***Chapter Forty-Two***

Word Count: 5,561

December 1989

"I'm almost positive that one is even better than last night's," Claire said.

"You might be right," John said. They were on the beach, watching the sunset. Claire was nestled between his legs and he had his arms around her. She had a glass of some virgin tropical concoction John didn't even know what all went into it. He just knew it was liquor-free. He'd been admittedly a little surprised how adamant she was about not drinking anything while pregnant. He was relieved beyond belief, but surprised just the same. She hadn't even had a glass of wine with Thanksgiving dinner, which everyone (except John) had told her would be all right. His drink of choice was a bottle of beer. He had a couple of Budweisers in the fridge, but he'd gotten daring and bought a couple of non-American beers to try them. That was what he was drinking now, and it wasn't half bad.

This was their second week here and it seemed no matter what he had to do he was here with her for the sunset. The one time he wasn't they'd woken up for the sunrise. They had sunsets and sunrises in Chicago, but they weren't anything like what they'd seen the past ten days or so. Even John had to admit they were pretty damned beautiful.

"I could get used to this," she whispered.

"Yeah?" he asked. He kind of had to admit he could, too. "You want to run away with me and live like nomads on the beach, Princess?"

"It would be kind of nice."

"It would," he said.

"Would you consider it?"

"What?" he asked. She couldn't be serious. "Not going home?"

"Yeah."

He shrugged. "If I didn't have a house…"

"Which is paid off."

"A job."

"You could take pictures some place like this."

"You know, a year and a half ago that's all I would have been able to lay claim to. A house and a job. A decent job where I make money and do what I love to do versus what I'm sure everyone expected I'd be doing getting dirty and greasy every night. Still, though, it's just a job. I didn't have anything else to worry about. So if someone had said, 'hey, let's pick up and move to Florida' or wherever I wouldn't have had a damned thing stopping me."

"And now?"

"I have family. I know Ma isn't happy with her role in my life, but she's still there."

"Yes."

"You, though. Your family. Ma's family. Billy," he shrugged. "I couldn't just up and leave them."

"Even if I came with you?"

"You'd hate it, being so far from your parents and Christopher."

"You're probably right."

"I'd do it, though. I mean, if you really wanted to move somewhere and be just us and the baby. I'd do it. I'd question whether you'd be happy ultimately, but I have nothing really holding me to Chicago. I mean, you but if you wanted to leave you wouldn't be holding me there. It's not like there aren't airplanes that could bring us there to see any family we want to visit."

"You'd be away from Billy, though."

"Yeah, he's about the only one I'd feel real bad up and leaving on."

"Are you having second thoughts about being in Phillip and Elizabeth's wedding since he told you they asked Billy to be their ring bearer?"

"No. I'll see Ma, but it is what it is. She seems to be taking her meetings and stuff seriously. I gave her that information Mr. McMillan passed onto me. She was surprised I'd done it, but I told her to talk to her dad about who she was going to use. I think he'll look pretty cute and you are putting a camera in your purse that night."

"Why?"

"I know the photographer they went with, he's good, but Billy's my brother. I want real good pictures of him in that little tuxedo because he's going to look real cute and Ma would probably like one that she wouldn't have to pay through the nose for. She can't walk into the studio and order one picture, it doesn't work that way. I'm sure Phillip and Elizabeth would get her one, but the photographer's focus is going to be on them not on Billy. You know, I figured I could get it framed for her or something. Maybe one of me and him. She'd like that."

"She would, yeah," she said and John suspected that she knew he'd kind of like it, too. He'd never really had anyone until recently to get his picture taken with. His parents certainly hadn't done it. Sadly, he had no pictures of him and Mr. Fitzgerald together. He had a couple of the old man by himself, which he'd shown Claire because she'd been curious what he looked like. "You're a good big brother."

"You say that."

"It's true."

"That remains to be seen entirely. Talk to me when he's eighteen."

"He'll be fine. He'll have you around and your dad not around."

"I hope that's enough."

"Your mom will be fine, John. I really believe that. I know that bothers you in some ways, that she's fine for him and not for you, but maybe she's learned from her mistakes."

