wouldn't be needed, but it was better to be safe he knew that.

"Bill, grab Mommy a piece of paper and a pen will you?" she said. "One second," she said into the phone. "I need to get something to write with."

Bill rushed to the kitchen and came back with a pen and small pad of paper John knew Mrs. Standish kept by the kitchen phone all of the time. He'd pictured Claire talking on that phone before she'd gotten a line of her own, doodling on the pad of paper.

"Okay, I'm sorry about that, I'm ready." She wrote whatever it was down. "Okay, I'll call you this week sometime then."

"No, I appreciate you thinking of me, I'm not insulted at all. Thank you."

"I'll see you in class tomorrow, I guess anyway, so we can figure out a time then maybe."

"I hope the Cubs win, too. Thanks. Bye bye," she said.

She hung up then, tearing off the piece of paper.

"Bill, can you put the pen and paper back in the kitchen please?"

He did as asked as Claire folded the piece of paper up and put it in her wallet. She had a purse, but she very rarely used it anymore because of Frank's diaper bag. She just put her wallet in the diaper bag.

"Did you have something else to do today?" John asked curiously.

"No, that was one of the grad assistants in one of my non-Engineering classes. He's putting together a study group and thought I'd like to be a part of it."

"He thought you'd want to in all of your spare time?"

"Well, no, but I've talked to him a few times already. He knows I'm concerned about having to study again after so many years of not doing it."

"It's not like you haven't had deadlines or papers and tests of your own to grade in the past few years."

"I know, John. It's just so stupid that I have to take elective classes because I don't qualify for the more advanced classes yet since I haven't had the pre-requisites. So, this Anthropology class is kind of kicking my butt. It's a lot of reading and it's a lot to remember."

"Yeah," he said.

"And it's not like I couldn't bring the kids with me if I had to, but I'm sure Mom will babysit if I need her to. That's assuming the group doesn't meet during the day on campus in between classes. I'll have to talk to him more tomorrow after class."

John sighed softly. He wasn't even going to ask how the guy had gotten her phone number and decided to call her on a Sunday afternoon when, evidently, he'd see her tomorrow during class anyway. From her answer about being busy the guy must have brought up meeting today.

"Are you ready then?" he asked.

"We are," Bill and Justin said in tandem. They were excited. They always got excited when they went to things like this. Frank didn't care yet and obviously would never remember being at any of the games he'd been to so far.

"Yes, sorry. I just have to get my jacket. The bottles and everything are ready to go."

He was completely impressed and surprised (though why he didn't know) at how efficient she was at getting Frank ready to go anywhere. She knew exactly what he'd need and she to this point had never been wrong.

"Why are you getting in on that side?" she asked him when they were in the garage. He'd helped Justin into his seat while she strapped Frank into his. Bill got in after she was done since Frank's seat was in between the two older boys.

"Huh?" he asked.

"You're not driving?"

"I can."

"You usually want to," she said.

He liked driving her car. He wasn't afraid to admit that and she knew it, too.

"I can, sure," he said, going over to the driver's side.

"Are you sure you want to come with us?"

"Yes," he said.

He'd had to work yesterday and then he'd had to go out last night. One of his friends was getting married and a group of them had thrown a bachelor party for him.

"I have to admit, you don't look as bad as I expected."

"What were you expecting exactly?"

She blushed and he sighed softly.

"I wouldn't do that, Claire."

"I know," she said softly. He reached for her, tilting her face up so she had to look at him.

"Do you?"

"I do."

"Somewhere in there you must not be sure."

"Well, we're not really together or anything so there's nothing stopping you."

He shook his head. God it tore him up that she thought that way. That she thought he'd think she wasn't worth waiting for.

"Loving you would stop me."

"Yeah, but not everyone is going to love everyone back so loving someone isn't going to stop people from having sex with people. It certainly didn't stop Dan."

"It'd stop me until you tell me that I don't have a chance."

"John," she whispered.

He tilted his head a little, regarding her. Unshed tears in her eyes and he once again wanted to beat the crap out of her husband. He slanted his mouth over hers and she gasped softly into his kiss. She didn't pull away, though. She drew away after a couple of minutes. Bill and Justin were giggling in the car, so evidently they didn't mind seeing him kiss their mom.

"I swear to you I didn't do anything," he whispered. "I won't deny there was entertainment there, but I wouldn't do that with someone like that anyway."

"Entertainment? Is that what they're calling it?"

He chuckled. "I figured it was the better way to phrase it."

"So someone like that propositioned you…"

"I'd say no." He closed his eyes a bit. "Let's see a choice between you and everything that's good and, well, disease-free. Or someone who's probably been with more guys than I've known in my adult life. Yeah, not a difficult choice for me, sweetheart. I get that that appeals to some guys, and I won't deny six or seven years ago I didn't do some stupid things."

"You slept with strippers?"

"I don't think what I did could be classified as sleeping, no."

"Very funny," she said wryly.

"You're not going to get mad at me for something I did years ago, are you?"

"No," she said.

"Thank you. Now are you ready? We're going to be late if we don't leave pretty soon."

"I know. I'm ready."

"Are you mad at me for kissing you?"

"No," she said.


"I'm not," she said.

That surprised him because he'd never kissed her in front the kids before. He'd always assumed that was off limits. He wasn't sure why he'd done it today, but he wanted to. He missed her. He really missed her. The girls last night hadn't at all been tempting to him. If he needed any more proof that he was pretty well gone last night would have been it. He hardly even bothered to look because he'd much rather look at Claire. He hadn't seen her naked since she'd had Frank other than the few times he'd been there when she fed him. That wasn't completely naked, though. He knew, though, that she'd gotten her shape back pretty quickly.

Truthfully, he was more hung over than he let on to her he was. The friend whose bachelor party he'd gone to the night before had met his fiancé last Christmas. Actually, he and Claire had met her at the New Year's Eve party they went to. It bothered him more than he wanted to admit that Adam was already at the bachelor party stage and John hadn't even gotten to the dating stage. It wasn't her fault, he knew that. He just hadn't counted on actually developing feelings for her and wanting more from her.

That first night she'd had sex with him he thought he'd hit the mother lode. Good sex, very good sex with nothing expected from him but giving her more good sex. It was what most single guys would dream of being in the position of having in their grasp. Somewhere along the line, though, he knew it wasn't just sex and he wasn't going to walk away unless she told him he had to.

"Good," he said.

The game was a good one, the Cubs won. Bill hadn't enjoyed the game nearly as much as the one they went to in July against the New York Mets. He'd cheered for the Cubs, but he'd enjoyed somehow getting a glimpse of something from what he probably still considered home. John could understand that.

"Are you going to come in?" she asked when they got back to her mom's place.

"I shouldn't. I have to be in Joliet early tomorrow morning and I didn't get a whole lot of sleep last night."

She smirked at that.

"I noticed you didn't drink any beer today."

"I was driving."

"I could've driven if you wanted beer."

"Nah, I liked seeing you drink a beer."

"I'm so glad I can again."

She’d stopped nursing Frank a week or two ago. Until then, things like beer had continued to be off-limits. The one glass of wine or champagne she allowed herself while pregnant once in a blue moon she didn't even do when she was nursing. He admired her dedication to making sure she didn't do anything wrong.

"I kind of figured you needed it more than I did. It's all good."

"You could come in for a while. I'm sure Mom made something for dinner."


"Come on, John, it's Sunday dinner."

He sighed softly. "I suppose."

"I'm sure she made enough for you, knowing you were going with us to the game. I think she mentioned pork chops."

"All right, you don't need to convince me anymore. I will have dinner with you."

"Good. I won't keep you late then, I promise."

"You could keep me late if you want to, sweetheart."

"You just said you have to leave for Joliet early tomorrow."

"I know, just saying. You know, I'd stay late with the right incentive."

"My mom's cooking isn't an incentive?"

"Not the incentive I had in mind, no."

She smiled a little, getting Frank out of the car while John helped Justin out. Bill had already gone on inside, not waiting for either of them.

"They had fun," he said.

"They did. Thank you for the programs. They already had one from an earlier game."

"I know, it's fine. Bill likes to keep score."

"He does."

"Why does Justin call him Willy?"

"I don't know. I really don't. He can say his B's, he just chooses to call him Willy."

"Did you used to call him Billy?"

"We did, yeah."

"So, he's maybe trying to say Billy?"

"Maybe. I don't know. Bill doesn't mind so I haven't corrected him. I just figured maybe it was kind of his name for his big brother."

"I can see that. I just haven't ever heard you or anyone other than Justin call him Will or Willy."

"No, no one else does."

He tugged on her jacket a little while Justin followed Bill inside. He leaned in and kissed her.

"Thank you for a nice day. I could've called and canceled. I thought about it to be honest, but I'm glad I didn't."

"You're welcome. I'm glad you didn't, too. It's more fun going with you."



"So, they've seen us kiss."

"I know that."

"Does that mean I can kiss you in front of your mother now?"


He chuckled when she realized he'd been teasing her.

"When the answer to that is yes, sweetheart. You can be assured my work schedule the next morning be damned I wouldn't go home early."

"Hmm, I'm not sure I'd do that on a Sunday night anyway."

"No sex on Sunday's?"

"No, not ever. Just you know, again. Certainly not with anyone home. I wouldn't want to be rushed or anything."

"Ah," he said. "Should I block off another five or six hours from my calendar then?"

"Probably longer," she said, walking away from him then.

He could only hope that time came sooner rather than later.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty***
Word Count: 4,595

October 1995

"Are you sure you don't mind babysitting, Mom?" Claire asked. She'd asked before, of course, but she had to be sure.

"Claire, the boys and I will be fine. Go."

"Okay, thank you again," Claire said. She kissed her mom on the cheek. Frank had already been fed and everything, so depending on how late she stayed out her mom may not need to do more than change him.

"You're welcome. Have a good dinner and a good time."

"I will."

"Are you going to bring us something back, Mommy?" Bill asked.

"I don't think so, honey, it'll be too late by the time I get back."

"Bye, Mommy," Justin said.

"Bye, sweetie, you behave for Grandma."

"I will."

"Good," she said, kissing both boys.

Claire was looking forward to a couple of hours away. She loved school and her kids, but once in a while it was nice to be Claire and nothing else. It was fun dressing and getting ready for dinner out and going through her things for a purse that would match her outfit. Silly things, but she enjoyed doing them just the same.

She was running a little late, which was not unusual for her these days. She didn't used to be that way. She'd been raised to be punctual and prompt, but kids changed everything. The hours Dan kept hadn't helped. She wasn't sure how her mom had managed and it wasn't like she was hours late showing for things, she just wasn't the few minutes early her mother had raised her to be.


'Standish residence.'

"Hey Bill. This is John."

'Hi Mr. Bender,' Bill said.

John rolled his eyes. Claire hadn't budged to this point on the kids calling him Mr. Bender or Sir. It drove him absolutely nuts she still thought it was necessary, but as they weren't his kids he couldn't argue the point with her as vehemently as he would have liked. He just didn't like it, it made it seem so formal when he'd been seeing them twice a week for close to a year now.

"How was school today?"

'It was good.'

"Yeah? You haven't mentioned Tommy much lately. Isn't he in your class this year?"

'No, Sir, he has Miss Platt.'

"Oh, okay. I guess I didn't realize that he had a different teacher this year. Are you making some new friends?"

'Yes, Sir,' he said.

"Good. I'm glad. Say, is your mom busy?"

'She's not home.'


'No, Sir.'

"Do you have any idea when she'll be back?"

'Um,' he said pausing as if thinking on that. 'No. Grandma said she had a dinner date and we wouldn't see her until morning probably.'

"Uh okay," John said, not sure at all how to respond to that. He knew how he wanted to respond, but obviously Bill wouldn't be able to answer his questions. And why did he feel as though the child had just punched him in the gut with those words? "Is your grandma busy then?"

'Um, no.'

"Can I talk to her maybe?"

'Just a minute. She's upstairs I think,' he said, setting the phone down. Judging by the noise he'd answered the phone in the kitchen. 'Grandma. Mr. Bender is on the phone,' Bill yelled.

'I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long, John,' her mom said a few minutes later.

"It's no problem."

It was a huge problem because John had the past few minutes to think on Bill's words and what they meant. In general and for him. And for Claire. He found it very hard to believe she'd go on a date without telling him she was doing that. Then what did he know? She'd made it very plain that she didn't think they were dating, so he imagined that would mean she felt she was free to do that without having to explain herself to him.

And really, she didn't have to. He knew that. She didn't owe him a god damned thing. Him and his stupid moral compass was to blame. Because he knew if they were having sex, if he hadn't said no to her back in June and stuck by that decision, that she wouldn't be on a date with someone else. She wouldn't do that. Kissing wasn't the same thing even though they'd somehow managed to get the art of kissing one another down to an art form the past few months.

He'd expected something, though, some warning. Some sharing of information, even in passing that she'd met someone she wanted to date. He knew he shouldn't be upset and he wasn't upset really. He couldn't blame her really. He'd probably want to date a time or two, too, if he'd married the first girl he'd ever dated and she turned out to be the type of woman Dan had been to Claire. He was hurt, though, because he'd laid his feelings on the line for her and evidently she couldn't take those feelings into consideration. Or she was hiding what she was doing out of consideration.

"How are you, Mrs. Standish?"

'I'm well, John, thank you for asking. Bill's keeping busy with his football and hockey this fall.'

"I bet he is."

He wasn't sure how Claire did it. Justin was taking swimming lessons, too, a couple of times a week and was playing soccer this fall. He hadn't been interested in hockey (which was kind of ironic to John because hockey was kind of like soccer just on ice with sticks and pucks instead of a ball).

'How are you?'

"I'm fine, thanks for asking."

'Claire mentioned work has been slowing down for you some lately.'

"Yes, ma'am, that's pretty typical for this time of year, though. New construction starts winding down."

'You compensate for that, though?'

"Uh, yes, ma'am," John said. "I work throughout the year and definitely knowing slower months are coming up I stash what I can away during the summer."

