She'd forgotten how fun summers in Chicago could be. It helped, she supposed, that her relationship with John was still new so they were both willing to do pretty much anything the other suggested. There were carnivals and festivals going all summer long. Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades and parties. Fireworks. Baseball games, which her mom was always willing to let Claire have tickets to when she asked. The Taste of Chicago. Concerts. Not to mention the everyday things like museums, forest preserves, the beaches, and stuff like that.
She thought he was going to draw the line at Ravinia Festival, the summer home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She loved going there, but had never been there on a date and always thought it would be a romantic date. They were able to find a non-classical concert to go, too, though. Neither seemed to care about sitting in the Pavilion, preferring instead to bring a picnic with them and eating on the lawn there. True, they were unable to see the performance, but they could hear just fine. And there was always the option of walking up to the railing that separated the pavilion from the lawn seats and watching for a few minutes. She'd been right about it being romantic. They'd brought two blankets with their picnic, one to sit on and the other to put over them in case the air got cool once the sun went down. They'd eaten their food and drank the bottle of wine that they'd brought with them and just sat and cuddled with one another for the night. It was fantastic.
Their town's Fourth of July festival was probably the most trying thing to do. John didn't want to go. The thought of running into anyone from Shermer High held absolutely no appeal to him. She insisted only because he had to know that she didn't mind being seen with him in front of anyone. Everyone who was anyone showed up at the festival at least once if they were in town.
As he feared and she expected, they ran into a ton of people she knew. Very few recognized him let alone recalled him when she mentioned he'd gone to school with them.
Her dad? Well, he didn't hate John, so there was at least that.
He oddly didn't mind the things with her work they had to do. There was a company-wide picnic. The company bought up a chunk of tickets for a Cubs' game so the employees could go. She'd used her dad's tickets, but they'd gone to the same game as the rest of her co-workers and went out with everyone afterward to a nearby bar. Occasionally, there were after-work drinks with a couple of the women she had become friendly with. John, and their boyfriends or husbands, usually joined them for dinner after their happy hour.
He didn't have things like that for her to go with him to. He didn't have clients to wine and dine. The closest thing was the Auto Show, but that was months away. She already assured him she'd go, though. She wasn't a gearhead or anything, but he'd been more than nice with her work stuff so she figured turnabout was fair.
What was more, he cleaned up nicely. He didn't like to put on a suit, but when he did he managed to take her breath away every time. Usually, it was for dinner with her parents at the club. He knew a couple of guys who worked there, so he always felt weird going there with her family.
By the Christmas party she was celebrating not just the holidays but a promotion just after Thanksgiving from Junior Copyrighter to Copyrighter. Her parents were so proud. Claire hadn't expected to be advancing so quickly. She knew she had the talent, but so did everyone she worked with so it was very competitive. She was ready, though, and obviously her boss thought so.
John was, too, ready to help her anyway. He put a designer's table in his living room for her to use whenever she was there. She had duplicates of all of her supplies there so she had absolutely no excuse to spend time there. She didn't always bring work home with her, but there were times an idea struck her or whatever and she'd had to leave his place to go home or to the office to work on it. She loved that he'd done that for her, especially considering his living room wasn't that big and the designer's table took up space that he could've used for something else.
Tonight, they were going to a formal party at one of her friends' houses. A friend from college who knew and really liked Luke. Patricia's fiancé was one of Luke's fraternity brothers. John was not at all thrilled with the plans, but she promised him they'd leave early. She had to show because she had done absolutely nothing wrong. Okay, she had, but no one knew about that. Until those couple of days in February she'd never done anything wrong to Luke.
"Are you going to be home tonight do you think, Claire?" her mom asked.
"I doubt it."
"Just be careful."
"I worry about you."
"You don't have to. It's not like we didn't have winter where I was at for college, Mom."
"I know, but it's Christmastime. People drink too much especially when it's New Year's Eve."
"I'll be careful, Mom, and I won't have more than a glass of champagne."
"He may have more than one glass, but he hired a limo for the night anyway, Mom."
"That was a good idea. He's uncomfortable at these things you drag him to."
"Sometimes. Not all of them. Tonight though is people I knew from Georgetown and they know Luke."
"And he won't be well-received, I assume?"
"No," she replied. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I doubt it."
"How did you become friends with him? I don't think you ever told me."
"That day I served detention."
"A day I don't like to think about."
"That's when I met him, Mom."
"Oh," she said with a frown.
"He wasn't a bad guy. He liked to pretend he was I think so people wouldn't try too hard to be his friend. Then he'd have to explain things. Like why he wore long sleeved shirts even when it was eighty degrees outside."
"Not a good home life?"
"Well, he seems to have turned out okay."
"And you're sure?"
"Yes," Claire replied.
"You're sure that you love him?"
"Mom, yes. I was sure five years ago I just didn’t want to admit it."
