Chapter 1 - Change of Heart
"You know, I've been thinking." House leant back in his chair, carefully cradling his whisky and looking out over the Friday night crowd in the bar.
"Uh-oh," Wilson said sarcastically. "That can't be a good thing."
"No, seriously. I've been thinking about you and Cut-Throat Bitch."
Wilson sat up straighter.
"Now I know that can't be a good thing. What exactly has your twisted brain been considering?" Wilson asked, although he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. "And her name is Amber, by the way."
"Amber is very different to your wives, would you agree?" House asked, still looking out over the bar, ignoring Wilson's slight.
"Yes," Wilson agreed, hesitantly. "So?"
"In fact, I would say she's almost the polar opposite in terms of the type of women you normally date.'
"And are things going well?" House turned to look closely at Wilson, wanting to check the honesty of his response.
"Things are going very well," Wilson answered, keeping his gaze steady. "Very well indeed."
"Hmmm," House nodded, seeing it was the truth.
"So? What does that mean?" Wilson was starting to get impatient.
"It just means that I'm thinking of giving it a try." House knew he was deliberately being mischievous but, as always, he couldn't help himself.
"House, you must be stupider than I thought if you think I'm letting you near Amber! I can't believe I finally found someone I like and you're telling me you're going to…" Wilson blustered.
"Oh shush, that's not what I meant." House decided to give up the tease in the face of Wilson's anger.
"All I meant was, maybe I should follow your lead and look for a girl that's the opposite to what I would normally go for."
"What, you mean someone other than a twenty-three year old hooker?"
"Yes, that's precisely what I mean."
"Interesting." Wilson mused for a moment. "So what would be your opposite?"
"Well, how would you describe my type? You know, the type of girls I normally go for?"
Wilson thought about the small handful of women he'd seen House involved with, or express his attraction to, and tried to sum up if he did have a "type". There was Stacy, of course, and before that, a few random women from the hospital and one he'd met at a medical conference. And Cuddy, although he couldn't admit to House that he knew about that.
"Right, well it's hard to summarise because even though there haven't been that many," House scowled, but Wilson ignored him, "they've all been pretty different."
He paused to think for a moment and then started counting of a list on his fingers.
"I'd say: tall, slim, long haired, confident and self-assured, intelligent – that CIA doctor was an anomaly – highly sexual, into one-night stands, and the younger that package can come in, the better. Oh, and a bit of mysterious psychological fucked-up-ness would be in there too. Of course, I don't know what you ask for when you hire hookers."
House was both impressed and a little offended by Wilson's description. He wasn't going to admit that he'd had very few one-night stands in his life, especially not in the last few years. Unless he was paying them, it was a big deal for him to get naked in front of someone, not only because of his scar, but getting older and being unable to exercise the way he used to, he just didn't think he was that attractive any more. He also had no intention of telling his friend that when he called hookers the only stipulation he made was that they be blonde – otherwise it was cheerleaders, schoolgirls, bondage mistresses, anything and everything in between.
"Okay," House began. "So, for my opposite, what we need to find ourselves is someone short, tubby, shy, unsure of herself, uneducated and sexually inexperienced. But no virgins. I couldn't deal with that. And brunette."
"Someone nice," Wilson added.
"Ugh, yeah, I guess."
Wilson shrugged. "Fair enough. That's a pretty complete picture."
"Yeah, and it's not doing anything for me. Perhaps this isn't going to work after all."
"You can have someone who's all those things and still attractive," Wilson said, trying to be encouraging.
"Really? I doubt it."
Wilson took a look around the bar, trying to find someone to fit the bill.
"Look," he pointed to the far corner where a group of women were gathered, drinking and talking noisily. "That girl in the blue cardigan."
House looked over to the group that Wilson had pointed out. The women were obviously up for a big night, the table already crowded with empty cocktail glasses, the giggling loud enough to hear across the bar. The girl Wilson had pointed out was smiling, but not laughing as animatedly as the rest of the group. She stood back a little from them, in a way that telegraphed that she wasn't quite part of the gang. Her hair – blonde – was pulled back, so it was hard to judge its length. She wasn't that short, probably just slightly below average height, and while she wouldn't be called overweight, she wasn't toned in the way House normally preferred. She was wearing a knee-length denim skirt and boots. The blue cardigan was demurely buttoned up, not showing the vaguest hint of cleavage.