'It's not so easy with a house, is it?' she asked.

He chuckled at that. "No, it's not nearly as easy as it was previous summers that's for sure. Last summer I was so busy trying to get settled in here that I didn't pay much attention."

'It sounds from what Claire's mentioned that you do fine.'

"I try to. Listen, I just wanted to leave a message for her if I could."

'Sure. I'm not sure how late she'll be tonight. She mentioned something about drinks afterward.'

She was planning on going out for drinks, too? He'd talked to her two nights ago and she hadn't mentioned anything to him about plans. He'd sort of gotten used to seeing her on Wednesday's. If Bill or Justin had a sporting thing going on he went with her and they ate afterward. His fault maybe for assuming he supposed. He just sort of presumed.

"Okay, well, she knows how late is acceptable to call me back."

'I'll leave a note for her, John.'

"Thank you. I hope you have a good rest of your night."

'You, too.'

Not likely, he thought as he hung up. He stared at the phone for a minute. She hadn't invested in an answering machine for her own line, which was the reason he'd called the house's main line. She was rarely in her bedroom except to sleep anyway.

He stood then, heading toward the bathroom off his garage that he'd been working on during the week. He hadn't expected to have the evening free, so hadn't budgeted time to work on something larger. The bathroom had a ceramic tile floor that he had to grout. He'd been dreading it because he just didn't want to deal with the mess and noise of having to remove the grout he'd be replacing. Actually, using a grouting saw was probably just what he needed right now to get his mind off of what Claire was doing tonight.


"I was surprised you called," Nancy said.

"A good surprise, I hope," Claire said.

"Of course. I miss having lunch with you," she said.

"Me, too, but Long Island Iced Teas are much better than milk."

Nancy laughed. "You have a point. I was just surprised because you're always so busy. School, your kids, and I know they're both doing things this fall. I was surprised you had the free time."

"I took Justin to his swimming earlier and one of the moms of Bill's teammate let him ride with them today."

"Good. I'm glad you are all getting along well."

"How is everything?"

"At school?" Nancy asked.

"Yes. Well, to start."

"It's fine. Busy."

"Good busy?" Claire knew there was good and bad for Nancy with her job. The school counselor didn't see people for just bad things as was the case for John when he was in school.

"For the most part. There's always bad things, but so far there haven't been many this year."

"I'm glad."

Claire knew Nancy took her job very seriously and let things bother her probably more than she should. It was one of the reasons John had stood out to her. He was the first 'bad' case she'd come up against. She admitted to Claire once last year (without going into details) that if she could've gone back and done things differently, intervened more strenuously she would have. She'd been new, though, and had been willing to believe his stories.

"And you? How's school?"

"It's fine. I'll be a lot happier when I can get into more of the classes I want to next year."

"That's too bad, but I guess it makes sense."

"Yeah. I feel like I'm going to end up there for another four years all over again, but I know that won't be the case."

"And if it's three years?"

Claire shrugged. "Then it's three years. I want to do this. You know I'd honestly forgotten what I'd wanted to do until John asked me."


"Yes! I'd been so focused for years on my life as it was that thinking about 'what if' just never entered my mind."

"Well, that's good, I guess."

"You don't think so?"

"No, I do, but I'm glad that you remembered your dream, Claire, and are pursuing it."

"I am, too. I'm just glad Mom is so understanding and willing to help me. There's no way I'd be able to do this if she wasn't."

"I hope you've told her that."

"I try to every day. I'm actually going to give her a weekend away at a spa."

"Really? I think she'd like that."

"I think she would, too, now. I wanted to do something for her a year ago just for letting us live with her, but she wouldn't have gone. So I waited."

"And she's okay?"

Claire shrugged. "She has good and bad days. More good days than bad it seems. There are still times I see her staring off as if she's not sure what she's supposed to be doing."

"It's an adjustment."

"I don't do that."

"I think you're a little more functional than your mom. You worked. You still have your kids at home. Your mom didn't work and her kids were grown and gone. From the things you've said your parents were getting along. I think it was a great idea for you to move in with her, even if you weren't worried about her at the time. It gives her something to look forward to, makes her feel useful."

"I guess."

"Is she still drinking?"

"Not quite as much, but yes. I haven't come home from school finding her drunk or anything."

"Well, that's good," Nancy said. "Would you tell me if you did?"

Claire smiled tightly at that. "I don't know. You'd feel you should report it. I wouldn't endanger Justin or Frank, though."

"I know you wouldn't and that's why I believe you. If she's having a glass of wine during the day, there's nothing wrong with that."

"I know. She has more than that once I'm home."

"Every day?"

"Not every day."

"Well, hopefully it'll continue to get better. It used to be every day, right?"

"Yes! There were nights I don't think she was able to sleep until the bottle was finished."

"It will get better, Claire."

"I know. I've just been so busy with my own stuff I forget sometimes why I moved back here to begin with."

"You moved back here to be near your family, so the boys could be near their relatives. That's important. You had nothing in New York."

"I didn't have nothing."

"You know what I mean, Claire. Don't take offense to what I'm saying. You had no support system. No real one, anyway. Certainly no one you could have counted on with Frank."

"No, I know."

"How is Frank? He's seven months now?"

"He is. He's good. It's going by so much faster. He's so curious about everything."

"I think that's natural. He has two big brothers to want to be like."

"That's what their pediatrician said. He told me to be prepared for him to do everything early."

"Are you?"

"No! I'm not sure my mom is either."

Nancy laughed. "It'll work out, Claire. You both will do fine."

"Someone at school asked me out," Claire said.

"And you waited until now to tell me?"

"I think I thought if I said it out loud it would be…"

"Less crazy sounding?"

Claire laughed. "Yeah, that."

"So, who is he?"

"He's one of the grad assistants in my Anthropology class."


"Yes, he's twenty-four."

"Not a huge age difference," Nancy offered.

"No, but he has nothing."


"No responsibilities but class. He started this study group, actually for me."

"For you?"

"Yes, I talked to him for ideas on how to get the most out of studying. There's so much in the text book and the lectures don't always follow it. He knows the professor he assists, so I wanted to know if I was supposed to put my focus on the text or the lectures."


"So, I explained that I was back in school after so long and he got some other students together who seemed concerned about doing well in the class."

"That was good of him."

"John wasn't too thrilled."

"He wasn't? He told you that?"

"Oh, no, he didn't say anything. I don't think he would, but he was there the day Chris called and I could tell he was curious."

"Rightfully so probably."

"I know."


"I don't know what to do."

"What do you want to do?"

"I don't know!"


"I've never dated anyone but Dan. And John I guess. I mean, we've had dates regardless of what we wanted to call them. They were dates."

"Are you counting the ones before you weren't having sex with him as dates? Or just the ones after?"


"Well, it's important I think. He had a valid point, I think, behind his decision to abstain once Frank came along. So, did you consider the things you did before you had him dates?"

"At the time? No. I mean, kind of, I guess. I didn't want to admit to myself they were dates."

"Because you felt guilty."


"You can admit they were now, though?"

"Well, sure. I didn't have to go to the New Year's party with him."


"I certainly didn't have to go away for a weekend with him."

"You had fun, though, so did the kids."

"We did."

"Have you talked to John?"

"No! I don't know what to say. What do you tell the person who says they love you that you were asked out by someone?"

"You don't think he'd understand?"

She sighed heavily. "I really don't know. I wouldn't if I was him."

"And you kind of love him, don't you?"

"Yes," Claire admitted.

"More than kind of?"


"But you're still tempted to accept this young man's invitation?"

"A little."


"Because I'm curious?"


Claire shrugged, running her fingertip along the base of her glass. The Long Island Iced Teas here were delicious. Nancy had recommended the place because on Wednesday nights they had various drink specials. Claire was glad she'd let Nancy pick.

"I guess what going out on a date with someone I don't know would be like."

"Because you knew Dan and John before you ever went out on dates with them?"

"I thought I knew Dan."

"Are you afraid John will be the same way?"

"No," Claire said.

"Claire," Nancy said.

"Maybe a little. I don't know. To commit to him…"

"It's scary because you have to trust someone again after someone you thought you could trust let you down so deeply for years."


"What do you think John would do if you told him?"

"I think he'd tell me that he understands."

"Do you think he'd leave you and the boys?"

"No, he wouldn't do that."

"You're sure?"

"We're friends if nothing else. He may not come around as often as he does now, but he wouldn't just bail on us. I think he's as attached to the kids as he is to me."

"You've been able to count on him, though."


"It's scary losing that."

"Yes, but is that the right reason to not say yes to a date?"

"I can't answer that for you."

"I know."

"If it were me?"


"I'd go. I'd tell John because if you don't then you're being dishonest and trying to hide."

"I know."

"I'd go, though. I think if for no other reason than I think you need that."

"Need what?"

"That validation that someone else who hasn't known you intimately finds you attractive. Desirable even."

"I'm not going to have sex with him."

Nancy laughed. "I wasn't suggesting you were. You can still feel desirable."

"I guess."

"You don't even know what that's like, do you?"

"What do you mean?"

"To be flirted with?"

"Not really, no. No one flirts with the woman with the three boys along."

"I bet some do, you just don't pay attention."

"Maybe you're right."

"You know Greg Wilcox?"

"Yes." Greg was one of the sixth grade science teachers. He was a very nice man if not a little on the quiet and shy side.

"He wanted to ask you out last fall."

"Shut up."

"He did. He knew we were friends so he asked me about you."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him that you'd just lost your husband and were pregnant."

"You did not?"

"Of course I did."

"Why would you tell him that?"

"Because I thought he should know what he was potentially signing up for."

"Obviously it was more than he wanted."

"I don't think so. I think I scared him, but you never spoke to him for him to even ask."

"Oh," Claire said. She supposed Nancy was right. Their paths had rarely crossed, once in a while in the teacher's lounge or in the school office. Claire had always been polite to him, but she'd never gone out of her way to be friendly. God, she had just moved here and was still dealing with everything.

"He knew, Claire."


"I can see you going over the few conversations you had with him last year and whether you were unkind to him or something. That wasn't the case. He knew your plate was full and that you didn't ask a new widow out on a date. I'm sure that's why he didn't ask. I imagine if you were still teaching this year he may have thought about it again. He's asked me if I've seen you."



"Huh," she said.

"This surprises you?"

"A little."

"Well, I don't know why it would."

"It just does, I don't know. I was married for so long…"

"Were you ever tempted?"

"Tempted to do what?"


"No," she said without hesitation. The thought had never crossed her mind.


"Because I was better than that. And I'd know. I wouldn't have been able to go to sleep at night, knowing I'd done that. I wouldn't have been able to look my boys in the eye today and not shy away from them afraid they'd see things they shouldn't."

"John has had quite a bit of experience."

"You don't have to remind me."

"Yet you seem to trust him."

"I do."

"You believe nothing happened at the bachelor party he went to last month?"


"Without hesitation?"


"That's good."

"Why?" Claire frowned.

"I admit I was a little afraid you wouldn't be able to trust again, certainly not so soon. I was afraid you'd use your experience with Dan as a reason to push someone away. John, or anyone."

"John hasn't violated my trust."

"No, but he loves you and the only other man you've loved did just that."

"I know. John's not him, though."

"I'm glad you know that, that's all I'm saying."

"I do."

"You should come over to the house sometime," Nancy said.


"You could meet Randy and my kids."


"You sound so surprised."

"I am, I guess."

"I'm not Miss French anymore, you know?"

"I do know that, I just didn't think."

"I like you, Claire."

"I like you, too. Even if you ask me tough questions sometimes."

"Friends do that for one another."

"You just know the right questions to ask."

"I guess there is something to that. Are you going to talk to John?"

"I guess."

"You know you can accept Chris, that's his name, right?"


"You can accept Chris' invitation of a date without any meaning behind it."

"What do you mean?"

"Just because you agree to a date doesn't automatically mean you're agreeing to a kiss good night or even a second date. There's nothing wrong with seeing what's out there, whether John is truly the fit you think he is. I think when all is said and done if you didn't John would always wonder if you were settling."


"And you do think he's a fit, don't you?"

"Yes," Claire admitted. "I didn't get my tubes tied and I was adamant when I found out I was pregnant with Frank that I would do that as soon as he was born."

"I think I would enjoy meeting John's children one day."




She laughed softly. "I suspect they will be incredibly … spoiled."

"I wouldn't let him do that."

"Not in the way you think I mean. I think John would do everything in his power to compensate for his own childhood."

"Oh," Claire said, not having thought on that. "He's very good with Bill."

"Not with Justin or Frank?"

"No, he is, but I think because Justin's younger he's not sure what to do with him. He's not entirely sure with Bill either, but Justin's too little for things like snowmobiles. He holds Frank and he's given him a bottle for me. He likes going to Justin's soccer games with me."

"Claire I can't tell you what to do and neither can John."

"My mom would freak out."


"She's just really gotten used to John being around."

"You don't have to tell her everything you do. It's a date it's not a relationship or a future son-in-law."

"I know."

"Do you like him?"



"Oh," Claire shrugged. "He's nice and he's nice looking. He's very smart."


"I don't know."

"Would you feel guilty if you went out with him?"

"If John knew? Probably I would still a little, yes."

"That's normal especially since you've admitted to having feelings for him. That doesn't mean considering it is wrong, though."

"I know."

"You have to do what's best for you, Claire. John would say the same thing, I'm sure as much as he may not want to."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. And you let me know whenever you can come over for dinner. Or just after school if dinner doesn't work."

"Okay, I will. Wednesday's are usually a good day," she said and stopped.


"I just realized this is the first Wednesday in months that I haven't seen John."

"You just realized that now?"

"I really didn't pay attention to what day it was. It's different being in school again versus a job. I don't think about it from Monday through Friday just what classes I have to get to each day and how they fit into the boys' schedules."

Nancy laughed a little at that. "I don't envy you."

"I do the best I can."