"I hope so," he said simply. He wasn't bothered by it so much anymore. Some days it ate at him, but he supposed that was normal. He was just glad Billy was getting a good version of his mom. John had turned out decent enough despite the odds, but only because he had the intervention of the likes of Mr. Fitzgerald and Mrs. Henderson in his life to make him realize his parents were the ones screwed up not him. Certainly very few teachers helped him. Most were like Vernon and saw what they wanted to see.

"And you really would've given this up?"

He shrugged. "I wouldn't have known any different. I mean I'd never been here so can't miss what I didn't know."

"That's not really an answer."

He kissed her shoulder. She was wearing a pretty basic cotton sundress thing that she wasn't overly impressed with, but they were comfortable and they kept her cool for the most part. He liked it because it was a dress. He always preferred her in dresses and skirts. He hoped the day never came he felt differently. "If you'd really been adamant I not go I guess I would have stayed home. I wanted to come, but it wasn't worth pissing you off and having you leave me or something over a trip. I mean, there's wanting to do more than weddings for the rest of my life and there's losing the rest of my life. No point in freeing up time to have no one to pass it with."

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"For what?"

It was her turn to shrug. The downside of her having her back to him he couldn't see her face so he was left uncertain what she was feeling. Her eyes always told him so much. He'd thought about this long and hard after the first night they'd talked about him coming down here. What good would going do if he lost her? He wasn't sure when in the eighteen months he'd gotten to that point, but there it was. He didn't want to lose her. He wanted her in his house every day for the rest of forever and he'd do whatever it took to keep her there. If photographing weddings until the day he died was what it took then that's what he'd do.

"That you even thought you'd have to. That you thought you'd have to choose. I had no idea that you wanted to do more. You know? You'd never said so."

"Well, who wouldn't want to do more? It's not essential. Would I like the opportunity? Sure, but is it worth making you unhappy? No. It worked out in the end. You're here with me. The weather is great. Things are going well. Suzanne seems happy at any rate."

"She's surprisingly nice."

"I told you," he said. "Listen to you anyway being all judgmental based on what she does – or takes off – for a living. You have friends who are models."

"I know, but you haven't seen them naked."

He chuckled softly. "That is perhaps a good thing."

She sighed softly.

"You all right?" he asked.

He knew she wasn't very comfortable at all. She didn't complain real often, even down here where it was warmer than she'd like it to be. Neither of them had thought of that as she hadn't been real far along over the summer and she worked in an air conditioned building. There'd been a night or two during August that they'd gone out to eat, staying in the bar far longer than they would have normally so that she didn't have to sit in a stifling house. He now wished he'd found a house with an air conditioner, but it hadn't been a priority for him. The box fan in his bedroom had been sufficient. They'd bought another fan for the living room, which helped but there were a couple of evenings fans just weren't good enough.

He offered to buy and install a window air conditioning unit, but she'd insisted it wasn't necessary. As soon as summer was over, though, and things like air conditioners weren't a heavily demanded commodity the prices had dropped for them and he'd bought two. He'd install them next spring. He figured they could have one in the living room and one in their bedroom. He wouldn't make her go through being pregnant again without one. He didn't know much about babies, but had to imagine a baby being too hot wasn't a good thing anymore than it was an adult. Probably worse, because adults knew what to do to get cooler, babies wouldn't. So, the air conditioner units were a good investment as far as he was concerned.

So he knew she'd never tell her if something was wrong or bothering her that he could do nothing about. He could see it, though, her fatigue and general uncomfortableness when they got into bed at the end of the day that she was tired. Not just tired from the day either. She was beyond ready to not be pregnant anymore. He was kind of ready for her not to be, too. An entirely different reason, though. He just wanted to see her.

His daughter. He was curious, excited, nervous, and cautious all at the same time. He, of all people was going to be a father. Being a husband was scary as shit by itself. Being a father was a whole different thing. He was excited, though, because he knew he could and would do better than his old man had done with him.

