A split second can mean the difference between winning and losing, happiness and despair, even life and death. What if....?
Holy shit, where did that car come fro--
Sweet Jesus, her head hurts. Fuck the light at the end of the tunnel; she can't see past the red and purple fireworks exploding in her head. Vaguely through the pain she hears Lennie's voice. God, Claire, you all right? Claire? She grunts and tries to open her eyes, but nothing seems to be working. I called 911, Claire. The paramedics'll be here any second. She grunts again. If only her head weren't exploding on her shoulders....
The doctors keep reminding her how lucky she is. Eighteen stitches, a concussion and a broken arm. The fireworks in her head have subsided to a dull echo and the drugs keep her from caring.
They don't tell her about the condition of the other driver. She doesn't ask.
He shows up the morning they release her, pleading with her to let him drive her home. Wearily she acquiesces, climbs into the passenger seat beside him. Too tired to argue, too drugged to care; no wonder people get hooked on this stuff.
He follows her up the stairs to her apartment. Tries to get the keys from her to open the door, too, but she bats his hand away. He settles for clinging close to her heels as she enters. She makes a beeline for the bedroom, shedding her clothing as she goes. Still he follows her, but she can waste no energy on his desires or needs. Standing in the middle of her bedroom clad only in her underwear, she turns to face him, tells him she is going to sleep and will see him later. Ignoring his dumbfounded look, she crawls into bed and allows oblivion to overtake her. He can find his own way out.
She drags herself back to work three days later, hair hanging over her forehead to conceal the angry line of stitches. Drugs are a wonderful thing, she decides. Her left arm still hurts like hell every time she has to move it in and out of the sling, but if she just sits quietly at her desk, she is able to get a respectable amount of work done.
Jack sticks his head out his office door. You gonna be staying late tonight?
One deceptively simple question, so many layers of meaning. The efficacy of the drugs quickly takes a nosedive and a dull burn fires up inside her temples. She sighs. I missed nearly a week of work. What do you think?
He flinches. I was just wondering if you wanted to order Chinese or something.
The burn quickly works its way up into a steady pounding. She lowers her head onto her good hand, massaging her forehead and willing fatigue into the background. Fine. Whatever. Just -- nothing too hot, okay?
Fine. He ducks back into his office and closes the door a little too hard to be accidental.
Claire, it's me. I was just calling to see if you, you know, needed anything. ... Um, call me if you want, but you don't have to. Bye.
Lennie's voice sounds tinny on the answering machine. Flat.
She laughs hollowly and hears the echo reverberate through her empty apartment.
It's becoming more difficult finding excuses to avoid him at work. She's resourceful, though, and quickly becomes an adept player of this new game. Eating lunch in obscure restaurants, writing in the law library instead of at her desk, ducking out of the office at five on the nose rather than sticking around to quibble over where they're going for dinner and who's paying -- she's surprised by how easily she takes to her new routine. How little she depends on his presence to anchor her life.
If he notices, he never says anything. She can feel his eyes following her, though, and she wonders when his gaze became so stifling.
She takes the morning off for a follow-up with her doctor. The the cast will be off soon. Lucky, he reminds her. She repeats it to herself, rolling the word around on her tongue, tasting it. Lucky.
Her luck runs out that evening. Five o'clock comes and goes and still she sits at her desk, trying to recoup the lost morning of work. She hears his office door opening and listens to him cross the hall and remove her jacket from the hook. Braces herself.
He thrusts the jacket in her face. Let's go.
I don't have time for this, she growls, eyes never leaving her desk.
Let's go, Claire. Insistent.
Prepared to dig in her heels, she glares up at him. Shit, he looks determined. A dog with a bone, ready to secret her away or dig her out at his whim.
I'm not going to drop this. Either you come with me and eat or you go home. Those are your options. He looks appropriately pleased with himself and his ultimatum.
A sickening weight pushes down on her stomach. She looks back at the brief, unable to meet his eyes again. I told you, I've got work to do.
Leaning down, his hand gently covers hers, removing the pen from its grip. He manages to turn a simple act into foreplay, grazing his long fingers down the inside of her arm. Her insides twist, but not from desire. How long has it been since his presence stopped affecting her? A month? Two?
She can't remember anymore.
Please, Claire, he breathes into her ear. Let's get out of here for a little while, huh? We need to talk about this. She recognizes his most seductive tone of voice, the one he uses when he really wants something.
Just as gently, she rescues her pen from his hand. She drops her voice to a similarly seductive level and whispers back. I appreciate the offer, Jack. Really. But I need to catch up on this pile of stuff or we'll never get to have dinner together again because I'll still be buried in paperwork. So... She graces him with a sweet smile and bats her eyelashes, a Harlequin-esque ploy to which he is startlingly susceptible. It still surprises her, this ability to manipulate him so easily.
He glowers back at her, moved but not entirely convinced. Claire--
She cuts him off. Look, I promise we'll talk. She strokes his arm, fingertips gliding across the smooth cotton in a twisted imitation of his earlier caress. But later, okay? Believe me, I'll be a much happier person once I get caught up.
She sees the fire in his eyes die. Victory.
Okay, have it your way. But I'm holding you to that promise.
She watches him go as he retreats across the hall.
The same day her cast comes off, she runs into Ben Stone at a party hosted by a mutual acquaintance. Not surprising, really, given the sheer number of attorneys present. Still, she is oddly content to sit in a quiet corner and sip coffee with him. No expectations, no assumptions. He's working for a nonprofit organization. Environmental law. Great job satisfaction. Maybe she should give it some thought, he says.
He smiles now, she realizes.
He gives her his card, tells her to call if she's ever interested in getting out. He doesn't elaborate; he doesn't need to.
She thanks him, returns the smile. So easy. She carefully tucks the card in her pocket.
Saturday night, Jack shows up at her door with a bottle of wine. Unable to think of a good excuse, she lets him in, allows him to fill her apartment with the force of his presence. They sit on the couch and talk of nothing, working their way first through his bottle, then one of hers. For once he's not pushing her, pulling her, molding her; instead, he turns on the charm, tells a joke, makes her laugh. An honest-to-goodness belly laugh. Idly she wonders how long it has been, but gives up when she realizes she can't recall. She begins to understand again why she once desired this man. Understanding flows into relaxation as she allows the wine to slide over her senses and soothe her.
Conversation lulls and they remain reclined, steeping in each other's presence. Easy, for once. But then he leans over to kiss her, slips his tongue into her mouth and waggles it around like an errant schoolboy. He tastes of shiraz and his hands tremble when they slide underneath her shirt to clumsily grope her breasts. Let me make love to you, Claire. He begins kissing his way down her neck. Please.
Unable to nod the assent she knows he expects, yet unwilling to summon the energy required for a refusal and the subsequent argument, she remains still. She knows he will take her silence as approval; he does not fail her. He renews his assault on her breasts, pawing at them while fumbling with her bra clasp. A distant part of her mind is amused that this man has been on earth for over half a century and still struggles with a task most girls master by their mid-teens.
When he finally succeeds at freeing her breasts, he looks up at her, smiles, then grows serious. God, Claire, I can't believe I almost lost you. His voice is taut with emotion.
Lucky, she reminds herself, repeating it like a mantra. One last time, she allows him this indulgence. She refuses to consider the weight of morning.