"I wasn't implying you were doing anything wrong. I think you're doing very well. You've remained constant, consistent, and have kept a routine. That's important. Obviously Bill and Justin are doing well despite losing their father."

"Bill has his moments."

"Completely understandable. I bet you do, too, and you're twenty-eight years old."

"I do."

"All normal."

"I hug him tight when I have those moments."

"I'm glad you have someone to hug during those moments."

"Me, too," Claire said.

"I'm sorry I have to cut it short tonight," Nancy said once they were in the parking lot. Claire's car was on the other side of the parking lot from Nancy's so they were going their separate ways at the entrance.

"No, it's okay. It was short notice."

"You can call anytime."

"You, too."

Claire got home in time to say good night to Bill. Justin was already asleep, but she checked on him, too. Her mom did fine with the boys, but the memory of coming home from her day to find Justin still in his pajamas more than once when they'd first moved back here hadn't been entirely forgotten. So, Claire still checked to be sure all was as it should be.

She found her mom in the living room, watching TV.

"Did you have a nice night?"

"I did, thank you. And thank you for babysitting."

"You don't have to thank me."

"I do. I appreciate it."

"John called."

"He did?"

"Yes. I told him I'd leave a note and I did. It's on the fridge, I wasn't sure how late you were going to be."

"I'll call him tomorrow."

"Is everything all right?"

"Yes, why?"

"You usually see him on Wednesday's."

"Everything's fine, Mom."

"People change sometimes, Claire, needs change, too."

"He hasn't changed neither have his needs."

"I wasn't talking about him."

"Mine haven't either. We didn't have plans tonight."

"He called. I'll bet he was expecting you did."

"I don't know."

Claire didn't know what to say to that. She said nothing, choosing instead to sit with her mother for a while. She had no idea what show her mom was watching, a news show of some sort. Claire watched the news, but she didn't watch these hour long shows like Dateline or 20/20 as her mom did.

"How soon will Frank need another bottle?"

"I'll stay awake until he gets his last bottle for the night. You go on up to bed."


"Go, Claire, get some rest."

"All right, thanks."

"Sure. I'll see you in the morning. I was thinking of making the boys French toast."

"Yum," Claire said.

"Well, you be sure to wake up in time and you can have some too."

Claire smiled at that. As if she didn't wake up with her kids every day. True, sometimes after Bill was up and off to school Claire went back to sleep for a little while if she could and Justin was occupied. She didn't do that often, though.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-One***
Word Count: 4,586

He sighed a bit when he pulled through the gate that led to his house and saw her car on his driveway. She knew the code to get through the gate, but didn't have a key to his house. He'd have given her one months ago, but he sensed somehow that offer wouldn't have been received well by her so he hadn't.

He pulled into his garage, walking out to her car where she was sitting. Frank was in the car with her, but Bill and Justin were not.

"Hi," he said when she opened her door. She looked good, but then she always did to him. Even coming home from having Frank she had.

"Hi," she said. "I'm sorry to just show up."

"It's not a problem. You know that." He hoped she did anyway. He wanted her here as often as she wanted to be here. He knew it wasn't easy for her to get here. Everything for the kids, especially Frank was at her mom's house. He understood that. He did have a playpen here for her to put Frank in so she never had to worry about lugging it around coming to his house.

"Yeah, but you said the reason you never gave Amanda the code…"

"You're not her. If I didn't want you to have it I could have changed it months ago now. Are you coming in?"

"If you're not busy."

"Nope. I had nothing on my agenda really."

"Okay," she said, opening the door to the back seat to get Frank out.

"Bill and Justin are with your mom?"

"Yes. Bill had a game today."

"Oh, right. And you came here?"


That couldn't bode well at all. She never missed one of their games. When they had games at the same time, which had happened a couple of times already she split her time between the games as evenly as she could. Some moms and dads dropped their kids off at swimming and used the forty-five minutes to do something, but Claire stayed the whole time watching Justin's progress. She was just that kind of mom.

"All right."

He grabbed the diaper bag from her. He knew she could handle it all on her own, but he liked to help her when he could. The first couple of times he'd taken the diaper bag for her she'd protested, but she seemed to understand now that he wasn't suggesting she couldn't do it all on her own. He knew she could. He just wanted to help.

"Thank you," she said.

"Not a problem," he said.

Inside, he had no idea what to say to her. He hadn't been expecting her so he had nothing really to offer her. He'd planned on making himself a sandwich or something for dinner tonight and getting right to work on the bathroom he'd started the night before. It turned out a grouting saw was both good and bad for letting out aggression. Good because it was a power tool and had some kick to it. Bad because ceramic tile was pretty fragile. It was a good thing he had a box of extra tiles so he could replace the one or two that had cracked or gotten chipped from his efforts.

"Want a beer or a Diet Coke?"

He still couldn't believe he kept Diet Coke stocked for her. None of the guys he had over drank the shit. A couple of times Greg and his family had come over for a while and his wife had been happy to drink it, but otherwise he'd never had a reason to serve it to anyone else.

"Sure. Diet Coke."

He grabbed her one, grabbing himself a beer.

"How are we today?" he asked.

"Fine," she said. She sat Frank on his counter, sliding his coat and hat off before settling him in the playpen in his living room. "He's so close to crawling it's scaring me. It wouldn't surprise me if this weekend he started he's that close."

John smiled a little at that. He had no idea what was normal, but she'd mentioned that Bill hadn't started crawling until he was over eight months and Justin hadn't really crawled at all. He'd gone from kind of scooting himself across the floor to pulling himself up to a standing position she'd said.

"Obviously he sees things he wants to get a hold of."

"I guess."

"So, what's going on?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"No offense, but you've never in the year you've been back in town ever just shown up here. So, I'll ask again, what's going on?"

"I just needed to talk to you."

"Yeah?" he said. "Is this about your date last night?"

"What?" she asked.

"Because if it is you don't have to say anything I already know, obviously."

"I didn't have a date last night."

"I called, you weren't home."

"So you assumed I had a date?"

"No, Bill said your mom said you had a dinner date."

"Well, sure, it was a dinner date with Nancy."

"Come again?"

"I had dinner with Nancy. That's how my mom talks. You know that."

"She said you were maybe going out for drinks afterward."

"Yes, because I haven't been out of the house like that since school started. I've gone out with you, I know that, but it's different." She shrugged. "I can't explain it. A night with my friend. We had dinner and drank some Long Island Iced Teas. We talked. You know, girl stuff."

"I see. You didn't call me back last night."

"So you presumed what? That I didn't even come home last night?"

"I really didn't know what to think."

"You thought I'd sleep with someone?"

"I don't know what you'd do, Claire. You wanted to have sex with me again in June."

"I'm not going to do it with someone else."

"I guess I couldn't blame you if you wanted to."

"I don't want to!"

"Then what did you drive all this way out here for, Claire?"

"There is someone I think I might want to go out with."

And just like that everything was different. He knew it was bound to happen. His stupid big mouth encouraging her to go back to school where she'd be around smart guys who were going to do more with their lives than he was going to. Lawyers, doctors, or other architects.

"The grad assistant guy?"

"How could you possibly know that?"

"I'm a guy, sweetheart. No guy is going to randomly call your house on a Sunday afternoon for nothing."

"He legitimately put a study group together."

"I'm sure he did. It's a great in with a woman who has little time and shows concern for her grades. So, when are you going to go?"

"I don't know. I haven't said yes yet."

"He's asked though?"


Of course he had. John couldn't blame the guy. He'd probably ask her out, too, if he was in the guy's position.


"I told him I didn't know."

"Why not?"

"I thought I should talk to you first."

"Why? You've made it very plain that we're not dating."

"Yes, but we kiss and we see each other every weekend and during the week."

"Yeah. I can't say I'm surprised."

"Surprised about what?"

"Nothing. Go out with him. Do what you need to do, Claire."


"You don't think I know I'm so out of my league with you. What can I offer you this guy can't? A house maybe? Otherwise, clearly you like the educated type. I'm not going to be that. I barely passed high school."

"That's not what this is about at all, John. It has nothing to do with what you do or what school you went to."

"What is it then?"

"I just. I've never dated anyone else in my life. Do you understand that?"


"Do you? Do you really? You ask me if I know what you saying you love me means. But do you understand what this is like for me? I went from being married to spending time with you – someone I liked years ago - before I should've been doing it. Think about it. Think of all the people you've gone out with, and not the ones you've had sex with either. All of them. Every one. I know there are lots."


"No, save it, you weren't a monk before Amanda. I know that. So, think about that, though. All that time you had how many dates? I had none. I had Dan. I have you. That's it. I feel like I've spent all of my adult life being in a serious relationship."

"You have. I didn't make you marry the guy."

"I know that." She sighed softly. "I don't even really like him. He's too young."

John scoffed. "You never know, you might like that in a guy."

"What does that even mean?"

"If your, uh, drive is at all what it was when you were pregnant you might like a younger guy."

"I'm not having sex with him. That is the last thing on my mind. I just…" she sighed. "Nancy said she could see why I might need that, to see that someone who just met me finds me attractive."

"You don't think I find you attractive?"

"I believe you do."

"Hmm," he said. "But?"

"But we have a history. Remote and brief as it is it's there. You knew me. I wanted to date you. I just want," she sighed. "I don't know what I want."

"I just told you to do what you need to do."

"I know, but I don't want things to be weird between us."

"You're talking about dating other guys, Claire, things are going to be weird."

"Are you?"

"Am I what?"

She cleared her throat softly. "Going to date other people?"


"Why not?"

"Because I don't want anyone else. I already know that. I mean, if you want me to…" he smirked then. "That would bother you?"



"Because I suspect your idea of dating and mine don't mesh. I just want a date, you know, to spend a couple of hours at dinner with someone who doesn't know my life story."

"Jesus, you think I'd screw around with and fuck other people?"

"Why not?"

He wasn't even sure how to respond to that. It was the most ludicrous thing he'd ever heard he was pretty sure. Did she not understand? He closed the distance between them, sliding Frank's coat from her hands.

"John," she said. "What are you?"

He gripped her arms and drew her toward him then, stopping her from finishing her question by kissing her. If only he could kiss this stupid idea out of her head. He deepened it, parting his lips at the sound of her soft moan. They'd gotten kissing down real well. There were a few times he left being with her so hard and ready just from kissing he wondered what he'd been doing wrong all of these years that kissing alone didn't affect him in the same way it did when he kissed her.

She murmured his name in the most arousing way as he worked the buttons on her blouse open enough to slide his hand inside to touch her. She'd said they would go back to normal after she was done nursing Frank. She'd been done for a few weeks ago now he was pretty sure but he didn't notice a difference in them yet. He didn't say anything, not knowing if he was supposed to or not. He liked them the way they were, though, just fine. More than fine.

He found her neck then, nipping at the pulse point there which betrayed her excitement. He knew his would too currently if she returned the favor. He knew she had the class she knew this guy from on Friday's, tomorrow, and he couldn't stop himself. He sucked harder at the skin there. She wasn't exactly screaming at him to stop. Quite the opposite as his hand cupped a breast, stroking her peak with his thumb. She was obviously still sensitive there as he felt his thumb get a little damp from touching her like this.

He worked more of the buttons on her blouse, letting it fall open completely so he could touch her better. He groaned against her neck at the feel of the swell of her full breast in his hand. Her needs and sensitivity had changed over the course of their months together as she got further along so he had to sort of learn all over again what she liked. He didn't mind at all needing a reason to touch her.

He slid his mouth lower, kissing along her shoulder and collarbone before finding the top of her breast. Her bra had a front clasp and he was grateful for that, so much easier to undo in moments like this. He worked it open with ease before finding one of her peaks.

She gasped when he captured it, taking it between his teeth before he began sucking almost greedily. It'd been too long and he always loved her reaction to him doing this.

"Oh God, John, you should stop," she whispered.

He had no desire to pull away from what he was doing so he shook his head. He loved the taste of her even if he was a little surprised it happened. He didn't think she was still breastfeeding Frank. He toyed with the idea of stopping for a second or two.

"John," she whispered, apparently sensing that he was thinking it through.

He stopped sucking, licking the peak clean before he concentrated on just kissing and licking her there. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable or self-conscious. He lowered his mouth to the swell of her breast, sucking on the skin there. His hands slid along her abdomen, thumbs skimming along her skin there until they were stopped by the waistband of her pants. Of course today she wore pants. He worked the button and zipper, loving when she reached for them to push them low along her hips for him.

She cried out when he found her nub, sliding a fingertip around it the way she liked. He didn't think what she liked with that had changed over the course of her pregnancy. He slid his fingers lower, parting her lips causing her to moan in the most delightful way, making him even harder than he already was.

He reached for the front of his jeans as she kicked off her shoes and worked at sliding her pants and panties even lower, using her feet somehow to get them off. He wasn't even going to try and figure out how she'd managed to do that.

He lifted her up and she wrapped her legs around him without him having to even prompt her what he wanted her to do. She was there, pressed against him and wet for him. It didn't take him more than a minute to slide all the way into her as he settled her on the counter nearest where they were standing. She slid her hands to his abdomen, under his shirt so she could lift it up and over his head.

"Too much?" he asked when she gave a soft hiss and clenched around him. He had to remember it'd been over seven months since she'd done this. Him, too, but he knew it was a little different for women to go without than men.

She shook her head.

"You're sure? I don't want to hurt you," he whispered.

She laughed at that.

"Yeah, okay, I know what you like, sweetheart, but we were doing it fairly regularly there that hurting you didn't occur to me."

"You're not hurting me."

He didn't ask again. He loved her hands on him. He'd never been big on sex with lights on or in daylight before because it always led to pitying looks that he'd rather not actually see. She never looked at him like that though. She just looked at him as if she genuinely got aroused seeing him. The feeling was mutual.

"You have to pull out," she said, apparently able to sense that he was very close to finishing.


"You're not wearing anything."