He knew she thought after the ultrasound had told them she was a she that he was mad about it or something. Nothing could be further from the truth. He would've been happy with a boy, sure, but the name thing really ate at him. He was hoping they'd have time before the next one that she'd move onto liking some other name. That aside, the idea of a little girl appealed to him. He had no clue why as he had to imagine it'd lead to him having a heart attack when she got older. Little girls grew into older girls. John knew exactly what teenaged boys wanted to do with older girls. He'd been the epitome of the teenaged boy mothers warned their daughters about.

"Yes. Just relaxing and enjoying having nothing to do. I'm going to get spoiled and not want to go back to work."

"You know, there's nothing saying you have to go back to work."

"What? John…"

"What? Who says you have to? Would anyone, including your father, blame you if you wanted to stay home and be a mom for a while? I mean, people do it, shelve their career for a while to do that and they don't have a family business to welcome them when they decide to rejoin the workforce."

"Well, no."

"Would your dad not be probably pretty thrilled you wanted to do that?"

"Well, sure, but I went to college. He spent all that money for me to get my degree."

"You did. Your degree will still be there in a couple of years."

"I know, but my dad…"

"He's not retiring tomorrow. Are you going to be any less smart in a few years?"

"No."

"Okay, so you'd have to learn things again. You did last fall anyway. Clearly your dad's okay with you learning."

"Yes, but I've worked so hard."

"I know you have. I'm not trying to convince you. I mean I'd love it, don't get me wrong. You two could come see me or I could come home. I wouldn't complain about seeing the both of you. If you want to work then that's fine, but you don't have to. This trip perhaps setting me back a bit more than it would have if it'd just been me down here aside, I can support you. It was part of the reason I put your money away. I had to know if I could do it, support you on my own. You had your own things to prove, I did, too. I had to show myself I could do it. I mean, we may not be able to afford things like dinner at the Palmer House every week, but we'll be more than all right. We have no house payment. My studio rent is so low it may as well be nothing."

She snorted at that.

"I know," she whispered.

"I mean if you do go back to work. What are we going to do with her?"

"I don't know. I looked at a couple of daycares near the house."

"You did?" She hadn't told him that. To this point they hadn't talked about it, but he knew they were getting to the point they had to.

"Yeah. I called them for information. I didn't actually go in there yet."

"Oh."

"It's so expensive."

"We can afford it. I know you have plenty left over after what you give me each month. I mean, I'd pay for half of course, because she's my daughter, too."

"I know we can, but God paying all that money for someone else to spend time with my baby really bothers me."

He chuckled at that. "Oh, Princess, where's a camera and a microphone when we need one?"

"Shut up. I feel her move. I mean, I haven't seen her yet beyond the ultrasound, but I don't need to. I know that I love her and would do anything for her. I don't think I've ever had that feeling for anyone before besides you. I didn't want or welcome the feeling with you, though, I do with her."

"I know the feeling." He'd never had that before. Claire thought he was possessive of her. He felt that and more about their daughter. He was probably going to be the world's worst dad because he absolutely wanted to do as much as he could with her. Claire would be working downtown eventually, which would mean it'd be up to John to do things like get her to and from school and other things she'd do. He already knew that and he was strangely looking forward to it and very grateful he had the Jeep already.

"I mean, it's not about the money. I know we can afford it even if it is crazy expensive. It's over one hundred fifty dollars a week."

"Are you fucking kidding me?"

"I'm not. I sit here and think about what we could do for her with that money instead of put her in daycare."

"Well, if you're not working, sweetheart…"

"I know, we wouldn't have my income, but that's still money we could be putting toward doing things with her instead of paying someone to take care of her that's not one of us."

"Uh, she's not going to be able to do much."

"I know that! I just meant eventually. Even immediately better clothes, better things. I mean, that's six hundred dollars a month! The prices go down as they get older and everything, but God I hung up thinking I needed my ears checked."

"You'd be able to breastfeed her longer, too. I know you said you wanted to try. Being home with her would certainly make it easier."

"It would," she admitted.

