God, she'd missed this view even if she wasn't crazy about the weather. She pulled the designer shades down, shielding her eyes from the sun. It looked like it would be a picture perfect day. A group had gotten there a couple of hours ago to stake out a prime spot for their gathering on Oak Street Beach. Anyone who was anyone flocked to this beach. If you wanted to see or be seen, this was the place. She supposed the Chicago skyline serving as a backdrop helped make it a coveted spot.
From the number of telephone calls she'd gotten over the past few days it seemed like a good number of her friends were going to come. Most she hadn't seen since graduation. There were a select few she spent time with on breaks, but only the few that enjoyed shopping as much as she did.
Her parents were gone for the month so she had the house to herself. Not that she'd told anyone that. If she did, they'd turn out in droves and she didn't want to deal with the mess. She loved parties, loved the crowds that went with them just at someone else's house.
She waved with a shouted hello as she spotted Abby and Stephanie. She rolled her eyes when she saw they were already surrounded by guys. She wouldn't go so far as to call them sluts, but they never lacked for dates. And they weren't too picky about who those dates were either.
"Claire, you made it."
"I said I would."
"Well, we weren't sure. Jenna drove past your house the other day and said it looked deserted. We thought maybe your parents had whisked you away. I love your suit, by the way."
She was only showing the top of her suit, she still wore her shorts but she planned on doing some swimming later. "Thanks. No, no whisking. I was probably in my room. You know how it is, parents overwhelming because they haven't seen you in months." She rolled her eyes, the gesture unseen by the others because of her sunglasses. "You guys look great. Summer obviously agrees with you."
Stephanie chewed on her gum and blew a bubble, nodding her head. "Don't I know it. Can you believe our pool was out of order for a week longer than usual. The pool boy my parents used screwed something up with the chemicals so it was all green."
"That would suck." As if there weren't public pools, but they were pretty gross and a last resort.
"So, how was Florida?"
"The best. Nothing like living somewhere you can tan year 'round. Tallahassee is kind of boring, but there's enough to do on campus. And I'm far away from here."
"It's not that bad," Abby said. Of course she wouldn't think so. She hadn't run through all the guys in Chicago yet to make it worth her while to look at going anywhere else.
Stephanie was still chewing away on her gum. "Hey, Claire, we are going to see a movie tomorrow. There are a couple of good ones out. Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Ferris Bueller's Day Off I heard was a riot."
"Sure." She didn't have anything else to do. She didn't work, her parents weren't around. They had left her enough cash to last her for the month. Well, it would last her so long as she didn't do anything too out of hand. A movie she could do.
She spotted Andy, firing up the grill. "I'm going to go talk to Andy for a bit, I'll see you later. Call me tomorrow about the movie."
She approached Andy and tapped him on the shoulder. His eyes met hers and he smiled. It was a different type of smile than he'd give to girls like Stephanie or Abby. Though they'd never talked about their shared day of detention there was an unspoken understanding between them.
"Hey, Claire. I was hoping you'd come."
"And here I am."
"Florida obviously agrees with you. You're way ahead of most of the girls on the tan front."
"You know it. Some of the locals down there thought I was nuts to be tanning in April. They have no idea what we're used to up here!" She handed him some money to cover food.
"Oh, hey, thanks."
"No problem. Thanks for cooking. Need any help?"
"Nah, I'm good for now. You can keep me company until Ally gets here if you want."
"You're still with her?"
"I am. She's nice."
"I'd hope after this long she's more than nice."
"Well, she is, she's changed a lot since that day."
"I know, I've seen her. I saw her at prom. I couldn't believe she cleaned up so nicely."
"That's a nice thing to say when it was you who cleaned her up that day."
"Well, yeah, but I didn't think she'd want to stick with it."
Andy rolled his eyes and returned to fighting with the grill. "I like her, okay. I know she's not like the usual people we hang out with. Maybe that's what I liked about her. And now, it just doesn't matter anymore."