He pulled out immediately, dropping a hand to his shaft so he could finish. She helped, sliding her hand along his sac as she knew he liked her to do. He leaned in to kiss her, using his hands at her hips to slide her closer to the edge of the counter so she was as flush against him as he could get her.

"Had you waited like two minutes longer to tell me that…"

"Yeah, I know. I wasn't thinking straight," she whispered. Her head was against his chest as he slid his fingertips along the small of her back.

"You think I'd do that with someone else? You think I want to do that with someone else?"


"No. You really believe I could go from this, you, what you do with and to me to someone I what? Pick up in a bar who doesn't have the first clue about doing it for me?"

"No," she whispered.

"You must think something."

"I don't know. I don't know what the rules are. I mean, you're telling me I can date."

"I'm not telling you that you can or can't do anything. I don't own you, Claire. If you need to do it then I can only let you do what you feel you need to do. I don't like it. I hate it. It truly makes me sick inside to think of you looking at someone else let alone going on a date with them."

"I'm sorry," she whispered and he could tell she truly did feel bad. She probably felt worse about it than he gave her credit for.

"Do you want to know where I'm at, Claire?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you want to know where my head is? I want to marry you. I want that, I want this, I want you every day for the rest of our lives. I don't want anyone else. I don't need anyone else. I've done the wandering thing and I don't need to figure anything out. So I don't need to date someone else. I don't need to find out if you're what I want."

"But how is that even fair?"

"It's not," he admitted. "You're right. It's horribly unfair and I'll be miserable every god damned day, but I get it. I get you haven't had the last ten years to live. You've been a wife and a mom and everything to everyone else you were influencing without any time to be Claire."

"I don't want you miserable."

"I don't know what the alternative is."

"I don't know either. Unless you didn't want to see me for a while."

"No, that'd be worse," he admitted. "And I'm not going to let you off that easy. I bail then you'll use that as an excuse that I'm not the guy for you. Or you'll forget about me."

She scoffed at that. "I couldn't forget about you."

"But you're just talking dates, right?"

"Yes. I just want to experience things."

"You do realize I can take you on dates, right? I'll take you anywhere you want to go."

"Yes, but I already know you."

He sighed.

"John, I love you," she said softly. He stiffened at that.


"I love you. I do. I didn't want to. I felt guilty about it when I knew I was falling in love with you, but I do. I can't deny that. I haven't admitted it because I didn't want that pressure on me. On us."


"I'm not looking for a boyfriend. I want to be with you, but I have to be sure. I can't rush from one marriage into another one."

"I'm not asking you to marry me today, you know? If you need time I'm fine with time. You want a couple of years we can do that? Have I pressured you? Have I suggested to you I expect you to see me every day? Have I suggested I expect you to even talk to me every day?"

"No," she admitted.

"Can we make a deal?"


"So suspicious."

"I'm half-naked and you want to make a deal with me. I'm liable to say yes to you."

He chuckled softly. "I like you any kinds of naked in my kitchen, sweetheart. I'm very glad I invested in that playpen for Frank now."

"Me, too."

"So here's my offer."


"Give me a chance. I mean a full-on dating chance. I know what I said tonight about what I want from you, but you knew that already. I've mentioned kids. I won't lay that heavy stuff on you anymore. There are people who get married right out of high school and make it work, you know? I realize it's not normal, but there's nothing wrong with the fact you haven't dated one hundred guys in your lifetime."


"Okay you accept my offer? Or you're just saying okay?"


He leaned back a little, regarding her. "Why?"

She shrugged. "I need a reason?"

"I guess not. I'm very relieved, but I guess I'm suspicious."

"I already know I love you."


"I'm just not ready for seriousness."

"I can leave the I love you stuff at the door."

"No, I don't mind hearing it. It's just the expectations."

"Those I can leave at the door, however, I need you to let me know when talking about seriousness is acceptable."

"I think we'll both know."

"I hope you're right. You can't throw that back in my face, though, six months or a year from now."

"What do you mean?"

"You can't a year from now tell me that I never tell you I want to be with you or anything anymore. You can presume my feelings are exactly what I've stated they are here tonight."


"And you need to go to a doctor and get on the pill."

"John," she whispered.

"Please don't tell me you don't believe in taking that?"

"I do. I just didn't because you said we shouldn't have sex."

"So what's the problem?"

"Are you going to go back to not wanting to have sex?"

"No," he said with a short laugh. "I was trying to do the right thing, for both of us."

"Why did you change your mind tonight?"

"Because it drives me absolutely crazy that you think what we just did. What we do together. It drives me batshit crazy that you think I believe I could find that anywhere else."

"You could!"

"I cannot. I cannot get this anywhere else. What we do because I don't love them. Do you get that?"

"No," she whispered.

He sighed. "Yeah, and I'm going to be paying for his crimes for God only knows how long."

"You're not, I just don't understand it."

"The fact you don't makes me very sad, sweetheart."

"Me, too."

"At least we can agree on that. Are you sure you're okay? I didn't hurt you?"

"I'm fine. I should probably clean up, though."

He chuckled softly. "Sorry. You didn't give me much notice to do anything but finish like that."

"I know."

"You can use my shower."

"Frank may wake up."

"I can get him. I assume you've got a bottle in his bag for him."


"Get it ready for me and I'll get him while you clean up."

"Thank you."

He sighed. "You're welcome. You need to stop thanking me for doing what people who date do for one another."

"People who date don't help with their babies."

"Well, this guy does and those people should rethink what they're doing."

She smiled at that as he helped her down from the counter.

"I'll still say thank you."

"I know, it's how you were raised."


"Truthfully, I wouldn't have you any other way, sweetheart, so we're good."

"Thank you."

He leaned down and kissed her.

"How confident are you he's going to wake up?"

"He's been sleeping for a while now. He hasn't eaten for quite a while."

"Speaking of that, how long does that take," he said, sliding a fingertip along a breast.


"To stop. You know."

"Oh, it shouldn't be too much longer, a month or two."

"And you don't want me to do that for a couple of months?"

"It does feel good," she whispered.

"What does?"

"Well, I weaned him, started feeding him that way less and less so less would produce instead of just stopping cold."

"Right," he said, understanding the concept of supply and demand.

"You don't just stop producing it, though. So, they hurt sometimes."

"What do you do?"

"Take a hot shower so enough leaks out for it to stop hurting."

"Well, if I hurt you or you're uncomfortable you need to let me know. I don't know what you're feeling."

"I know. I will, don't worry. It'd be okay if you did it a little if you don't mind that happening. Just not much or my body will start thinking it needs to make more again."

"All right, I can work with a little."

"Because it does feel good."



He chuckled. "As good as when you were pregnant?"

"It's different. Then it just felt really good, now it's a … base need to have it come out."

"And Dan wouldn't help you through that?"

She laughed at that. "He didn't touch me there for months after I stopped with Bill and Justin."

John rolled his eyes with a shake of his head. "You get to where you're hurting and I'm around, let me know. I'll help unless your mom's right there or something."


"I get a free pass to see, touch, and use my mouth on parts of your body I'm very fond of and you want to know why?"

"I guess put like that, no."

"Go take your shower."

"Thank you."

"And then we'll go find the other kids and get something to eat."

"John, you don't have to drive all the way to my house tonight."

"I know I don't. This woman I'm in love with has finally agreed to date me forgive me for wanting to spend a little more time with her. Unless you had somewhere else to be."


"No dates with grad assistants?"


"That's very good to hear."

"What can I say, you can be pretty convincing."

"Why the sex convinced you and I couldn't just by loving you I'm not sure I want to know."

"It wasn't the sex."

"It didn't hurt."

"No," she admitted. She got the bottle ready for John before heading to his room.

"John," he heard her call from the bathroom. She obviously had left his door open, probably to be sure she heard if Frank woke up even though he said he'd get him up.


"You gave me a hickey."

"Huh," he said. "Imagine that."

"I have to go home with that."


"I have to go to class… Oh."


"You're such an ass."

"I didn't hear you telling me to stop."

"Because it felt good."

He chuckled at that. "Deal with it, sweetheart. It'll go away. Clean up so we can go out somewhere."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Two***
Word Count: 3,486

"I appreciate you being able to babysit on such short notice, Shelly," Claire said when Shelly got there. She'd called her last night from John's cell phone to ask her if she'd be available tonight.

"It's no problem, Mrs. Abbott, I have fun babysitting Bill and Justin."

"I'm so glad. They're excited to see you again, too."

That had surprised Claire a bit because the boys had only seen her a couple of times. She'd used Shelly less than a handful of times after New Year's Eve when her mom wasn't home and she'd had an errand to run or an appointment. She hadn't babysat for as long as she had the night of New Year's Eve, though.

"Frank just had a bottle so he should be fine for about four hours. He's real close to crawling, so keep an eye on him if you have him on the floor or something."

"I will," she said.

"It's Friday, so you can send the boys to bed anytime really. If they're good and you want to let them stay up, that's fine. They both have things to do in the morning, though, so not too late."

"Okay," she said.

"Mom should be home around midnight I think she said. She's going to a show downtown. She'll go up to bed right away most likely anyway."

"That's fine. I have no problem with her being here."

"I don't think I'll be much later than that anyway since I have to wake up with Bill and Justin tomorrow, too. John said he'd drop you at your house on his way home. There are some pizzas in the freezer and stuff in the cupboard if you wanted something else instead. Help yourself to whatever you want."

"Okay. I'll probably make them some macaroni and cheese or soup and grilled cheese or something."

"That'd be great."

John came into the hallway then. He'd gone down to the basement to say hi to Bill and Justin while waiting for Shelly to get there. He hadn't taken off his coat because he knew she would be there at any minute. Traffic on Friday's was always bad and he'd worked a little later today than he'd expected to.

"Hi Shelly," John said.

"Hi," she said.

He'd taken her breath away a bit in the suit he was wearing. She'd only ever see him dressed up on New Year's Eve. Other than that the times they'd gone out had been pretty casual. Tonight, though, since it was an actual, official date he'd insisted they do it right. She couldn't help but think he had the right idea because she wouldn't mind staring at him for the next few hours looking like this. He even had a nice coat to wear over it. It wasn't real cold out, but cool enough it wasn't overkill wearing it with his suit.

"Everyone all right?" she asked.


"Good," she said, sliding into the coat he held for her. "Okay, Shelly, John has his cell phone with him. You do, right?"

He rolled his eyes. "Yes, ma'am, I remembered it. You only reminded me like fifty times."

"It may have been two, but thank you," she said. "So, if you need me for anything just call."

"We'll be fine. Have fun," Shelly said, closing and locking the door behind them. It was one of the things about Shelly Claire liked. She was conscientious like that, locking the door behind her when she left and stuff. She hadn't been too sure on New Year's Eve, being the first time she'd left her boys with someone she didn't know well. Justin hadn't said too much about her, but Bill had enough the next day so that Claire knew she was a good babysitter.

"Bill asked me if I was going to his game tomorrow," John asked once they were settled in his SUV.

"Are you?"

"I told him that was up to his mom," he said, pulling out of her driveway.

"It's not up to me."

"Would you like me to go to his game with you?"

"Sure, you're welcome anytime."

"Yeah, you say that, but are you sure you're ready for that?"

"What? You've gone before."

She knew what he was asking her. Honestly, she wasn't completely sure she was ready for it but there was no sense putting it off. If she tried to he'd know and think she wasn't serious last night.

"If I go with you tomorrow, sweetheart, I'm not going as your friend."

"I know."

That both excited and scared the shit out of her. People at Bill and Justin's games had seen John with her before, but not in the way he was talking about. The only people who'd actually ever seen John and Claire kiss were her boys. One time. Other than that one time they hadn't ever in front of anyone. Even when they'd gone out for dinner just the two of them or something they didn't in front of people.

"That means people are going to see us together." He paused, taking her hand. "Maybe see me put my arm around you, kissing you."

"I'm aware of what it means."

"And you're okay with that?"

"I told you last night…"

She totally understood why he doubted her. She'd changed her mind pretty quickly, surprising even herself. She hadn't decided over night that she loved him. She'd known a long time ago she did, just not wanting to admit it even to herself. She had decided pretty quickly not to accept a date with someone else because they'd had sex. Well, that wasn't really the reason, but she could see why John would think it was. She just knew there was no way she could go out with someone else when she felt about him the way she did. Having sex with him in his kitchen had just sort of driven the point home because she wouldn't have sex with him if she didn't love him. Not now anyway, and even if she didn't like to think about it even in November she wouldn't have if she didn't at least love him a little bit.

"Yeah, you've had all night and all day to think on things. Maybe change your mind. Maybe reconsider whether you wanted to take the other guy up on his offer. Maybe feel guilty."

"I wouldn't accept another guy's offer for a date with a hickey from you on my neck."

"I noticed you hadn't covered it up. What did your mom say?"

"She didn't say anything. What could she say?"

"Oh, I'm sure she could've said something. It wouldn't have phased my mom if I'd come home with a hickey on my neck. Your mom, on the other hand, I can see her being a bit unsettled."

"I think she chose to ignore it and pretend it wasn't there."

He chuckled softly at that. "I can see her doing that. At least I'm not banned from your house."

"I don't think she'd ban you from the house over a hickey if she didn't after you spent the night there."

"Likely she assumes nothing happened between us the first time. The second time nothing could have happened."

"Well, still," she said.

"And the Anthropology guy?"

"He didn't really say anything either. I could tell he was surprised."

John chuckled softly at that.

"I told him I had a boyfriend so couldn't go out with him."

"He didn't wonder why you hadn't said that right away?"

She shrugged. "He probably assumed I was just trying to be nice."

"So, wait. He saw the hickey and still brought it up again?"

"He may not have seen it, I don't know."

"Hmm," he said.


"Nothing, I just assumed that would deter the guy."

"Maybe he didn't care?"

"Obviously not."

"You're not leaving me another, more obvious one."

"I'm not?"

"No! Never mind him, I have kids to think about."

He chuckled softly.

"I was teasing, sweetheart. You're fine. Don't worry. I understand what I can and can't do."