He'd stopped being surprised at the conversations they had at times. If someone told him two years ago he'd be having a conversation with Claire Standish, or anyone, about babies and breastfeeding. Well, he would never have imagined it coming true in a million years.

"Phillip says six months is ideal and some even do it longer," she said.

"I don't know that I want to hear why you're talking to my uncle about you breastfeeding."

She laughed softly.

"Because he's a nurse. He asks me questions. You know."

"I do. I'm glad you have him to talk to."

"Oh God, my doctor's office would freak out if I asked them the questions I ask Phillip."

"I'm sure they wouldn't. That's what they're there for."

"I'd still feel like a pest."

"Well, what about working part-time or seeing if you can work something out with your dad that you could work noon to eight? There's nothing that says I have to have appointments in the morning regularly. I could bring her with me if I had one for someone who couldn't do an afternoon for whatever reason."

"And do what for the afternoons you have appointments?"

He shrugged. "Drop her off for a few hours wherever we decide to put her. It can't possibly cost one hundred fifty dollars for a couple of hours a day."

"It's not that much less. I asked about that, too, just out of curiosity. You know, thinking exactly what you said that maybe you could adjust your schedule a bit in the mornings. They still have to staff the nursery."

"I suppose," he said. He didn't understand it, never having thought on what daycares charges or why they had to charge what they did before in his life.

She sighed softly, running her fingertips along her belly before settling her palm there. Chances were it was a butt she'd settled her hand over. More often than not she got kicked in the ribs pretty violently anymore. John had watched the first few times he could see the physical movements in absolute awe. And a little horrified. He'd never before stopped to realize the movements would be … well, visible. He'd just never been that up close and personal with someone pregnant before to know such things.

John took a sip of his beer.

"The idea of someone else…"

"I feel the same way," he whispered. "I mean, I'd offer to quit my job and stay home with her, but I don't think I'd feel right doing that when all was said and done."

She laughed softly. "Why not?"

"People would think that was my goal all along! Marrying you, getting you pregnant so I could stay home, be a bum, and let you pay for everything."

"Instead of you having to pay for everything?"

"I'm the guy, Princess. We're supposed to."

"I know we have to think about this, but God I just hate the idea. Six months ago I didn't."

"I know. What about your mom? A few hours in the afternoon should be doable, wouldn't you think?"

"I don't know. She might."

"I mean, once she's older, you know being around other kids would probably be good for her."

"Right, I agree. My dad has asked me if I was going to come back."

"He has?"

"Yes. He wants to know if I'll be back and if so when I have in mind coming back. I suppose he wants to know what to do with Sam if I'm not going to come back for a while."

"I suppose that's true. The only drawback to you not going back is I'd have to get insurance. I mean, I could do that, it's not a hardship or a problem. I'm just saying. You have it already and she'd be covered by it, too. I looked into it when I hired Ronda until she told me she was on Bill's."

"I know."

"I mean, there might be other drawbacks. Trips like this wouldn't happen again anytime soon."

"I don't expect trips like this."

"You deserve trips like this."

"It is very nice."

"It is," he said, sliding a hand over hers at her belly. She still kicked and shifted, but she wasn't moving as much as she was a couple of weeks ago. He was told that was normal, but he still looked forward to those times she was real active so he knew without a doubt she was still, well, alive and kicking in there.

"You're going to get more work out of this, aren't you?" she asked.

"Maybe. Probably," he said softly. He was getting the impression it could happen. Not jobs like this again, but a couple of the women down here who lived in Chicago had talked to him a couple of times.

"Suzanne told me there are a couple of other models from the area here."

"Yeah," he said cautiously. He still wasn't sure how he felt about those two talking. He wanted to believe she was all right with the situation. He or Suzanne hadn't given her any reason to believe he'd lied about their relationship. He liked Suzanne. She was pretty and if he hadn't met her when she was sixteen he couldn't deny he probably would've been interested when he did meet her. The fact remained, though, he met her when she was sixteen and he was over eighteen. He did a lot of things that toed the lines of legality over the years, but having sex with a minor was not one of those things.

"They seem to like you."