"It's different than high school, isn't it?"
"The things that mattered don't anymore. I come back here and girls like Stephanie and Abby are the same."
"You haven't changed that much either."
"Andy, I wasn't being mean."
"Yeah, well, it sounded like it."
"Oh, hey, there's Melanie and Stacey, I'm going to go say hi. I'll be back."
"You know where to find me."
She walked toward Melanie and Stacey who hadn't seen her yet. They hugged and kissed the air above one another's cheeks when they finally did.
"Oh my gosh, Claire you look terrific. You've grown your hair out."
"Yeah, a little." She ran her fingertips through the ends. It wasn't that much longer than she usually wore it.
"And you look so tan. You must really be working at it for you to be so tan and not all burnt."
"Yeah, pretty much." She burned easily, but she had it down to a science now. A few minutes at a time to start was all she could do, gradually working her way to longer and longer. It had resulted in a nice base tan that wasn't going to fade until January if she had anything to say about it.
"You look great, too. You dyed your hair, didn't you?"
"Yes. I was tired of being straight brown, so I added some highlights."
"It looks great. And, you, Stacey, you've lost weight. A ton of it."
"I did. The new me! I took a year off, you know. So, I'm all ready to go to college complete with a new set of clothes."
They heard Stephanie and Abby squeal in unison at an ear piercing decibel level. She couldn't help but look neither could Stacey or Melanie, which Claire imagined was their intent.
"Maybe they've finally seen a guy they haven't gotten to second base with."
"Stacey," Claire said, but couldn't help but giggle. She was glad someone else said it. She always got in trouble for talking too bluntly. "What are they looking at?"
"Some guy," Melanie said. "The lifeguard I think. Lord help us all if they get a hold of him, the water will be anything but safe."
Not wanting to stare, but curious just the same. Stephanie and Abby already had four or five guys hanging around them. So, what was so special about this guy? Just the fact he was a lifeguard? Her eyes narrowed and her breath caught when he got closer. He wore a pair of shorts, a tank top and gym shoes. He had a ball cap on and that ridiculous looking white stuff on his nose. He had nice legs she noticed even at a distance, real nice legs.
There was no way it was possible. She closed her eyes and opened them again. It was him. He had bulked up and the Chicago sun wasn't doing him any damage either. She wondered if they recognized him. She doubted it. He looked different. The hair was still longer than it should be, but it looked styled now and clean.
He glanced in their direction. She couldn't blame him with the squealing girls making a scene. He stopped short of looking right at her. When he did, all she could do was wave. He waved back unable to hide the surprised look on his face.
Stephanie and Abby ran up to her. "You know him, Claire?"
"Uh, yeah, I think so. I'm not sure."
"He sure looked at you as if he knew you. How do you know him? What's his name?"
"He's just a friend."
"Will you introduce us?"
"No," she said simply.
They both scoffed. Had she been paying attention she would have seen the wounded look on their faces. She wasn't there to worry about hurting their feelings, though. Chances were once she was done with college she wouldn't see them again anyway other than a reunion or two.
"Claire." She turned at her name to see Andy waving her over.
"It was good seeing you guys. We'll talk later. Stephanie and Abby mentioned a movie tomorrow, I'll call you when they tell me when and where."
More friends were showing up by the minute. The party looked like it was going to be big enough that she wasn't sure she'd get back to talk to everyone a second time. She walked back to Andy, certain she'd talk to him more than once since he was in charge of the food.
"Did you see John?"
"That was him?"
"Yeah. You should go talk to him."
"Why would I want to do that?"
Andy shrugged. "If you don't, I bet Steph and Abby will."
"Yeah, they're more his type anyway. Knowing him, he'd do them both because he could."
"Hardly. I have nothing to be jealous about over those two. Did you know he worked here?"
"Yeah, Ally and I have come here quite a bit already this summer."