"I didn't say you couldn't leave any…"

"Just not obvious ones?"


"Hmm," he said.


He shrugged. "Nothing. Just didn't have you pegged as the type to not be bothered by them."

"I haven't had one in years."

"Really? Years?"

"Maybe after Bill was born, but definitely I was still in college."


"What? What's so wrong with that?"

He sighed softly. "Nothing."

"You never gave me one until last night either. So why does it surprise you?"

"I haven't done it because I knew I wasn't supposed to. I didn't really have the right to and it probably would've made you mad."

"And last night you weren't worried about my being mad?"

"Last night I wasn't thinking very clearly, no. You'd just told me you wanted to go out on a date with someone else. You'll forgive me for not being happy or able to worry about leaving you a hickey."

"Have you ever been jealous before?"

"No," he said.

He glanced at her then and she saw that look in his eye. The one that told her he was about to ask her a question that he realized that he already knew the answer to. Usually those questions were about Dan or her marriage.

"Yes," she said softly.

"What? I didn't say anything."

"I know what you're thinking."

"Are you psychic now, sweetheart?"

"No. You just get certain looks when you're thinking about things."


"Like you were just going to ask if I'd ever been jealous and you thought about who you were about to ask that question to and why it would be stupid to ask me."

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. "I swear to God if you ever feel that way with me, please tell me."

"What do you mean?"

"If I'm doing anything, intentionally or not, that makes you jealous or think I'm doing something else with anyone but you please tell me so I can stop."

"You don't. You haven't."

"I'm glad, but that's an ongoing thing. Ever. I mean it. The last thing I ever want to do is anything that makes you feel that way again."

"Thank you."

He took her to dinner downtown at a place she hadn't been to in years. The last time she'd been there was with her parents when she was probably in junior high. It was as nice as she remembered, though. He admitted he'd never been there before, but had always wanted to go.

"You wore comfortable shoes," he said.

"I did. You said to."

"I'm glad you knew what I meant."

"I did," she said as they left the restaurant and walked. They stopped periodically to look at a store's window display or something, but otherwise they had no particular place they were heading to.

"Thank you for dinner," she said after a while. She didn't mind the silence between them. They talked about small things. His day. Her day. Stores she remembered seeing down here as a kid that were now gone.

"Thank you for coming with me."

"You know, I'm kind of glad you were dating Amanda in August."

"I'm sorry, what?"

She shrugged. "I think if you weren't and something had happened between us I would have felt too guilty to see you again."

"You think so?"

"I do. I felt guilty enough that it happened in November. Two months after Dan died I think I would have felt awful."

"I can see that. I guess I'm glad, too, then."

"I called my doctor today."


"Well, I just saw her last month."


"I was kind of hoping she'd just call in a prescription for me without having to see her again."


"She did. I saw her after I had Frank and then again last month so I'm current with everything."

"What's that mean?"

"That you'll have to be responsible for condoms for a while yet. Like six weeks. She said I can consider myself protected after a month of taking it. I can't start taking it right away."

"I can do that. I, uh, bought some today."

"Hmm. Should I be insulted you assumed our date would end with us having sex?"

"It doesn't have to! I just bought them to have at the house. I don't have one in my wallet or anything."


He chuckled, pulling his wallet out of his coat pocket. He held it open for her.

"See? Nothing. What happened last night doesn't mean it has to happen again right away, you know? I certainly didn't wake up yesterday morning thinking that I was going to see you let alone have sex with you."

"I know," she said.

"Just making sure."

She was quiet for a while after that. He slid an arm around her, drawing her against her as they headed back toward his SUV.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

She shrugged.

"Don't do that. What are you thinking? You're not the only one who can tell when I'm thinking something, you know?"

"You don't want to?"

"That's not what I said, Claire. I just don't want you to think I expect it."

He stopped walking and turned to face her then. He slid a hand to her cheek, touching her with the pad of his thumb. "Wanting to was never the issue, Claire. I don't want you to think we have to. That agreeing to date me means I expect anything from you. If you're not ready."

"Did I not seem ready last night?"

"That was different. It wasn't planned."

"I didn't realize it had to be planned."

He sighed softly.

"It doesn't. You're misunderstanding what I'm saying." He leaned in and kissed her, sliding his hand from her cheek to her neck, his thumb grazing her ear. "I just want to be what you need. Whatever that is."

"I know," she whispered.

"Do you?"

"Yes," she said.

"You want me to stop at Walgreen's on the way back to your place? I can."

"I," she said.

He chuckled. "You're not sure?"

"I just hate doing that with you in my basement."

"So, I can go to your room again."

"No," she said. "I don't know what Mom would do this time."

"How long are you going to be in school?"

"Two or three years at least."

He sighed. "We're going to go shopping soon."

"For what?" she asked confused by the sudden change in topics.

"Beds. Furniture."


"It's absolutely ridiculous that we can't sleep together if we want to when we went away for a weekend together. We're adults. Bill's not stupid even if he didn't see me come out of the same room you slept in, he knew there was no other bed upstairs that weekend that had been used."

"He probably thought…"

"What I slept on the couch?"

"I don't know," she said. She hadn't thought too hard on it, really.

"So, you're going shopping with me. You'll help me pick out some furniture they'd like and that's functional as more than kids' furniture."


"I'm not saying you should move in with me or spend every night there, but it would sure be nice to have that as an option without worrying about your mom getting mad at us."

"I know."

"Frank has the playpen, which you said he can sleep in for a while yet, right?"


"So we're talking a couple of beds and dressers. Maybe a couple of desks so they can do homework if they have to."

"He doesn't have much homework yet."


"You don't really need my help."

"I don't know the first thing about furnishing anything. Have you actually looked at my bedroom?"

She laughed at that. "Yes," she said.

He was right. He had no headboard. His dresser was probably as old as he was. The only thing in his house she absolutely could not find fault with was his dining room set and his couch.

"Who picked out the dining room table and chairs? And your couch?"

"Honestly? The woman at the furniture store. I brought her pictures of the rooms after I'd wasted about an hour of her time a week before."

"I'll bet she didn't think you wasted her time after that? If you bought everything at one time that had to have been a pretty nice commission for her."

"Yeah, I think she thought I was just wasting her time the first time, but I had no idea. I really didn't. The house is old, so it seemed to me I should go with things more classic, traditional. Hell if I knew what that stuff was, though."

"You could just get bunk beds and a dresser. They don't need their own rooms or anything."

"Well, still you can help me out."

"I can."

"That doesn't help us for tonight, I guess. I'm fine with the basement, you know. I don't think I ever complained."

"I know. It just bothers me."

"You could bring a couple of pillows down there from your room and we could sleep on the floor. What could your mom say about us falling asleep watching TV?"

"I suppose."

"I promise to have all my clothes on before we fall asleep."

"See, and I like you without all of your clothes on."

"I feel the same way, Princess."

"You're going to sleep in your suit?" she asked, scrunching her nose a bit.

"Well, the shirt and pants, yeah. I suppose I could sleep in the boxers and just put the pants back on before anyone else wakes up."


"Is that an okay you want me to stop at Walgreen's on the way back home?"

"Would you be mad if I said no?"

"Mad?" he asked with a frown. "Why would I be mad?"

"I don't know. You took me out on this nice date."

"Believe it or not, not every one of my dates has ended in sex."

"I find that a little hard to believe."

"Yeah, well, even if that was true, they aren't you. So, you're just talking sleeping, right?"


"I could go for that. In fact, why don't we stop at my place before heading to yours and I can pick up a change of clothes for tomorrow."

"Sure," she said.

"You said midnight, right?"

"I told her Mom would be home around midnight, I didn't really tell her a specific time."

"Well, we have plenty of time regardless."

He leaned in and kissed her again. "I would never get mad at you for saying no, Claire. You hear me?"

"I hear you."


"It's not that I don't want to."

"You don't need to explain yourself either."

"Yeah, but you probably think I'm drastically different not pregnant."

"Uh, no. If we'd been dating for months and you said no at every turn maybe." He slid a finger under her chin, tilting her face up to look at her. "And regardless of whether you were drastically different or not I wouldn't get mad. And I wouldn't think it was a reason to find it somewhere else."

Her eyes fell closed then and she shook her head a little, dislodging his hand from her face.

"I know."

"You know, but you're not sure yet you can believe me. I get that. There's one big difference between him and me, you know?"


"Well, I like to think there are a lot of differences, but the major one is your kids are not my kids so I don't have some complex about how you're whatever he thought. I don't pretend to understand it, and believe me I have tried. So, what you're good for making babies with but not the rest of the time. Some guys are like that I guess. You have the wife who you wouldn't do the stuff you'd do with your girlfriend."

"And it doesn't bother you I like the stuff you'd do with your girlfriend?"

"Uh, I don't know how adamantly I can say no to that. I'm not that kind of guy. Besides you are my girlfriend. If one day you become more than that I wouldn't want you to change what you do and don't like just because we were married or something."

She reached up and kissed him, lowering her mouth to his jaw and to his neck just above his shirt collar before finding his ear.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Let's go get you some clothes."

"Your mom is likely still going to freak out."

"Probably, but like you said, what can she do about us falling asleep on the floor?"

He chuckled softly.

"As long as she doesn't poison my breakfast tomorrow we're fine."

"She wouldn't poison your breakfast. Maybe your coffee."

"Ha ha, funny woman."

"I'm not sure I'm joking. The kids eat her food."

"Point taken. I'll avoid coffee."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Three***
Word Count: 3,444

November 1995

"I still can't believe they hadn't seen this," he said.

"Why did you see it?" she asked.

"Because it's Tim Allen?" he said with a shrug. "He's funny. I didn't go see it, but Greg had it in one afternoon for the kids in the basement when I was there for a game or something in the spring. I stood and watched it for a little while. I asked him the other day if I could borrow it for your kids. I figured it's closing in on Christmas time so it would be appropriate."

The kids had loved The Santa Clause. Claire, on the other hand, seemed downright irritated and he couldn't quite figure out why. He hadn't done anything that he knew of. They'd been getting along. Actually, they'd been getting along very well, so this sudden mood change seemed to come out of nowhere as far as he was concerned. He'd kept to his word and wasn't being pushy. If she asked him to do something more than their usual Wednesday during the week he was fine with that. Work was slow enough this time of year he could see her a couple of nights during the week.

The boys went up to bed almost as soon as the movie finished. Justin had been allowed to stay up a little later to watch it since they'd eaten dinner first. Frank was down here with them for a little while longer. She'd gotten him his bath and stuff after dinner before the movie so he was ready to be put to bed for the night whenever she got to that.

She brought him a beer and herself a glass of water when she came back from saying good night to Bill and Justin. She sat next to him, but not real close to him. She hadn't earlier either. He'd just sort of assumed it was because Justin and Bill were around. She was still being somewhat cautious around them and he certainly understood that.

"Are you going to tell me what's been bugging you the past few days now?"

"What?" she asked.

"You've hardly said a word to me. Wednesday or tonight. You didn't call me Thursday night before you went to bed, which is fine but you usually do. I'm not like all busted up about it or anything, but I do like hearing from you. Your day. You haven't mentioned wanting me to go with you tomorrow."

"I'm fine. You're welcome to come tomorrow. I didn't realize you were waiting for an invitation from me."

"Well, it's nice to know I'm wanted there."

"The boys love it. It's fine, you know that."

"Claire, come on. If this is too much. If you've changed your mind, just tell me. Don't pull this moody shit on me. I don't know what to do. Leave? Talk to you? Ignore it and pretend everything's all right."

"I haven't changed my mind. Well."

"Well what?" he asked.

"You may change your mind."

"What does that even mean? When have I hinted that I'm going to change my mind?"

"I told you I had to wait until my next period to start taking the pill."

"Yeah," he said cautiously, not sure what she was getting at. Did she think he'd get mad that they couldn't or something? "You mentioned it should be soon at your house that, uh, first night in your basement. I remember."

"Well, it should've happened this week."


"It hasn't yet."

"Like when this week?" he asked.

"Well, it's not an exact science. I'm usually pretty normal and regular, but I did just stop breastfeeding like six weeks ago so it's possible that could be messing things up."

"So, you haven't said anything because you're waiting?"

"Kind of."

"I pulled out in plenty of time."

"Did you? It only takes one."

"Well, I guess you have a point. I suppose it's possible."

"You said you've never been inside anyone but me without protection."

"No, I haven't."

"So it's not like you pull out all the time to know exactly when."

"Claire. I know how it works."

"And again, it just takes one."

"Okay," he said, conceding her point. He was not an expert on it by any means. He hadn't been expecting to have to pull out of her either. He almost didn't because she'd felt so damned good around him.

"And being two weeks ago it would've been at a real bad time for that to happen."

He didn't completely understand what was so bad about two weeks ago, but she apparently did so he took her word for it.

"Have you taken a test?"

"No," she said.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm scared to death to. I don't want to be pregnant again, John."

"All right. I get that. I didn't mean to do it if you are, but not finding out isn't doing you any good."

"I will next week if I haven't started by then."

"Next week? Claire."

"It's not going to change whether I wait or not."

"Well, yeah, but if the test comes back negative…"

"And if it doesn't?"

"Well, then we'd deal with that. You think I'd blow you off?"

"I don't know."

"Jesus, Claire. I wouldn't do that. I told you I'd love to have one with you."

"Yeah, one day, not next year."

"Well, true, but you need to find out first before you start worrying about it. You want me to go get you one of those tests?"

"You'd do that?"

"Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't know what in the hell I was looking for as far as one over another, but why not?"

She shrugged.

"You what? Think I am going to think you did this on purpose? That you came over to my house that day with that in mind?"

"You could."

"It's plausible, I suppose. I mean, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out I'd get a little jealous over the fact you came there telling me you wanted to go out with other people. And that you actually had a specific one in mind you wanted to accept an offer from. I'm not sure you're crafty enough to plot the rest of it out, though."

"I think you underestimate women who try and trap men."