"She's blonde," House said dismissively.
"But she fits the rest of the criteria," Wilson encouraged.
"What, you can judge her IQ from over here?" House bit back.
Wilson rolled his eyes. "No, but look at her friends. That's not a group of lawyers out celebrating closing a case."
"So what does she do, according to your mind reading skills?"
"I'm guessing maybe kindergarten teacher. Which would be perfect for you."
House ignored Wilson's implied insult and checked the group out again, noticing for the first time that one of the women was wearing a white headband with a strip of tulle attached. Another woman screamed with laughter as she let a plastic, wind-up hopping penis bounce over the table. When it fell off the edge, several of the women seemed in imminent danger of having fits from the level of hysterics it provoked. Blue-cardigan girl smiled, but House picked up her faint look of disdain.
"Go on, go over and talk to her," Wilson said.
"Nah, not tonight," House replied, settling back. "It was just a thought."
He watched as one of the women leaned over to blue-cardigan girl and whispered something to her, pointing and looking House's way. House sighed – his and Wilson's interest had obviously been noted.
"What have you got to lose?" Wilson asked.
Just being rejected again, House thought. But he shrugged and rose and walked across the room.
"Jen, that guy over there is checking you out," Sarah whispered, not at all quietly.
Jen sighed without bothering to look. Of course he wasn't checking her out, that didn't happen to her. Not that she ever really came to places like this where that was a possibility, but even still.
She really wished her sister hadn't talked her into this. She'd had a long day at work and had just felt like going home and lying on the couch to watch TV. But Sarah had made a crack about her spending her life on the couch since Matt walked out and if she didn't start getting out again she'd be the old cat lady that the kids in the street were scared of. Jen didn't even like Sarah's friend Claire, the bride-to-be, but something about the picture Sarah painted had worried her enough to agree to come along.
Jen wasn't dressed for going out to bars, but she'd had to come straight from work. It was alright for Sarah and Claire and pretty much all the other girls there – they worked for fashion retailers, so they just wore whatever latest collections were in store. Jen's work meant she had to be more practical – and she also had unwanted curves that had to be carefully covered. The post-break-up cookies and wine had taken their toll.
"He's coming over," one of the other girls shrieked, loud enough for most of the bar to hear. Jen blushed furiously, sure that he wasn't walking towards her, not with the half dozen attractive girls she surrounded by, but she sensed that even though it couldn't be possible, his gaze was definitely on her.
"Oh Jen, he's a disabled person – just your type!" Claire crowed.
Jen cringed, instantly doubling her dislike of Claire, and hoping that whoever the guy was, he hadn't heard what she'd said.
"You ladies look like you're having a good night." The guy addressed the group but had his eyes on Jen.
She smiled nervously, butterflies fluttering in her stomach. He wasn't even that attractive and he was probably drunk, but it had been a very long time since she'd enjoyed any male attention.
"You look like you could use a drink, though, can I get you one?"
Jen managed to look up shyly, noting that he was tall, blue-eyed and had a cute smile that crinkled at the corners of his eyes. Maybe he was more attractive than she'd first thought.
"Uh, um, okay, I guess," Jen said haltingly, feeling a sick sense in her stomach at being unable to come up with anything more interesting to say. She was sure that if he'd asked one of the other girls they would have had a witty and seductive comeback that would have had him laughing.
"What are you drinking? Cosmopolitan? Japanese Slipper? Tequila Sunrise?" House reeled off the names of the few sickly sweet, girlie cocktails that he knew. Now he'd got this far he knew he had to go through with buying the drink, but geez, the girl couldn't meet his eyes and could barely get a word out. This hadn't been one of his brightest ideas. She had a pretty face, but she was so buttoned-up and tied back that she looked as if she'd snap in two if he tried to touch her.
"Actually I'd prefer a red wine," Jen said. "I mean, if that's okay with you."
One of the other women at the table giggled loudly and Jen was sure it was a comment on her inept flirting skills. Wasn't she supposed to ask him for Sex on the Beach or an Orgasm or some other ridiculously named cocktail just to get the banter started? Oh, she was so bad at this.
"Sure," House said, surprise in his voice evident. "My name's Greg." He switched his cane to his left hand to put out his right to shake. He noticed that she watched his movement, but gave no reaction to the cane.
"Well, Jen, I'll be right back." House turned and headed off back toward the bar.