"I'm sure he'd talk to you. He was checking you out."
"Right. What am I supposed to do? Invite him for a burger?"
"Because he's John."
"So. Do you really care what any of these people think?"
"Well, no." She wasn't exactly sure that was true or not, but she wanted it to be.
"Here comes, Ally, so unless you want me to have her gang up on you with me you'd better go." He gestured with the can of charcoal lighter fluid. "He's all by himself there. Look."
She shielded her eyes, even with the sunglasses it was hard to make him out. He was just sitting there. She supposed it wouldn't hurt anyone or anything to go say hi. She hadn't seen him since graduation. Actually, she hadn't seen him at graduation now that she thought about it. Had he graduated? And what had he done in the year since then?
She grabbed a diet drink from the cooler at Andy's feet and sighed audibly. "I suppose if you're going to make me."
"Twisting your arm. Can't you feel it?"
"Ouch," she said with a light laugh. "It would be fun to get to a guy before Stephanie and Abby made their moves."
Andy laughed with a shake of his head just as Ally caught up to them. "Hi, Claire."
"Hi Allison. You look great."
"Thanks, you do, too. What are you guys talking about?"
"I'm trying to convince Claire she should go say hi to John."
"Oh, he's on duty today?"
"Yeah, looked like he was just coming on."
"Oh you should then. He asked about you a couple of weeks ago."
"He did?" She noticed the scowl Andy shot Allison, evidently he didn't want her to know that. "Just for that," she said, shooting Andy a glare and grabbed a regular drink from the cooler. "I'll bet he's getting thirsty about now."
Andy smiled. "He just might be at that. It does get warm under the sun. Maybe when you come back I'll have some burgers or brats done."
"I am not bringing him lunch."
"Whatever you say. See you later."
"I can't believe you talked me into this."
"I didn't have to talk very long, so it wasn't that hard."
"Yeah, yeah," she said with a wave of her hand as she turned and walked in the direction of John.
"Well, well, I almost didn't recognize you with so little on."
"Hello to you, too."
He offered her a smile, one of his most charming she imagined. "Nice top, Princess."
"I brought you a Coke."
"Thanks." He took the can when she offered it to him. "Did you just get back?"
"No, I've been back for a couple of weeks."
"I haven't seen you here. I thought you traveled in packs."
"It's not like we're joined at the hip."
"Could have fooled me."
"That was a long time ago."
"I don't think you've changed that much in a year."
"Want to bet?"
"I saw the girls you were talking to."
"Yeah, and if you heard what we were talking about you'd know I don't really have much to say to them anymore."
"Why is that?"
She shrugged. "I like to think I've grown up."
"And they haven't?"
"No, they don't seem to have anyway. They're the same. It's like they're stuck in time."
"Why are you different?"
She shrugged, taking a sip of her drink. "I guess because I went to a school no one else I know goes to. I can be whoever I want."
"Who do you want to be?"
"Is someone going to drown if you're standing here talking to me?"
He scoffed and shook his head ever so slightly. "No, Princess, believe it or not I'm capable of listening to you and watching the swimmers."
"That's good to know."
"Were you planning on swimming?"
"Just wondering if the suit was actually designed to be used or just a showpiece. I imagine the bottom is just as nice as the top is."
"I've never worn it swimming, but yeah I planned on it if it gets warm enough today."
"Oh, it's going to get warm enough all right."
"How long have you worked here?"
"Is this the part where we make small talk? Pretend we're old friends catching up?"
She shrugged, taking the opportunity of being this close to him to take in his appearance. Some changes were obvious. The grungy look he sported and seemed so proud of in school was gone. Some were more subtle. The hair still long but styled better. He was a big guy in school, but now it was more defined muscle.
"I don't know."
"Andy said I should come say hi."
"Andy said that, huh. So if he hadn't suggested it you wouldn't have?"
"I probably would have."
"Probably would have?"