"Okay. Look at your experience with that. Did it work for that other woman you mentioned telling Dan she was pregnant?"

"No," she said.

He set his can of beer on the table behind the couch and reached for her, drawing her onto his lap. She came willingly, he was happy to see that.

"Let's go buy a test. If you don't want to take it here we could go back to my place and do it if you want. I'm sure your mom wouldn't mind babysitting for a couple of hours once Frank is in bed."

"No, I could take it here. I'd just have to hide it so she wouldn't see it if she emptied the trash in my bathroom or something. She's not that nosey."

"She'd be pretty mad," he said, thinking of it from her mom's point of view.

"Mad is an understatement. My dating you is bad enough."

He chuckled. "I guess my staying in the basement will not seem like a very good idea if that's what it turns out to be."

"I was kind of hoping if I'd ignore it, stopped worrying it'd just start on its own."

"Can that happen?"

"Stress? Yes. It can and I know that night in your kitchen timed with around the time I'd be ovulating."

"That's bad?"

"That's when the egg is released, so yeah, because it can get fertilized then. I mean, it doesn't always, but for whatever reason I seem to be one of those people who it always happens to. We weren't really trying for Bill or Frank. Justin we did try for, but it happened right away with him, too."

"I see."

"Didn't you pay attention in health class?"

"About women and that stuff? Uh, no. I just knew it was a week I wouldn't be having sex if I ever got married. Considering at the time I had health class that held zero interest for me I tuned shit like that out."

She laughed softly.

"What?" he asked. "What else is there for me to know? Really."

"Well, I guess I don't know. And there's nothing stopping you from having sex."

"Yeah, no, you saw my reaction to seeing a little bit of blood on that part of me at the cabin in January. It doesn't belong there. You know?"

"You like to in the shower with me."

"Well, sure. I like to with you anywhere you want to. I suppose a shower could be workable. You'd really want to?"

"Well, no, I haven't."

"I can't imagine whose idea that was not to."

"Be nice."

"I have no reason to be nice."

"I never brought it up or anything, but I wouldn't have even if I'd wanted to. I would've known his answer. I was just pointing out that it doesn't mean you can't."

"Yeah, I get it. I'll store it away for reference some time when you're not living with your mother. Because you know I'd never say no to you."

"I do know that."

"Let's go do that then. Put Frank to bed, or bring him with us if you want. Tell your mom we're just going out for ice cream or something. It is Friday night."

"I know. We could."

"All right. You'll feel better, don't you think?"

"Not if it's positive."

He slid his hands to her cheeks. "We'll deal with it if it's positive. You do realize that, right?"

"I know."

"I won't deny I'd be scared shitless, but I'd deal with it with you."

"I believe you."

He smirked a little at that. "You believe I'd be scared shitless?"

"Yes, going from not wanting them to wanting them is great in theory."

"You're right. I can honestly admit if I hadn't spent the past year with you I probably wouldn't have mentioned not getting your tubes tied."

"You just like sex better with me when I'm pregnant."

"Uh, no. That's not it at all. It certainly was enjoyable, don't get me wrong. I did sort of feel guilty after a while, though."

"Guilty about what?"

"Always being behind you."

"I like it."

"I know this, but you know, it's ingrained in us men that women don't like that. They want the kissing and the contact that comes with us being on top of them."

"Oh, I like that, too."

"And yet even not pregnant we've never done it with me on top of you."

"Whose fault is that?"

"Yours! I try to give you what you want."

She laughed softly at that, leaning into kiss him. "I want you, John, it doesn't matter any way I have you."

"Go get Frank ready to go before you distract me. I do think you owe me something though for not telling me what was going on and for thinking that I'd somehow react badly."

"I was reacting badly. I will be so mad at myself. I knew, but you distracted me and I couldn't think clearly and it'd be my fault."

He frowned. "I initiated. I should've asked I guess. I just sort of assumed you went on something."

"What reason would I have?"

"I don't know! I guess I didn't think too hard on it. I just assumed it'd be a logical thing after having a kid and not wanting another one."

"Yeah, but you have to have sex to get into a position to have another one."

He chuckled. "True enough."

"I'll meet you upstairs then?"


"Are you going to come back here with me?"

"That's up to you, I guess. Do you want me to wait with you? How long does it take anyway?"

"Like ten minutes."

"I'll come back here with you then. I can sit in Frank's room or down here while you do whatever you need to do."

"You can wait in my room."

"Your mother might not like that."

"We can leave the door open. Why don't you just stay here with Frank? I'll go. I'll pick up ice cream, too."

"All right. That works, too."

She leaned in and kissed him. "I'll be back then. It's just silly to get him into his coat and everything for a trip to Jewel."

"You might want to drive to a Jewel not right here."

"Oh, I'd planned to, believe me. The last thing I need is someone seeing me buy a pregnancy test and telling my mother. I'll be back then."

She took forever. Sitting there with Frank was pretty torturous. Not that the baby was bad or anything. It just gave him time to think. He was a fucking idiot. If she was pregnant he deserved it and then some for not asking her. There was absolutely nothing good on TV to distract him either. Eventually, Frank crashed on the floor to where John finally took him up to his room and put him in his crib there. He saw her bedroom light on, frowning a little at that. He knocked and she opened the door almost immediately.

"I was just coming downstairs."

"Oh? How long have you been back?"

"About fifteen minutes."

"Ah. And?" He could guess what she'd spent the fifteen minutes doing.

"It says no."

"Okay. That's good, right?" He thought it was pretty good. If for no other reason she'd probably end up pretty damned pissed at him at some point during the next nine months if it had turned out positive.

"It is. I mean, the timing."

"I get it. Don't worry, I'm not taking offense to that, sweetheart. I understand completely."

"Good," she said, leading him into the hall.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"Out for a drink," she said, knocking lightly on her mom's door.

"Mom?" she said. "John and I are going out for a drink. The boys are all in bed. I'll be back in plenty of time in case Frank wakes up."

"Thanks for letting me know," she said through the door. She didn't sound like she was right by the door, though, so John imagined she was still in bed somewhere in the room. He'd never seen Mrs. Standish's bedroom, not having any reason to. The door was always closed the times he'd come upstairs. He imagined it was closed to keep her three grandsons out of there.

John got his coat on and followed her outside.

"How are you?" she asked once they got into the bar and were sitting down. It was Friday night so it was busy as he expected it to be. They weren't eating in the restaurant, though, so they were able to find a couple seats in the bar easily enough.

"I'm fine. I'm not the one who's spent the past five or six days worrying about this, though."

"I know, but you've spent the last little while wondering."

"I told you. We would have worked it out and we would've. My instinct would've been to ask you to marry me, but I know that wouldn't have been what you wanted."

"Not because I was pregnant, no."

"Well, I certainly would've wanted to see it more than weekends or something."

"Yes, I get that."

He leaned over and kissed her, grateful now that she'd sat next to him at the table instead of across from him. "I will take just you and your boys on weekends for now. You know that, right? The games and whatever else goes with it."

"I know. But a part of you…"

"Must be disappointed?"


"Nah. I'd really like us to be on firm ground, at the very least you guys living with me."

"You'd live with me without being married?"

"I thought we weren't going to talk about this stuff."

"Well, I'm asking you're not bringing it up, and we're talking about it because I thought I might be pregnant."

"Well, as long as I don't get in trouble I'll answer you."

"You won't get in trouble."

"I'd take you in my house for good any way I can get you. If living with me for a while feels better for you then that's fine. It's not like I was stuck on getting married until recently anyway."


"Does that mean you're thinking about that?"

"I don't know. Mom babysitting the kids while I'm in school."

"Well, maybe your mom would come to our house and babysit them. She'd love it there during the summer."

"She would," Claire agreed.

"So, if that's what's tripping you up, babysitting. There are ways around that. I completely understand her babysitting is saving you a ton of money."

"It is. During the school year, though."

"Yeah? Bill wouldn't be going to the Shermer school system anymore."

"I suppose not."

He chuckled softly. "I can't say that doesn't bother me."


"I've thought about what I'd do if I saw anyone again. Obviously if I'm involved with you, I'm involved with your boys. Bill's in Little League for now, but I bet that'll change into school stuff as he gets older."

"Right. I'd actually like to see Mr. Vernon's face."


"I just would. He was a jerk to you."

"He'd probably have something smart to say about me compensating or whatever by raising your kids instead of my own kids."

"Mr. Vernon doesn't know what he's talking about because in my opinion it takes an almost better person to want to take on someone else's kids. Especially Bill, knowing he remembers his dad and you know the things about his dad you know."

"Yeah, that bugs me, I won't deny it."

"He loves you, too, though, don't think he doesn't and don't think because you're not Dan or his dad that's not equally as important and meaningful."

"You'll, uh, let me know when you start, right?"

"Start what?"

"Your monthly thing."

"Oh, yes. Hopefully soon."

"Don't forget, please, I've heard those tests aren't always one hundred percent."

"No, they're not, you're right. I bought a package that came with two tests I thought I'd take another on in a few days if I still haven't gotten it."

"All right. You must be pretty confident, though," he said, gesturing to the Long Island Iced Tea she was drinking.

"I am."

"That is very good, sweetheart. I still say you owe me."

"What do you think I owe you?"

"Oh, I don't know, I'll have to think on it."

"You let me know when you come up with something."

"I suppose I owe you in return for thinking with the part of me that has no brain."

She smiled at that.

"How about us at your house tomorrow night?"

"Us? As in all of you?"


"If that's your version of paying off a debt I'll gladly owe you lots more."

"I figure after Bill's hockey game we could go back there."



"I like that idea a lot. Does that mean I have to go home tonight?"

"No, you're welcome to my basement floor with me anytime you want."

"You should ask your mom for permission to have me in your room with the door open or something."

"I'm not sure…"

"What could it hurt asking her?"

"Nothing I suppose."

"I don't like you sleeping on floors."

"What about you?"

"I didn't just have a baby."

"He's almost seven months old."

"That still can't be good for your back and stuff. I remember how badly your back bothered you toward the end there."

"You're probably right."

"The worst she could do is say no."

"Or tell me you can't come around anymore."

"She wouldn't do that."

"Why not?"

"I think I'm kind of growing on her."

"Why do you say that?"

"She liked the flowers I brought for her."

"She did. That was very nice of you."

"Yeah, well, I figured it wasn't fair for just you to get some. So, see, I think she sees I'm not out to violate you or embarrass her."

"Maybe. I'll ask, but I'd still rather be at your house tomorrow."

"No complaints from me. I like you guys there. It actually feels like a home instead of big empty old house when you're all there."

"You like a home?"

"I love that home."

She smiled a little at that, but didn't say anything else for a while. He was okay with that, she didn't need to really. He knew she liked it too.

Return to Top

***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."

Return to Top

***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."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Six***
Word Count: 2,288

June 1996

Claire settled into bed after a truly draining day, emotionally more than physically. Justin and Bill were watching a bit of television before it was time for bed. She wasn't sure how they felt about the day as she picked up the phone to dial out.

'Hello,' he said and she smiled genuinely for the first time since getting here. She'd been pensive and admittedly a little moody since John drove them to the airport last night.

"Hi," she said.

'Well, hi yourself. I wasn't expecting you to call this early. Did your plans with your friend fall through?'

"Kind of. We're going to have breakfast tomorrow morning."

'Oh, nice. The boys won't be so tired then.'

"Yeah, for sure. I took the boys for dessert at the restaurant we had dinner the night you came here to get me."

'I remember. It seems like a long time ago, but I do.'

"Justin loves riding the subway."

'I bet he does. Does Bill remember riding it?'


'How are you?' he asked and she could tell he wasn't sure he should ask the question or not. A few hundred miles away didn't seem to alter the fact she was aware of his moods. Tonight he was the pensive one.

"I'm okay."


"How's Frank?"

'Changing the subject. Okay. He's fine. I might maybe be rethinking this daughter business.'

She laughed softly at that.


'It's hard work!'

"Be glad you don't have bottles to be responsible for."

'There is that,' he said, seeming to agree.

"Are you really reconsidering?"

'Not a chance, Princess. I was kidding. Geez. Give me a little credit.'

"I wouldn't be mad or anything."

'I know, sweetheart, and I'm glad, but no. I was teasing you. Frank and I are fine. We're sitting here watching the Cubs game. I made him some macaroni and cheese earlier. I mopped the floor because he spilled the first bowl I gave him.'

"He did?"

'My fault. I walked away to get him his milk. I know better for next time.'

She laughed softly at that. Frank was at that tip his bowl, cup, spoon, plate, or whatever else was handy over whether it was full of stuff or not stage.

'Laugh at my predicament. I see how it is. You're footloose and fancy free in the Big Apple while I'm here slaving away over a hot stove.'

"I know it's awful."

'Damn straight.'

She sighed softly.

'Are you okay?' he asked.

"I'm okay."

'The boys?'

"They're okay. I don't think they understood what we did."

'They'll appreciate it one day, Claire.'

"I know," she said.

'And so will you.'

"I'm sure. Today I'm not so appreciative."

She'd brought Justin and Bill here to see Dan's grave at the cemetery he was buried at. Had she known at the time of his death that her dad was going to die a month later and she was going to move back home a month after that she may have given into his parents' wishes to have his remains shipped to them. She and John were getting married next weekend and she thought it was important for some reason that they understand that it wasn't indicating she was forgetting about Dan or anything. So they'd flown out here to visit his grave.

They'd gotten in pretty late last night, but had dinner at the Hard Rock Café before dessert at their regular restaurant. The boys had loved it, which she knew would be the case. They'd loved being allowed to stay up way past their bedtime most of all she was pretty sure. She'd bought them each shirts from the gift shop plus one for John and Frank, too.

'I'm going to ask again. Are you okay?'

"I am."

'You're sure? I mean, it's totally understandable if you're not."

"I just don't feel anything."

'Did you think you would?'

"I think I feel I should. He was my husband."

'He was, not a very good one in the grand scheme of things. I realize you see it differently and it's not my place so I'll shut up now.'