"Oooh, looks like Jen's getting lucky tonight," Claire sing-songed.
"Don't be stupid," Jen muttered, embarrassed.
"I think he seemed nice – a bit old, but nice," Sarah said, more quietly into Jen's ear. "And besides, sis, it's not like you have to marry him. Why don't you just let yourself go? It's one night. Just have fun. If you find him even vaguely attractive then go have some sex for God's sake! You've been like a nun for the last year. Longer."
Jen didn't need reminding of her drought, but she just didn't think she could let herself go like that. She'd never had a one night stand in her life – she was the classic serial monogamist. And meeting new people had always been so difficult for her: she knew it was her own fault, that she lacked confidence, but she always thought of Groucho Marx, he'd said that he would never be a member of a club that would have him as a member. She felt the same – she could never be interested in someone who was interested in her, because obviously their standards couldn't be very high.
She watched as Greg walked up to the bar and leaned over to give his order to the bar tender. With a sudden realisation that he only had one free hand to carry drinks, she picked up her bag and left the girls, walking over to where he stood. She tapped him gently on the shoulder.
House turned, surprised that she'd followed him.
"Well, hello Jen, fancy seeing you here," he said, trying his best flirtatious voice, even though he wasn't sure it was worth the trouble.
"I, uh, just realised you'd need a hand to carry the drinks," she said, matter-of-factly.
House looked at her with a small frown, trying to find the pity in her gaze, but seeing none. He simply nodded, then turned back to the bartender to handover his cash.
He passed a glass of wine to Jen and gestured back to the group.
"Do you want to go back and stand with them?" he asked.
"Ah, actually maybe we could sit down somewhere else? Is that okay with you?" Jen asked hesitantly. Her sister's words were ringing in her ears. She didn't at all believe it would be possible for her to take home a stranger to have sex with, but at least when she did go home and tuck up in bed alone, she could comfort herself with the thought that she'd made an effort, at least had a conversation with a guy in a bar. That had to count for something, right?
House was relieved she'd suggested sitting down. As much as it was painful for him stand in one place for too long, he also didn't relish going back to that pit of female insanity, especially considering it was a bridal shower and so any male was fair game.
"My friend's sitting at a table over there, but he was about to leave. Maybe we could grab his seat?" House nodded towards Wilson.
Jen smiled in agreement and House was taken aback by how it transformed her face – her dark-honey coloured eyes sparkling with life.
House made his way to the table and slid into a chair as gracefully as he could.
"Jen, this is Wilson, Wilson, this is Jen."
Jen held out her hand to shake Wilson's, bumping the table as she tried to sit down. Their drinks wobbled, but thankfully none fell over. She blushed as she sat down, embarrassed about her clumsiness.
"You can call me James," Wilson said.
Jen looked up at him properly. Now there's a good looking guy, she thought. That didn't bode well. She'd only been able to speak to Greg because she didn't think he was all that attractive. Now that she was sitting with someone cute, she'd be completely tongue-tied.
"So, what do you do, Jen?" Wilson asked.
"I, uh, I work with children."
House made an eye-popping gesture at Wilson that Jen couldn't see and that Wilson ignored apart from a slight upturn to one side of his mouth. He'd guessed so right.
"Like childcare or something?" Wilson enquired.
"Something like that," Jen replied, not really listening. She took a large swallow of her wine.
"Anyway, Wilson was just leaving, weren't you Wilson?" House said with heavy accent.
"Oh, I could probably…Ow!" Wilson started and broke off with a grunt of pain, a distinct cane-shaped bruise starting to take shape on his shin.
Wilson rose to leave.
"Nice to meet you Jen. Play nice House," he said, warningly. Now that House had gone and picked up the girl, Wilson wasn't at all sure that this whole thing had been a good idea. She looked like a nice, gentle person and he shuddered to think in how many ways House could break her.
"Why does he call you House?" Jen asked.
"It's a nickname. So, are you related to the bride?"
Jen looked confused. Bride?
"Over there. Extremely drunk chick with the tulle on her head. Called me a disabled person."
"Oh no, I'm sorry you had to hear that. No, thankfully I'm not related. She's my sister's best friend. My sister, Sarah, is the one in the red top."
House looked over. Her sister was a bit of a looker – a little too much make up and very revealing clothing, probably a couple of years younger than Jen. On an ordinary night, she was the one House would have wanted to pick up. But, in the name of experimentation…
"So are you part of the wedding?"