"Well, yeah, eventually. I mean, I haven't seen any of those guys in over nine months."
His eyes skimmed over her face and then over her shoulder where her friends were still gathering. "How many of them are really friends?"
She looked over her shoulder at the group that had assembled. How many of them were really friends? It was a good question. One she didn't know the answer to anymore. Girls like Stephanie and Abby she had tolerated in school because they had somehow not just earned a place in their circle but remained there despite their reputations.
"That shouldn't really be a tough question, Claire."
"Not many I guess. Rachel and Tom, but I grew up with them I've always considered them friends even when I didn't talk to them much. Andy, I always liked him. Even before he stood up to you for me. There are a few others."
"That's, what ten, out of a good hundred or more. Andy sent you over here you said. The others, will they care what you do with your time today?"
"No, I'm sure they don't even recognize you."
She saw in his eyes that she had hurt him. The emotion he showed was gone in a flash but she had seen it.
"Thanks for the Coke, Princess. Have a good time. Don't forget your sunscreen." He crushed the empty can in his hand, tossing it into a nearby container before walking away.
"John, wait," she called, but he didn't turn around. She spun around on her heel, frustrated. He had every reason to walk away from her. She hadn't meant to be insulting. She had just spoken the truth. She doubted anyone but her and a couple of others would recognize him. It wasn't a bad thing. He'd changed. So had she. Recognizing that shouldn't have been insulting.
She waved him off, not that he saw it, and returned to the party. She saw the look Andy gave her when she avoided the area where he was and made her way to a group of girls. She could get lost in mindless gossip for a while.
It did turn warm enough in the afternoon for swimming. Andy had outdone himself grilling and would fire up the grill again later in the evening for dinner. He'd had help, a few other guys pitched in to help him with a few other grills when the crowd started pushing one hundred. Some didn't stay long, but Claire planned on staying most of the day.
Claire didn't talk to John again, but she noticed the few times she looked at him that he was very purposely avoiding doing the same. It was while she was eating a hot dog and some chips for dinner that she noticed he was gone from his spot, another lifeguard in his place. She tried to dismiss the feelings she experienced at that realization as being anything but regret. She had hoped he'd come to realize she meant anything by what she'd said.
"Those dogs any good?"
She tilted her head. He was tall so she really had to look up to see his face. She offered him a smile, relieved in a way he had made the first step to talking to her. "They're all right."
"Just all right? I've heard rumors that ol' Andrew really knows how to man those coals."
She laughed lightly. "I liked the burger I had earlier better."
"Why not have another one?"
"Are you kidding me? Two burgers in one day? I'd be as big as a hot air balloon."
He regarded her then, his eyes resting very obviously at her chest and waist. "I don't think that's possible."
"I remember a time you said something very different."
"I'm almost positive I never said remotely close to that. If I did, I think I was trying to annoy you."
"I was right, by the way."
"The bottom to your suit looking as good as the top. You've been doing some serious sunning."
"So have you."
"I work outside in it. If not here at my other job."
"What do you do?"
"Landscaping. Snow removal in the winter. This is just a bonus. A guy can get paid to check out the hot chicks."
Claire rolled her eyes at that. "It's a perfect job for someone like you."
"Why thank you, I'll take that as a compliment."
"I knew you would."
"So, if I go grab one of Andy's burgers will you still be here when I get back?"
"You mean you're really going to eat something?"
"Yeah," he said regarding her suspect. "This is a Shermer High party. I did go to Shermer High, not that I brag about it or anything. Or aren't I good enough to sit and eat with, Princess?"
She shook her head and frowned. "I didn't say that. It just surprised me is all. I'll be here."
She watched as he walked to the food area. He seemed so confident. That day she had eventually figured out it was an act. He really wasn't so brave or confident. Today, though, he was different. As if he finally had achieved the confidence he had tried to have back then. She noticed Stephanie cut her way in line so she was behind John.