"Then I should tell you that your father told me last night John met him for lunch."
"What?" Claire asked. In high school she could do very little wrong in her dad's eyes. That had changed the past few months. There wouldn't be many reasons John visited her dad.
"I think you should talk to him, too."
"He wants to understand."
"There's nothing to understand, Mom. I didn't love Luke. Not enough to marry him. Not everyone marries the guy they dated in college."
"Not everyone marries the guy they met in Saturday detention their senior year of high school either."
"I'm not marrying him."
"Yet," Claire replied. If John asked, which Claire sort of expected he might sometime soon especially if he'd already spoken to her father, she would say yes without batting an eyelash.
"Is that why you're bringing him to these things?"
"Why?" Claire asked.
"So no one's surprised when the announcement makes the Tribune?"
"They'll still be surprised, but yeah, I guess. I want them to see I'm happy."
"And that he's changed."
"He hasn't really, Mom. I have. I changed a little that day, really. I just went off to college and tried to forget about him."
Her mother smiled a little. "I'm glad you weren't able to forget about him, Claire."
She paused putting one of her diamond earrings in, turning to look at her mom instead of through the mirror. "I'm sorry."
"Not everyone is as strong as you are. To turn your back on your friends."
"They weren't really my friends."
"You know what I mean."
"I do. Did you?"
"It's water under the bridge, but let's just say there was someone before you father."
"Oh," Claire said. "Does Daddy know?"
"Of course not. No one did. I don't regret marrying your father, and I'm sure you wouldn't have either had you continued on with Luke."
"I would have."
"Yes. I just didn't love him like this."
"Well then, perhaps I can explain it to your father so you don't have to. I know things have been uncomfortable for you both since you moved back home. You two have fun tonight, dear."
"And I'll see you tomorrow."
"You look beautiful."
"Thank you," Claire said. She'd bought the gown specifically for tonight. It cost an arm and a leg, but it was worth every penny because her mother was right. It looked beautiful on her. The color, the cut, and the fabric; everything about it was exquisite. She couldn't wait for John to see her in it.
And admittedly for him to take it off of her later. It shocked her how easily sex became a part of her life, which she supposed was proof that Luke wasn't the right guy. She'd never thought of herself as being prudish or frigid, but she hadn't believed she'd get quite so much enjoyment or fulfillment out of it either. John saw to it that she enjoyed and was fulfilled and then some.
The party wasn't bad. Claire and John mingled a bit, but both stayed mostly to themselves without appearing to try to do so. John seemed to understand she was here for appearances not because she really wanted to be. She didn't mind Patricia, but she really had no desire to see any of Luke's friends.
"Oh God," she said, almost dropping the flute of champagne she held.
"What?" John asked.
"What made you think of him?"
"Hey, if I'm doing something that reminds you of him I want to fix that."
"No," she said with a forced laugh. "He's here."
"What?" John said, turning his attention on where Claire was looking then. "I wasn't expecting that."
"Me neither. I guess I should have."
"Why would you?"
"I told you Luke is friends with Patricia's fiancé, Bill."
"I'm not sure you did."
"They pledged together."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. I haven't heard from him since I moved home."
"Really?" John said, sounding surprised.
"Yes, really. I would have told you, John."
"I wasn't doubting you, just surprised I guess that he gave up that easily."
"Evidently he didn't."
"This surprises you, Princess?"
"Oh come on, it's been months."
"Claire, you are what most guys would think of as being quite a catch."
"Not by him."
He leaned in close then, grazing her ear with his lips. "He wouldn't know what to do with you when he caught you."
She blushed, she couldn't help it. He hadn't said anything suggestive or wrong, but she knew exactly what he was talking about.
"I didn't think you'd actually come," Luke said when he made it to where they'd been standing.
"Patricia's my friend."
"Yeah, but you had to know Bill would be here."
"I have nothing to hide, Luke."
"No, who's this?"
"My date, John."
Luke sized him up, Claire saw recognition in his eyes. "I met him when we were here last winter."
"Yes, he came by the house."
"How convenient that he just happened to know you were in town and is now your date here tonight."
"Not really. He wasn't the only person I saw when I was home then, Luke."
"He's the one you're here with tonight, though. Patricia told Bill you've been seeing him since you came back."
"Yeah, so?" Claire replied.
"There something you should tell me?"
"Like you were just dating me to pass the time until you could move back to Chicago and him?"
"That isn't how it was at all. I had no desire to move back to Chicago until we broke up and then I realized I had no reason to move to Boston. Home was the logical place to go."
"It sure seems that way."
"Listen, Luke," John said. "We're just here to have a good time at Claire's friend's New Year's Eve party. Nothing more."
She knew when he spotted the hickey John had given her on the ride over here. Her dress was low cut enough that he'd had his choice of spots. He'd chosen the base of her throat, on purpose no doubt. She hadn't stopped him. If she'd known Luke was going to be here she might have.