"No, I just got roped in to come along here tonight. Not really sure why I came." Jen looked down at the table and picked up her wine.
"Well, I'm glad you did." House smiled his best genuine, open smile and was extremely pleased with himself to see the flush that rose to Jen's cheeks in response.
It wasn't something that House wanted getting around, but he was actually quite capable of using his whip-smart mouth for good instead of evil. For the next twenty minutes he cajoled, flattered and generally charmed the socks off his table companion. It was hard work, but he'd finally got her to relax a bit, sit more comfortably, release the death grip on her wine glass. She'd been laughing and some tendrils of hair had fallen down around her face, framing it and softening her features immeasurably. House's fingers itched to pull the rest of her hair out of its tight knot at her nape and see what it looked like flowing over her shoulders.
"Another wine?" House asked. He might not do one-night stands very often, but this girl might be worth the effort. She'd handled the cane thing without a flinch, so maybe she'd be okay about the scar too.
Jen smiled. Despite herself, she was actually enjoying the evening.
"Don't worry about coming over – I can manage," House said, rising and moving over to the bar.
As soon as House left the table, Sarah came running over and sat down next to Jen.
"So, how's it going?" she whispered conspiratorially.
"He's nice," Jen admitted.
"Has he kissed you yet?"
Jen looked disbelieving. "Of course not. We've only been talking for half an hour. And besides, he's not going to kiss me anyway."
"Oh, darling you've got to get over this whole thing. You are very attractive and very kissable. Make sure you touch him when he gets back."
"I mean, just make some contact with him – put your hand on his arm, or press against him or reach over and touch his fingers. Anything like that. It lets him know you're interested."
"Thanks Sarah, but I am actually thirty-five years old." Jen rolled her eyes at her younger sister's well-meant advice.
"I know you are. But you've been in a relationship since you were twenty-two. That's like the mid-nineties. Well before Sex and the City. You haven't got a clue."
"Great, Sarah, just what I needed," Jen muttered, losing any sense of enjoyment of the night that she'd previously had.
Sarah reached over and undid the top two buttons of Jen's cardigan. "And take out your hair when you go to the ladies room," she whispered, catching sight of House making his way back to the table and leaping up to run away just as he got back.
House couldn't help smiling when he saw Jen's buttons undone.
"Your sister wants you to get laid tonight, huh?" he said.
Jen flinched and looked away and House sucked in a breath. If this was a poker game, he'd just hit when he should have stayed.
Jen couldn't help her hands rising to her neck. She couldn't do up the buttons now that he'd commented, but she also felt exposed, even though there was still barely anything on show.
House watched as she fiddled with the top of her cardigan, sorry that he'd made her feel uncomfortable, but his curiosity piqued as to why something as harmless as a little Friday night flirting was upsetting her so much. How had Wilson put it? You're attracted to mysterious psychological fucked-up-ness. Yeah, he sighed inwardly, that was pretty much it. To match his own.
He reached over and grabbed both her hands, pulling them away and holding them in his.
"Stop it. I promise not to ravish you just because you have your top button undone."
Jen couldn't help laughing. She also realised just how much she missed being touched. It was so simple, he was just holding her hands, but she could feel the connection all the way through her body.
"Thank you. I'm sorry, I know I'm really nervous and not very good at flirting. I'm not like, the thirty-five-year-old virgin, or anything…"
Thank God for that, House silently muttered to himself.
"…but I've been off the market for a while. So it's all a bit new and I'm just kind of working it out." She pulled her hands out of his and took a long sip from the fresh glass of wine.
"Ah, well I've been on the market for a long time and so it's all a bit old and I'm tired of working it out." House answered, surprised at his own honesty.
Jen heard the new tone in his voice; realised he was being sincere. For the first time that evening she starting thinking about him instead of herself. Wondering why he'd been on the market for a long time. He wasn't gorgeous, but he wasn't down-right ugly either. He was definitely charming and that made up for a lot. Was it the cane? Some women didn't like "damaged goods" – was that why he was still alone? In Jen's line of work, walking with a cane was the least of someone's worries, so it barely registered for her. As Claire had said, "just her type".
She reached over and touched his forearm, without realising she'd done just what her sister had suggested.
"Would you like to go someplace else?" she asked before letting herself think about what asking the question meant. "It's noisy and kind of gross here. There's a nicer bar around the corner."