"So, I was thinking," he said, returning to her side.
"Well, you said you can't eat two burgers in the same day."
"What about a burger and a half?"
He pointed to his plate, containing two burgers. "If you want part of one you can have it. I won't tell anyone."
Her lips curved up into the barest hint of a smile. "But I already have the hot dog."
"You took it because you didn't want to eat two burgers. I'm giving you an out."
"That's splitting hairs."
"No, just a burger. Cut in half." He picked up one half, showing her he'd already gone through the trouble of cutting it in half.
"Oh all right."
"You're secret is safe with me, Princess."
"Thanks." She took the offered half, set it on her plate and looked out over the water.
"Going to be a hell of a sunset."
"You think so?"
"Yeah. You can usually tell. It's one of the perks of this job."
"I didn't know you were a sunset type of guy."
"Appearances can be deceiving."
They ate in companionable silence.
"Where did you go to school?"
"That explains the tan."
"I thought girls like you stuck close together. Cliques to the end."
"Do your parents have many friends from high school? Because mine don't."
"My parents don't have many friends period."
He shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I got out of there."
"Not as glad as I am."
"I'm sure you're right. I can't even to imagine. I tried."
"Right, I'm sure you lost many nights of beauty sleep out of it."
"You don't know me as well as you think you do."
"I know your type well enough."
"No, you don't. You have no idea."
"You won't believe me. So why should I bother?"
"All right. I thought of you lots of times. Wondered if there was some thing I could do. Some way I could help. I'd lie in my bed at night sometimes wondering if you had a bed."
"It bothered me. Really bothered me. I'd never given someone like you or Ally much thought before that day. Even someone like Brian. He was just the type I went to for help on homework if I was desperate. And look, I mean, Andy and Ally are together." Her eyes fell to the couple who were huddled with a group of people. Andy lifted his cup in her direction when he saw her looking at him.
"Am I supposed to apologize for making you lose some sleep?"
"No, I just wanted you to know."
"Well, nice to know I was thought of I guess. Charity cases tend to get under some peoples skin I guess. I've heard you do that sort of thing with your mom."
"Now I'm sorry I said anything." How did he know she helped her mom with the volunteer work she did? It was one of the many tedious things her mother made her do growing up. She had hated it until she got to Tallahassee and realized that it had become more a part of her than she knew. Her mother had shaped her well. Her mother was in for a big surprised, though. She had no desire to be the new and improved model of her mother.
"You know you don't have to be rude all of the time."
"Me? You're the one who implied I wasn't good enough to talk to anyone here."
"That's not what I meant. It's just, here you are cleaned up, tan, nice to look at. There's no sign of that guy. Do you want someone who only sees what you are now?"
"Why should I care what they see?"
"Not really. I'm not any different than I was then."
"You don't think so?"
"I know so, Princess. Some new clothes, a job that allows me to pay the rent. I'm still the same guy."
"Then why'd you walk away from me?"
"Because I could and maybe because you needed it."
She rolled her eyes. "You're impossible."
"That's what they tell me."
"Have you noticed that no one's come to talk to us?"
He glanced around, took a sip of his beer and shrugged. "I guess now that you say it. So what?"
She glanced in Andy's direction again and grimaced. "I have a feeling it was planned."
"A setup you mean?"
"Now, Princess, that would mean someone thought we should be alone."
"God forbid that."
"Seems to me we had an okay time the last time we were alone. If you've forgotten I'd be happy to remind you."
She stood then. "I can't believe you. That I actually wanted to sit here with you. What a waste of my time. Forget it. Men. You're all pigs."
"What?" She threw her hands up in the air and spun around on her heels. She didn't doubt for a minute she was glaring at him, but she couldn't help it. He did that to her. She'd never felt the spectrum of feelings he brought out in her with anyone else. Even if it drew the attention of a few people nearby. Just what she needed! And there he was chewing away on his burger like he didn't care she was pissed off.