"I love you, you know that?"

'Well, I hope so or the marriage license we're going to be signing next weekend will be kind of silly.'

"No, I love you for letting me come here."

'What was I supposed to do? Tell you that you couldn't?'

She shrugged.


"You could've. I know you don't like him."

'He's dead. I'm not threatened by him or your memories of him. I know there are some good ones in there for you, for Bill, too. I plan on making a lot more with the four of you.'

"You already have."

'I want a lifetime's worth.'

"Me, too."


"There were flowers on his grave when we got there," she said.

'Oh?' he asked.

This past Tuesday was the anniversary of his death. Claire hadn't been able to get here with the boys because of Bill's school until this weekend. Monday would be the anniversary of his funeral. They'd be back home by then and Claire would be busy that day getting ready for her wedding on Saturday.

"Yes," she said softly. "They were dying so had probably been there since Tuesday."

'I see.'

"Yeah," she said, glad he knew what the flowers being there meant. His parents didn't live here, his kids didn't live here, and he had no other family. There were too many to choose from to try to figure out who had left them, but she could narrow it down to a few anyway.

'I'm sorry.'

"No need to be sorry. I guess at least he's not alone."

'Sweetheart, you know…'

"I know he's not really there, but you know what I mean."

'I do. Still. I'm sorry you had to see it.'

"What can you do?"

'What can I do? Nothing, besides tell you that I wish I was there to tuck the boys in and then you and give you a hug.'

"I'd like that."

'And tell you that I want you home so we can start our life together.'

"I needed to do this."

'I'm not complaining and I'm not upset. You've done it. Now come home.'

"I'll be home tomorrow night."

'I can't wait. Frank probably can't either.'

She smiled at that.

"Has Mom called you?"

'Only about ten times.'

She laughed softly at that.

"She's trying to be helpful."

'She's worried I'm going to burn the house down with Frank and me in it.'

"You're probably right."

'I love you.'

"I love you, too."

'I'm very glad to hear that.'

"Coming here wouldn't change that."

'It could've.'

"You really thought that?"

'I was a little worried you'd get there and start feeling guilty.'

"I can't remember the last time I felt guilty about being with you."

'I know, I can tell with the way you are in front of your mom and my friends. The thought was still there, though. You have a past with him.'

"I do, but not a future."

'That's my department.'

"It is."

Neither said anything for a while. She didn't like that he thought that, but she understood and was glad he was honest with her.

"Are the Cubs winning?"

'They are actually. They're playing the Expos.'

"Oh, good. Is Frank paying attention?"

'Oh you know, off and on.'

"It was nice of you to let him stay there."

'Well, you live here now where else was he going to go?'

"Mom's," she said. They'd moved into his place at the beginning of the month. Bill had spent the last few school nights at her mom's but Claire, Justin, and Frank had been at John's since last weekend.

'Nope. We're bonding.'

"I'm glad. Just remember he's too young for beer."

'Greg mentioned that, yeah.'

"You saw Greg?"

'Yes. Between him and your mom I swear they're trying to tell me something.'

"You mean he just stopped by?"

'Yes. We had no plans.'

"That was nice of him."

'It was because I'm pretty sure the only way I'd call your mom was if in fact the house was burning down around us.'

She laughed softly at that, picturing that all too easily.

'We dipped Frank's toes in the lake.'

"You did not!"

'Yeah, he didn't like it at all.'

"It's too cold!"

'I said his toes. I was holding him. Greg and I were out there while he had a cigarette and he was curious. I was holding him because I didn't want him running in there, but he kept pointing at it and wiggling so I dipped his toes in. He wasn't wiggling after that.'

"I bet he wasn't."

'Did I do bad?'

"No, you didn't. There's no doing bad."

'Oh, I could think of some bad things…'

"I know you can, and that's why I know you won't do badly."

'Thank you for believing in me, Princess.'

"I believed in you twelve years ago, John."

'I know you did, Princess. I didn't believe in myself yet.'

"I know."

'So, breakfast with your friend tomorrow?'

"Yes, I think a few of them will be meeting us, that's why we didn't today. A couple couldn't make it."

'Oh, good. None of them are the one who'd be leaving him flowers, are they?'

"No," she said quickly.

'For a moment there I was going to say you are the most amazing woman in the world.'

"Only for a moment?"

'Oh, I think it most every moment I just don't tell you so it doesn't go to your head.'

"I see."

'Are Bill and Justin awake?'

"They are."

'Let me say good night to them.'

"I suppose it's time to go."

'Yeah. You had a good day otherwise?'

"Yeah. I took the kids past the house and stuff. You know. Bill saw his old school."

'I'm glad.'

"Thank you again."

'You don't need to thank me for letting you do what you needed to do. You needed to say good bye, to let the boys say good bye. I get that.'

"Some men may not have."

'You're not marrying some men. You're marrying me. I'm awesome like that.'

"You are. I love you."

'Love you, too, sweetheart. Come home to us soon.'

"Before you know it."

'Too late for that.'

She handed the phone to Bill who talked to John about what they'd done last night and today. John hadn't asked her about their flight here, but evidently he asked Bill because he was telling John how cool it was to fly in over the city at night and see all of the lights. It was beautiful, but Claire had to admit as beautiful as she always found New York City, Chicago had always been home and there was nothing more beautiful to her than that final approach to O'Hare at night.

Bill finished and Justin talked to John next. He didn't say nearly as much, but she could tell that John asked him about the flight and stuff, too. Justin didn't say much, handing the phone back to Claire.

'I guess he's done talking.'

She laughed softly. "I guess so."

'All right. I'll pick you guys up tomorrow night then.'


'Have a good time with your friends tomorrow, Claire.'

"Thank you."

'Are any of them going to be upset they weren't invited next weekend?'

"No," she said. "I figured maybe sometime we could come out here and you could meet them."

'I'd love to meet anyone you care enough about that you want me to meet them. You know that.'

"I do."

'Get some rest and if you can't sleep for whatever reason the ringer on the phone by our bed will be on.'

"That's your bed."

'You don't know which bed I'm sleeping in tonight, Princess.'

"Oh," she said. They'd moved her furniture into the master bedroom upstairs, but because his things were all in the bedroom he'd been using they'd been sleeping there this past week.

'Yes, I was a busy boy while you've been gone today.'

"I guess so."

'So, I'll say it again, if you need to call.'

"I will. Thank you."

'You're welcome.'

She hung up, knowing she wouldn't call him. She had no doubt she wouldn't sleep well. It wasn't guilt. She'd stopped feeling guilty months ago. She did kind of wonder what Dan would think. What would he say? Would he be mad that Claire was contemplating letting another man adopt his kids? She didn't think so, because she believed overall he'd want his kids happy and healthy. Whatever that meant. Bill hadn't said anything about what he wanted to happen and neither she nor John were pushing him. He'd let them know when he was ready and she had no doubt Justin would want to do whatever his brother wanted.

She joined the two of them on their bed.

"You guys want to order some room service?"

"Really, Mommy," Justin asked.

"Sure. A snack before we go to bed."

"All right," he and Bill said. They loved room service for some reason. She guessed she remembered being that age and thinking it was pretty cool, too. She slid the menu off the stand between their beds and paged through it.

"What would you like?" she asked.

Yeah, she was probably spoiling them a little bit, but she figured they deserved it. She at least had lots of memories of Dan to choose from. They had so few so saying goodbye to him today was probably more painful for them in some ways than it was for her. They also didn't know the bad things about him she did so they had no reason to be anything but sad. As it should be.

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***Chapter Twenty-Seven***
Word Count: 1,928

John slid a fingertip along her arm. She was asleep or at least on the verge of falling asleep. She'd had a busy week preceded by a pretty emotionally draining trip to New York last weekend. He'd hated her going, but knew she felt the need to. So he wasn't insulted or bothered by the fact she was on the verge of falling asleep a few minutes after sex on their wedding night.

He was pretty sure the trip had been more for Bill and Justin's benefit than her own, but there'd been a niggling doubt in his mind that the trip would set them back more than just a step or two. He had visions of her coming back and feeling or thinking she was doing something wrong by marrying him. If she hadn't seen any of her friends he may not have been as uncertain, but they were people who knew her then. That life she led in New York with Dan and that did not include John. So, he'd braced himself for her coming back and at the very least delaying things if not canceling them altogether. Her phone call helped, but it hadn't eased his mind entirely since she hadn't seen her friends yet.

He'd bought her an engagement ring back in January, holding off giving it to her until they'd told the kids and her family. She'd insisted it wasn't necessary.

He hated that word. He especially hated her using it in conjunction with anything having to do with them or their relationship.


Of course it wasn't necessary, but you plan on marrying someone you do that. She deserved a ring. She deserved a lot of things. She certainly deserved better than the wedding they had today. She'd given into his wishes, though, and made it very small. They'd still gotten married in the church, but since theirs was so small her priest (who had married her and Dan, Scott and Joan, and her parents as it turned out) had agreed to marry them early in the day before another wedding had been scheduled.

He'd been very glad she had the ring for her trip, though. It wasn't vanity or anything because while it was a pretty nice ring he wasn't pretentious enough to believe there were none bigger out there. He just liked knowing she had a token, a symbol when she saw her friends again last weekend.

The closest thing they'd had to an actual argument regarding this whole thing was whether or not she was going to change her name. He completely understood her not wanting to upset or disrupt her kids, but he absolutely was not going to spend the next fifty years with a constant reminder of her first husband as part of her name. If only because John thought she deserved infinitely better (truthfully, he thought she deserved infinitely better than him, too). She didn't want to go back to using Standish, which he understood he supposed. Using Dan's name, though, just smacked to John of wanting to hang on to something not worth hanging onto. If the guy had been a stellar guy John could maybe understand it. Why would she keep the name of the guy who'd cheated on her versus taking John's who'd done nothing disrespectful to her?

They hadn't talked for a few days after that conversation. He'd gotten pretty drunk that night, too. He just couldn't do it, talk to her and pretend he was at all happy with her wanting to keep that asshole's name. He had visions of her calling it off during the time they hadn't talked. Greg had insisted he wasn't being out of line. (Yes, John told him everything he knew about Dan, including what Bill had told him about seeing him kissing someone else.) They hadn't talked about it when they finally did talk days later. They hadn't ever again. He wasn't going to bring it up and evidently she felt the same way. He had no idea what to say that hadn't been said during their argument. It wasn't until this week that she told him she was going to take his name. It made his heart hurt in a way he hadn't been able to fathom that she'd even contemplated doing that. It wasn't even about her having his name. He could give two shits about his name when it got down to it. In fact, generally speaking, it bothered him that she was taking on the name of his dad. He didn't like the idea of her having anything to do with him however distantly.

He ran a finger over her ring finger. There was a wedding band with her engagement ring now. Their bands matched. He'd stared at his hand at lunch after the ceremony more than a few times. He'd never worn jewelry of any kind so it was completely foreign to him to look down and see something there. He imagined that would take him a while to get used to.

The boys were at Greg and Lisa's for the night. Tomorrow they'd pick them up in the afternoon and drive up to Greg's cabin again for a few days. Not nearly as good a honeymoon as she deserved, but she insisted she didn't want anything better. They'd be able to do more stuff this go around than they had when they were there in the winter. The Dells weren't far and the things to do there were endless. Greg and Lisa had no plans on going up to the place for a couple of weeks

"What are you thinking?" she whispered.

"I thought you fell asleep," he said, kissing her shoulder.

"No," she said, turning to face him. "I like laying with you. I missed you last night."

"I missed you, too." He shrugged. "I was just thinking it's strange."

"What is?"

"How a piece of paper can change everything."

"What do you mean?"

"Last night I went to bed…"

"You did not go to bed last night."

"Okay, this morning when I went to bed. Is that better?"

"As long as you went to bed alone."

"I'm going to assume you're joking, considering your brother was there with me."

"I think I'd pay money to see my brother at a strip club."

"Princess, I didn't want to go."

"I'm sure it was a terrible burden."

"Stop," he said. He ran a fingertip along her collarbone. "I've got you. I don't need or want to look at anyone else. Besides, you went to an equally morally questionable place."

His friends had decided at the last minute that he needed to have a bachelor party despite the fact that only Greg and a couple of others were going to be at the actual wedding. He hadn't wanted to go, but evidently Lisa had talked to Nancy and Claire's friends took her out, too.

"Thank you," she whispered. "And I was so bored."


"Yes," she said with a shrug.

"Well, I guess that's good to know. I don't have to worry about you taking up going to male strip clubs on your nights off."

"No," she said with a laugh.

"So, I went to sleep this morning … Alone. I was single. I'm going to sleep tonight not single anymore. All because of a piece of paper saying I'm not. We had the piece of paper weeks ago, but we signed it today. Just strange."

"Bad strange?"

"No, just strange. Unexpected strange. I mean, two years ago when I showed up at your dad's funeral if someone had told me I'd be here now I would've laughed at them."

"Because you didn't know Dan had died."

"Well, right, but I still wouldn't have believed it."

"I wouldn't have either."

"I bet."

"Why did you show up at Dad's funeral?"

"I wanted to see you," he shrugged. "I knew you'd be there, didn't know how long you were going to be in town or anything."

"You knew I was married, though."

"Sure, doesn't mean I didn't want to see you. It sure doesn't mean I was sorry you lost your dad. I may not talk to mine, but I know that's not normal and I remembered you liked yours well enough."

"I was so surprised to see you there."

"I could tell. I was surprised, too."


"I had no idea you had kids, and Bill was a lot older than any kids I might have imagined you having."


"And now here we are."

"Is Greg going to take you to places like that often?"

He snorted. "No. I hadn't been to one in like six years before last night. I have an idea, though, just to be sure."


"You could give me a lap dance every once in a while."

"Oh God, don't even."

He chuckled. "I think I might actually like that from you."


He shifted them so she was on top of him. He was admittedly pretty tired. It was four o'clock in the morning before he'd gotten to bed. He hadn't slept well, worried he'd oversleep despite the fact he hadn't had too much to drink or anything the night before. Paranoia. He'd never be too tired for her, though.