"Claire…"

"Not that way! I swear that's not how I meant it. She seems to think they like you. She says she showed them her portfolio because they were asking about you."

"She did?"

"Yes. She showed it to me, too."

"Oh," he said.

That made him a little nervous. He wasn't sure why. What if she didn't think he was really that good and that this trip was a waste of their time and money? She'd never seen samples of any of the type of pictures he was taking down here. He hadn't thought she'd be interested truthfully. He did show her the finished product of the pinup calendar he'd done a while ago, which she'd admitted looked as though the woman had fun while doing.

"When did you get so chatty with her?"

"You were out taking pictures one evening when we first got here and she came here. She said she was going to ask you some questions, but I think she was bored. So, she stayed for a while and we talked."

"She's not a drinker," John said.

"Yes, and it seems that's about all there is to do down here in their spare time. Party."

"If you weren't pregnant…"

"I'd have a great time, but I wouldn't be here either."

"I probably still would've asked you to come with me."

"Probably?"

"Well, you know, three weeks away from you not pregnant. Who could blame me for not wanting to take you to a romantic spot?"

"Probably no one."

"Only because they don't know you like I do."

"That may be true."

"Whatever you want to do. If putting her in daycare part-time makes you feel better I'll make it work."

"Yeah, but…"

"Talk to your mom. If I had to do something in the mornings and Ronda couldn't make it maybe your mom could help out once in a while. Not every day. Ronda not being available doesn't happen frequently, but I'm beginning to wonder if you being pregnant has given her the bug to try herself."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "I just see the way she looks at you. You know, like she wants that, too."

"She hasn't said anything."

"Well, I doubt she would, but then I don't know what you two talk about and probably have no desire to know."

"We don't talk about you and Bill, I promise."

"Good to know, except I suspect you're not being fully honest saying that. That's okay, though, I'm glad you have a friend you can trust."

"I'll talk to Mom and Dad. If Dad doesn't mind me being home for a while I think I'd rather do that. At least a few months."

"I suspect he knows that already and would probably want you to be."

"Maybe. If he gets uptight about it."

"Then we'll figure it out. You just need to let me know. My schedule is very flexible. You know this. Ronda would certainly watch her, too, for an hour at a time or something. It's not like she'll be walking or anything for a few months."

"Right," Claire said, laughing softly at him. He was so clueless, but he didn't get the impression Claire was any more knowledgeable about babies than he was. They were both going to be learning together, which was probably a scary thought to most of the people who knew them. Good thing he had a pediatrics' nurse for a friend. And an uncle.

"And if I decide after a few months I don't want to go back," she shrugged.

"Then we'll make it work, Claire. Your dad won't be mad for you wanting to be a mom to your kids. Like I said people do that. You're twenty-three and he's what? Fifty-three?"

"Yeah," she said.

"So, even if you took ten years off, not that you would. Just saying. That still leaves him at sixty-three and a huge amount of time to spend being retired."

"I know," she said. "You'd like it, wouldn't you?"

"If you stayed home? Sure, but I also know you had plans that didn't involve that. So, I'd be fine with a few months."

"I'll start with a few months and go from there."

"Just be sure you're honest with your dad about whether you think you'll for sure want to go back. I mean, that you wonder if you will. That wouldn't be fair to him or Sam if he shifted her somewhere else temporarily only to find out he has to find somewhere else for her altogether."

"I know," she said.

"So, Laura what?" he asked.

"I didn't realize we'd agreed on Laura."

"I like it," he said. "It's nice and doesn't leave me thinking she's going to follow a career path we'd both hate."

She laughed softly.

"No magazine centerfolds named Laura?"

He chuckled. "I'm sure there's one somewhere. It's not a family name, at least not one that I know about so we're not naming her after anyone."

"True."

"We could go with Laura Marie, so she'd have your middle name as hers."

"Hmm," she said, drawing away from him. She moved her glass and his beer out of the way before settling herself on his lap. Sex wasn't as easy anymore as it had been. He couldn't be on top of her, which he didn't mind but that left her on top or him behind her whether it was the usual way or something more creative. A lot of times anymore he left it up to her to initiate because he knew she wasn't real comfortable regardless of the position. She knew wanting to was never an issue for him and he'd told her more than once it wasn't anything beyond him not wanting her to think she had to when she may not want to so much anymore.