He stood as if he hadn't a care in the world. And maybe he didn't. Maybe this was just a game to him. She had after that day more or less. She could have sought him out it wouldn't have been hard, but she didn't. She'd gone back to her normal existence, only this time she'd spent her time scanning the halls for him but never catching more than a glimpse of him off in the distance going somewhere she wasn't headed.
He tossed his plate and cup in the nearby bin as he closed the short distance she'd managed to get between them before he called her name. He stood there, dark eyes looking at her. She couldn't read him, didn't know what he was thinking, or what he wanted with her. He was one of the few that she couldn't tell things like that with. Most guys were easy, pliable, biddable, but John Bender was one of the rare exceptions she'd come across.
"Do you have a boyfriend in Florida?"
"What?" She frowned. What kind of question was that?"
"Just answer the question."
"No. I did but we broke up."
"For the summer? They wrote a song for relationships like that."
A song? What was he talking about? "No, I found out he was a slimeball. As if it's any of your business."
"I needed to know." She saw sympathy in his eyes but that wasn't all.
"Because, Princess, when I do this."
He took her into his arms, kissing her breathless right there on the beach in front of everybody. He drew away for a moment only to deepen the kiss. She whimpered, telling herself she was protesting, but she fell into kissing him back easily enough. Her arms went around his neck almost synchronized with his tightening around her waist. His lips were a little rough, from the sun she imagined, but boy could he kiss.
"I want to be sure I'm not going to have to kick somebody's ass afterward," he said once he broke the kiss, his head resting against the top of hers.
Her heart was going a mile a minute. She clung to him in part because she wasn't sure she would be steady on her feet without his support. She'd forgotten what it felt like and meant to be kissed like this. To be rendered breathless, mindless and spineless. It should have been easy, it was pretty basic, kissing, but she discovered it wasn't.
He placed a finger over her mouth when she opened it to speak. She'd tell him where to go, assuming he could just kiss her like that in front of anyone and think she wouldn't care.
"Don't. I know what you're going to say, or have a guess anyway. Just don't."
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Because I won't do that again if you do."
"As if I care about that."
"You care, Princess."
"Do not," she said just to be contrary. He smiled then and she couldn't help but respond.
He drew away enough so they could look into one another's eyes. "Did you drive here?"
"Yes," she said with a frown. Where had that question come from? And what did it have to do with anything? "Why?"
"Fancy that, I took the bus. Why don't you give me a ride home?"
"A ride home?"
"Yeah, if you wanted to, you know, stop off somewhere for a little while we could do that, too."
"Well, now there's a tempting offer."
"Just letting you know it's there."
"What if I don't want to."
She snorted. "Right."
He ran a fingertip along her jaw while his thumb stroked her lips. "Come on, Princess, let me see your wheels. I've been curious about the kind of car you'd drive."
"It's a LeBaron."
"Perfect night for it."
"It is, isn't it? I can tell you what else it's a perfect night for." She waved to Andy and Ally, not sure if they saw or not but she had no one else there she needed to say good bye to.
"Breaking my parents' rules."
"What rules are those?"
"The ones about no one in the house when they're not there."
"Where are they?"
"Europe for a month."
"Sweet on the trip or that they're gone?"
"Don't get any ideas in your head."
"What ideas would those be?"
"That I'm like a sure thing or anything. Just because I'm inviting you back doesn't mean we're going to do it."
"I wouldn't begin to make such an assumption Miss Standish."
"Right." She stopped walking, in part to figure out where her car was. "Have you ever slept with a girl?"
One brow rose, wordlessly asking if she really wanted to hear the answer.
"I mean sleep, you pig."
"Ever want to?"
"With the right girl, I suppose. Most of the ones I've, uh, passed time with haven't been."
He laughed with a shake of his head. "I think you are, yeah."
"Well, then, do you want to come see how the prom queen lives?"
"I thought you'd never ask."