"It depends. Would I have to tip you?"

She laughed softly, leaning in to kiss him. She pressed against him, apparently noticing despite being tired and them having sex not that long ago he wasn't that tired.

"I think you'd better expect to, yes."

"Yeah? Hmm. Do you take checks?"

She laughed softly, kissing his neck.

"I'm sure we could work out some sort of arrangement."

"That's very good to hear."

"Now, Mrs. Bender, I think you have something to tend to."

"Hmm, it seems I do. Say that again."


"My name."

"Oh," he said with a shake of his head. "It's going to take me a while to get used to that."

"I know."

"It'll be nice," he whispered as she moved slowly over him.

"What will be?"

"Having my own Mrs. Bender. The good kind."

"Yeah, it will."

"It's about time there was a good one."

"And one day there'll be more than one Mrs. Bender out there. Of the good kind," she said.


"Bill and Justin told me this week that they want you to adopt them if you still want to."

He shifted them so he was on top of her. She'd mentioned she thought it might happen this way, and maybe that was why she'd been indecisive about changing her name. Maybe she would've when Bill and Justin made a final decision about that when they were older. He had no idea.

"Really? And you waited until now to tell me this?"

She laughed softly as he pressed into her deeply as she liked him to be.

"Well, I was going to give it a while and see if they changed their minds. We're not in any hurry anyway, are we?"

"Well, no, but if you go off the pill in August…"

"Yeah, I know."

They'd talked about her doing that, but hadn't decided for sure if they wanted to try this summer or next. He wanted to try right now, but he knew timing for her with school was everything.

"So that means when they're older they'd get married and have their own Mrs. Bender."

"My father wouldn't believe it if he saw me today."

"I know. He doesn't deserve you. We love you, though, John."

"Love you, too, Princess. All of you."

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***Chapter Twenty-Eight***
Word Count: 2,769

June 2005

"Daddy," Marci said.

"Just a second, sweetheart," he said.

"Daddy," she said again.

"I said just a second," he said, working on fastening Christopher's tie for him. Claire wouldn't hear of buying him one of those fake ties. No, it had to be a real tie, as if he'd have reason to wear it again before Justin's graduation in four years.

"But Daddy, I can't find my ribbon," she said.

"Well, we'll find it. Where did you see it last?" He glanced at Marci then. She was all set to go except her hair, which she always wore pulled back or up in some fashion. It was down so evidently she'd had her heart set on a particular ribbon. It probably matched her dress or something that John just didn't comprehend. That was Claire's department.

"On my floor."

"Was Ralph in there?" he asked.

"Uh huh," she said.

Wherever Marci went, Ralph went. The dog was eight so no longer a puppy but he sure was active around Marci. They'd settled for a puppy instead of a baby right after they'd gotten married, waiting a year. The dog wasn't nearly as attached to Christopher as he was to Marci for some reason. It was kind of comical and more than a little cute. John suspected that the ribbon in question was now in Ralph's belly.


Marci had been a surprise. Well, the baby hadn't been a surprise because after Christopher Claire had agreed to try once more for a girl. She swore after that one that one of them was going to get it so they couldn't have anymore. (He had not liking the idea of anything being done to her no matter that doctors did the procedure every day.)

They'd been told at the ultrasound that she was going to be a boy. No big deal since they didn't have to go out and buy new stuff. She didn't have a shower or anything either so it wasn't like they'd been bombarded with tons of new boy stuff.

She hadn't been a boy, though. Ultrasounds were only as good as the technician, and as willing as the baby was to reveal the boy or girl parts evidently. She'd been shy and Claire's obstetrician could only assume the tech had mistaken the umbilical cord for the boy parts.

To top it off, Marci looked just like her mother. John was glad it worked out that way because none of the boys had her hair. John loved her hair, but had to admit it probably worked better for girls to have it than boys. Then he'd never really paid attention before, but red headed boys did seem to get picked on he noticed as he'd gone to things over the years.

"Well, we'll have to get another one then."

"But I want that one. It matches my dress." Just as John thought. She was learning her mother's habits of color coordinating everything. She was going to be a force to be reckoned with when she got to school this coming fall.

"I understand that, sweetheart, but you shouldn't leave things on the floor for Ralph to find. He's not a puppy anymore, but he'll still eat something if it's laying on the floor." John had lost more than one sock over the years to Ralph.

"I'm sorry, Daddy."

"It's all right. Go ask your mother. I'm sure she has something she can use in your hair."


"Either you want something in your hair or you don't. I don't have anything in here in Chris' room to help you. So, if you do, go see your mother."

"Okay," she said. She did this thing with her lower lip that was John's undoing every time she did it. He knew she was about to cry.

"Hey, sweetheart, it's okay."

"You're mad at me."

John noticed Christopher roll his eyes, obviously seeing where Marci was going with this, too. And John gave her the answer she wanted every time, too. He could never stay mad at her, her brothers knew this, too. More times than he could count Marci had taken the blame for something happening around the house he knew she hadn't caused or done. Her brothers knew though, John would let it slide.

"No, I'm not. You just have to be careful of your stuff. You know? Ralph is just a dog, he doesn't know any better. Hair ribbons don't belong on the floor."

"I only put it there for a second."

Something told John it was longer than that if Ralph gained enough interest in it to eat it. Like she was twisting it around her fingers or something, waiting for her mom to come help her. She probably got bored waiting and set it on the floor, but by then Ralph's interest would have been piqued on the brightly colored thing his friend had been playing with.

"It's okay. Go see your mom. She'll fix you up I promise."

She ran off, black patent leather shoes echoing on the hardwood floors as she went in search of her mother. John shook his head slightly.

"Sorry, Chris."

"It's okay," he said. He was used to it it seemed. For whatever reason, Marci always seemed to know how to gain the upper hand and get the attention of whichever parent she was talking to over her older brothers.

Hard to believe there'd be one fewer in the house in a few months. Bill was off to UCLA. He'd be closer to his grandparents there, but oddly Bill didn't seem to see that as a huge selling point over other colleges he'd looked at. He liked their football and baseball teams and chose it and the scholarship they offered him over a few other schools. Claire wasn't ready to let him go, but he knew she'd do fine when the time came. She'd have the ability to stay with Dan's parents anytime she wanted to go out and visit him, too. Not that she couldn't afford a hotel room for a weekend trip or whatever, but she still had a nice relationship with Dan's parents and could take the kids with her when she visited so they got to see their grandparents, too. His parents had also offered their house to Chris and Marci, which was more than nice of them since they weren't theirs. John could go, too, if he wanted to, but he'd avoided doing that to this point. Now, he imagined he'd have a reason to since he'd want to see Bill, too.

Justin took after his big brother and was all sports all of the time. Baseball, swimming, and soccer were his sports. John wasn't sure what type of scholarships those sports would garner him, but John and Claire had money set aside for them so that wasn't a problem. As far as John knew Claire hadn't ever touched the money she'd gotten from Dan or her dad. She'd gone from living with her mother to living here so she hadn't needed to.

They certainly hadn't lacked for anything. John's dad would probably tell him that his kids were incredibly spoiled. John would take that criticism and deal with it. He would be right, he supposed. They weren't the type of parents that gave them everything they wanted or asked for, but the things they had were nice. If there was a sport or activity someone wanted to do it got done. John and Claire both agreed that busy kids stayed out of trouble and to this point that adage was holding true. Not a juvenile delinquent in the bunch.

They did nice things, though, over the years. They'd taken vacations, gone places, John never in a million years would have thought he'd go. He'd deny it if anyone asked, but his favorite had been Florence. He wasn't an art connoisseur or anything, but holy shit had the city amazed and impressed him. Greece and France had been pretty impressive, too, from that standpoint. He never realized how fascinating architecture was, but as with everything else to do with Claire she opened his eyes to a whole new interest by bringing him places with buildings and creations dating back to before Christ was born.

Frank wasn't an athlete. He was more like his father he supposed, creative. He preferred music and acting in school plays to sports. Piano lessons were his thing, and he was pretty good, too. Recently he'd taken up the trumpet, too. John wasn't too sure how he felt about that yet, but imagined with time he'd get better and it'd be fun to listen to him. He was also in the choir at school. Claire was concerned he'd get teased, but John maintained she couldn't force him to like baseball or something.

Christopher and Marci both seemed interested in a little bit of everything. Chris liked his sports, but he took piano lessons, too.

Where Claire wasn't excited for August and Bill moving halfway across the country, Frank was looking forward to it. He'd finally get his own room since he and Chris shared one once Marci came. John wasn't sure why Chris and Marci couldn't share one, but Claire had insisted it wasn't right. So, Frank would finally have his own space and he wasn't shy about telling Bill he couldn't wait for him to leave.

"All right, let's go find everyone else," John said, confident Chris' tie was knotted correctly and straight.

"Mom and Marci are going to take forever."

"They won't because your mom doesn't want to be late."

"Marci will find a way to make her late. Girls always take longer."

John chuckled softly.

"I can't argue with you there, but trust me this is one time your mom won't want to be late."

"Fine," he said. "Are Bill and Maggie going to get married?"

"What?" John asked.

"Justin told me that Maggie is Bill's girlfriend."

"Oh yeah, she is, but that doesn't mean they're going to get married. At least not anytime soon, I hope."

Maggie, Peg as she was known when she was younger, was one of a couple of people that Bill kept up with from Shermer. She and Tommy were the ones he saw regularly anymore. She'd turned out okay John was pleased to say. They'd gone to one another's proms this year. She was going to another university out in LA, so John guessed that influenced Bill's decision in which scholarship he'd chosen to accept.

"You go on down and see what Frank and Justin are doing," John said to Chris.

"Okay," he said with a slight frown. He did it, though. John leaned against the doorframe that led to their bathroom, watching Claire as she worked on Marci's hair.

"What?" she asked, watching him in the mirror.


"It is not nothing. I recognize that look."

"What look is that?"

"The look that says you wish we could have another one."

"Oh, I do, but I promised you what we had by the time we were thirty-five would be what we had."

"We should count our blessings that we've had healthy ones."

"I do.

"I guess I should count my blessings that you still look at me like that after five kids."

He chuckled a bit at that. "I hope you always feel blessed about that because I don't plan on looking at you any differently."

"That is good to know," she said.

"See, Marci, I told you Mommy would fix you up."

The culprit responsible for her missing hair ribbon was on the floor in the bathroom at Marci's feet. John snorted a bit at that and the look the dog gave him, as if he knew exactly what he had done and why John wasn't looking forward to cleaning up after him in the yard tomorrow.

"I know." She started to walk away. "Ralphie," she called.

"No," John said. "No playing with the dog."


"No, you will not play with him until we get back home and you can change."

"But Daddy." That lower lip was trembling again and John knew he'd give in. He always did, and she seemed to know it, too. He was such a sucker. It was the hair, it had to be because there was no one else but her mother he reacted this way to.

"Help me out here will you?" he asked Claire.

"Daddy's right, honey. You need to stay looking pretty and you always seem to get dirty when you play with Ralph."

The lip wasn't trembling quite as much now. She knew when her mom said no it was final. Daddy was the wishy-washy one.

"Go on downstairs then, okay. We'll be right down."

She ran out of the bathroom. Ralph followed, but she seemed content for now with him following her. Who knew if she'd listen and not play with him when she got downstairs?

"You look nice," he said.

"Thank you. You do, too."

"Feels weird."


"It does."

"Bill has really been worried you think it means something he's going to school out in LA."

"Nah, not worried about it. I hope he gets to spend time with Dan's parents. He deserves that, so do they."

He knew Bill was worried. They'd talked about it a couple of times when Bill was going through the application process. He and Bill actually had a pretty outstanding relationship. It was cemented in things like mutual trust and secrets kept. They both knew things about Dan that they never wanted Claire to find out. Bill had revealed over the years he'd been witness to more than one of Dan's indiscretions. He suspected telling John about the kiss he'd seen years ago was a test to see if he'd tell Claire, realizing he hadn't and really could tell John anything he'd told him about other things. It wasn't until Bill got older, like a year ago, that John ever told Bill how he felt about his dad. It was tough on Bill, though, knowing these things and trying to pass on stories and information to Justin and Frank. He'd managed, though. There were a couple of videotapes of Dan in plays he'd been in that Frank watched more than once in a sitting. Curiosity John supposed and understood, seeing the man's face but knowing nothing about him. So, when Bill had chosen UCLA and as a result being close to Dan's parents they'd talked about it. John had no problem with him wanting to spend time with his grandparents. They had every right to see him and Bill deserved to see them as much as he wanted to. The kids got rather short changed when it came to grandparents with Claire's dad being gone and John's parents being out of the picture.

"I'm glad you think so."

"So," he said, taking her into his arms.


"When we get home later do I get to put that look you say you saw in my eyes to use?"

"Right away? We're going to have people over!" They were having a party. God only knew how many people would show up between Bill's friends and their friends it was hard to say. Tomorrow they were leaving for a trip to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Maggie was coming with. John wasn't sure what it said about her parents that she was allowed to come with them on a week-long trip.


"I think I can manage soon."

"That's all I ask for."

"Have I ever said no?"

"Put like that."

John leaned in and kissed her. He still couldn't get enough of her. He loved everything about her from the person she was when they first met to who she was now. She'd gone back to school and despite the kids got her degree and had a great job. Between the two of them they did pretty well. She'd encouraged him to go into business with Greg when he wanted to expand his company outside of the Chicago area. His friend had needed some capital and John was in a position to give it to him. He'd more than earned back what he'd put in and he and Greg were still friends to boot. He'd gotten lucky, he knew, but he was really more of a silent partner. He knew nothing about running a business.

"Ugh," Frank said from behind them. "We're never going to get there on time now."

"What?" Bill said. "Oh," he said.

"What is it?" Marci asked.

"Nothing," Bill said. "Mom and Dad are kissing again."

~The End~

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