So, when she slid her hand between their bodies into his shorts he gave a very obvious sound of excitement even if it was quiet. She leaned in, kissing him as her hand slid along his length.

"What? I like your middle name," he said softly.

"I know."

"That's good because I like your name. I especially like your last name," he whispered.

"Really?"

"Yes. That surprises you?"

"I don't know."

"I look forward to being the exception to the norm for the John Benders out there and their wives."

He shifted a bit so she could fit more comfortably on his lap. It was her turn to give a sound of excitement as she settled herself over the part of him her hand made harden very easily. Then she always made him react that way easily. It was pretty much a given.

He thanked their times on his porch for this happening between them here. He knew if they hadn't done that last summer there was no way in hell she'd be daring enough out here in the open like this. No one was around so they weren't going to see and even if they were he didn't give a shit. Neither of them was nude or anything.

He liked her on top anymore. She was in complete control and while he would never intentionally hurt her he knew as she got further along things weren't as comfortable for her. Like this, riding him, she could take him as deep as she wanted or needed to. He liked it much better in a bed with her naked so he could watch her body as she moved herself on top of him and touch her. He had no difficulty settling for just touching her right now, sliding his hands over the top of her dress. He loved touching her breasts, more than familiar with the subtle changes that had been occurring as their daughter grew. These days she really loved it.

She was a little more direct and less leisurely than other times, but he didn't mind. Him inside of her always lead to him ready to finish. He didn't think she understood that, the feeling being not just inside of her but with her gave him. He'd never be able to put it into words either so he had never tried.

She settled next to him on the blanket they'd brought out here, barely missing spilling her drink over because she'd evidently forgotten about it. He caught it, though.

"So I guess you like that name I take it?" he asked.

"I do."

"All right. That wasn't so hard, was it?"

"I still like…"

"Yeah, I know you do. Simone maybe you could've talked me into, but no way on Crystal was I budging on that."

"I could've made you budge."

"Sweets, you can make me do any number of things, but giving our daughter that name was not going to happen. Never in this lifetime."

"You're so mean!"

"Laura is a nice name."

"I know it is."

"Well, then why the hang up on a name that two men told you sounded like it belonged to a stripper. I suppose stripper is better than a hooker name, but I don't know. Some of those strippers…"

"I don't want to hear about your strippers."

He chuckled softly.

"Actually, that's one thing I never did. I mean, you know, I've been to a club or two, but I never spent more than like fifty bucks at a club and I never, ever even contemplated getting with one."

"Really?"

"Nope. No interest at all."

"Why not?"

He shrugged, gathering her to him. "What can I say? I guess deep down I knew I wanted this. You."

"It's the possessiveness in you."

"Maybe so, that's what I like, though. I've never been possessive about anyone else so I wouldn't know. I admit I like that you've never been with anyone but me."

"I'm not arguing or disappointed."

"Me neither. I'd hate to disappoint you," he said.

"You'd really be okay with my not going back to work?"

"Are we talking forever?"

"Well, if one turns into two…"

"I'd be fine with whatever makes you and our kids happy, Claire. If staying home is it then that's what we'll do. We'd make it work. Your dad isn't going to let you or your kids starve even if something happened to my business. If something did happen to my business I could stay home and you could work. We'd make it happen."

"Okay."

"You like the idea, don't you?"

"I do," she admitted. "I mean, not forever, no, but you know, when she's little."

"Then that's what we'll do, Princess. I want to keep both of my princesses happy."

"I'm not sure you can handle more than one."

He chuckled softly, kissing her neck. "I know I won't be able to. I'm prepared to give it my best shot, though."

"And if we have another girl?"

"The fact that you can be this far along and think about wanting another one astounds me."

"It's not so bad."

"I'm glad you think so."

"So?"

"Well, then, I'd be pretty damned lucky, Princess."

"Us, too."

~The End~