"It seems you started having a good time early."
"Luke," Claire said.
"Don't justify yourself to him, Claire. We've done nothing wrong. Last I checked she broke up with you so what she does before, during, or after parties isn't your concern anymore."
"I didn't think you'd have the audacity to bring him here. And with a hickey no less. I guess I was wrong about you."
"I'm sorry? It's a hickey. It's not like I showed up naked."
"No, but it's a pretty good indication you were stringing me along for years. Christ, I was an idiot wasn't I? People told me no one, absolutely no one held out for marriage anymore. They said you were lying to be sure you got what you wanted out of me in the long run. I believed you, though."
"A hickey means I'm having sex? On what planet do the two automatically go together?"
"You're telling me it's not true? You're not sleeping with him? Did she feed you the line of waiting for marriage, too? Or did her knees come unlocked as soon as she moved back here? Then again, maybe she didn't have to pretend to be a frigid bitch to land you."
John struck so fast she wouldn't have had time to stop him from throwing the punch even if she'd known he was going to do it. It connected right at Luke's jaw. Luke hadn't been expecting it. Luke just didn't know people like John, guys who weren't afraid to throw a punch and get their hands dirty.
Bill didn't seem to know what to do much the same as Luke, which Claire found almost comical. It was a good thing, she supposed, Luke never had to defend her honor.
Luke tried, but John was bigger and was a much more physically active and stronger guy than Luke would ever be. He always had been. Patricia did her part to keep Bill out of the fray because he had nothing to do with the argument. Luke wouldn't know that John got into fights in high school weekly, if not more frequently. John rarely lost the ones he got into at school. The ones at home were a different story, but she suspected now that it wasn't because he couldn't have won those fights against his father. He chose not to for whatever reason.
He did get one good swing in, connecting with John's cheek. Otherwise, though, John walked away pretty unscathed.
Patricia offered her some ice wrapped in a towel, which Claire took and put over his eye once they were back in the limo.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"I was supposed to let him talk about you that way? Never mind what he was saying exactly, he supposedly loved you and he said those things in front of your friends. You don't know me very well, Princess, if you thought I'd let him get away with it."
"No, I know," she sighed. "I really didn't think he'd be here. I knew Bill would be, of course, but didn't count on him flying here for this."
"I guess we won't be invited back to her house anytime soon."
"We can probably cross our names off their wedding guest list, too," she said with a soft laugh.
"You're kidding, right? I didn't say those things, he did."
"I'm kidding. We'll talk in a couple of weeks and everything will be fine."
"Luke's his best man?"
"Maybe we shouldn't care about being crossed off that guest list then."
She turned the dome light on, sliding the ice from his cheek so he could look at it.
"Just making sure you don't need stitches."
"Nah, he didn't connect that good."
"He probably needs them," she said, giving him control of the towel again.
"Yeah, well, I would've hit him harder."
"You know he didn't really say anything that wasn't true."
"Claire," he said, eyeing her through mostly one eye. "He had no way of knowing you weren't a virgin. Even if you had been waiting until marriage and changed your mind after seeing me that doesn't mean you lied or deserve to have those things said about you. Even if he knew you weren't a virgin, maybe you decided you weren't going to again until marriage. Not everyone walks away from their first experience thinking it's all that."
"John. He's just a jealous asshole."
"You were going to marry him!"
"Obviously I had my doubts or we wouldn't be here right now."
He set the ice on the floor at their feet, tugging her onto his lap.
"Besides I like your knees. He insulted them. I couldn't let that stand."
"You couldn't, huh?" she said, sliding her arms around his neck.
"Yes! I've certainly never had a problem getting them apart."
She laughed, snuggling against his neck. "While that's very true it's probably a good thing you waited to say that until now."
"Do me a favor?"
"I can try," he said.
"Don't do that again. I hate the idea of you being scarred or marked up in any way because of me."
"He didn't come close."
"Just don't do it again."
"I'll do my best." He kissed her then, lingering a bit. "So, does this mean our night is done?"
"What did you have in mind?" she asked.
"Well, we have the limo all night."
"Let's have the driver go downtown to Lake Shore Drive and over along Sheridan Road. The Christmas lights along LSD should still be up. I bet it'll be crowded, but I'm in no hurry."
"That doesn't stop until Kenosha."
"Good thing I thought ahead," he said.
"Thought ahead to what?"
"A night alone with you in this car. I wasn't planning on it starting this early, but had hoped before midnight to be in here with you." He tilted his head behind her and she glanced over her shoulder, spotting the two bottles of champagne chilling. "I think it's even the good stuff."
"John," she whispered.
"I figure we only get one first New Year's Eve, probably worth splurging."
"Your cheek and eye?"
"Doesn't hurt that bad, Claire."
"Trust me, I've had worse."
She cringed, sadly knowing he spoke the truth.
"Better tell the driver where you want him to go then."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com