Sometimes romance needs a kickstart...even when it comes to Jack and Claire.
Wednesday, November 15, 1994
"Come on, Jack--didn't I hear you say once that you should never turn down a free meal?"
"What I said was never turn down free booze at somebody else's cocktail party, even if you can't stand ninety-nine percent of the people there. I don't feel like company tonight."
"Well, you've got company, whether you like it or not." She hooked her elbow with his and dragged him across the sidewalk toward the waiting cab. "Molly's one of my best friends," she went on. "She wants to take us to dinner. Be nice."
"I'm always nice."
"Uh-huh." She threw him a pair of raised eyebrows and got into the cab.
It was looking at her legs that did it to him.
After a whole day of absolute silence from every denizen of Hogan Place on the Subject At Hand -- namely, that as of 2:47 p.m. he was forty-nine years old -- he wasn't inclined to go anywhere but his apartment, or do anything but have three very large Scotches and go to bed. Alone.
But Claire's legs...long, lissome, and luscious in dark green hosiery that matched her velvet dress...Jack told himself sternly that not only was it Not Nice to be thinking about kissing the backs of her exquisite knees, but it was Especially Not Nice to be thinking such a thing about a girl who hadn't even hit junior high when he was married and about to become a father.
But somehow he couldn't let those legs leave without him. So he got into the cab, to be greeted with a bright, "Hi, Jack!" by Claire's college classmate, Molly McClure.
"I assume this is a business-expense dinner for your article?" he asked as he settled next to Claire --- and Those Legs.
"Partly." She leaned forward and told the driver, "All secure. Let's go." Then she sat back again and raked dark red hair from her face. It was too dark to see her expression clearly. What he did see, despite the gloomy interior of the aged Chrysler, was the sparkle of three solitaire diamonds, one at each earlobe and one at the hollow of her throat. "I had a bet with Claire, and I lost."
Claire snorted with stifled laughter.
"Bet?" Jack encouraged.
"She always loses," his assistant said. "After all these years, she should know better."
"No, we're not going to tell you what it was about," Molly went on. "Suffice to say I owe her dinner at Chanterelle."
Claire sat back with a happy sigh. "I just love having rich friends."
"Rich friends with expense accounts," Molly countered.
Jack decided that dinner at one of the city's finest restaurants in the company of not just one but two good-looking women wasn't a bad way to turn forty-nine.
He was starting to change his mind by the middle of his first drink.
Being in the company of a lawyer and a writer didn't make for a lot of dead air. He knew Claire was articulate, but he'd had no idea that Molly's conversation could be as voluble as her books. After one simple, innocuous compliment about how much he'd enjoyed her Christiane De Pisan novel, she launched into a long, involved lecture about the intricacies of Medieval power politics, the intimacies of Medieval royal bedchambers, and the idiocies of Medieval aristocrats' diet.
"-- a veritable prescription for cardiovascular disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, gout--"
And who the hell cared, anyway? Forty-nine. Jesus. If anybody told him Consider the alternative, he'd have 'em arrested and thrown into Riker's. He was the D.A. He could do it.
Yeah, just look at all your accomplishments. Two failed marriages, a daughter who speaks to you in alternate Leap Years, a motorcycle that needs major surgery and an owner who isn't still trying to be Marlon Brando, and far too many seriously inappropriate thoughts about a girl whose one affair with an older man was a total train wreck.
He drank Glenlivet and waited for the menus to arrive and wished he'd never opened the door of his apartment this evening. Not even the prospect of the best food in New York was worth this.
"-- and tried to cure dropsy by sticking hollow needles into the swelling --"
Not even Claire's legs were worth this.
Claire was drinking tequila and nodding, asking a question here and there. Molly talked on. Jack began to wish Mike Logan on her -- another motor-mouthed Mick with a colossal ego.
Suddenly, blessedly, a cell phone twittered. Molly dug into a capacious handbag, fished out the phone on its fourth ring, and said, "Hello?"
Jack met Claire's gaze. Does this woman ever shut up? I want out of here, now. I want to go home and have another very large drink --
Claire smiled at him.
-- and stop thinking about this girl who'll never even be in the same decade as I am. Christ, look at the light on her hair --
He'd never seen her in a dress -- and he was getting damned sick of those power-suits she wore to work -- let alone a dress made of dark green velvet that curved and clung and was the perfect setting for her grandmother's pearls. And that perfect face.
"Walter," Molly was saying, "Calm down. You'll live. Trust me."
Claire leaned toward him, light shifting on luxurious velvet to detrimental effect on his thought processes. "Her publisher," she whispered. "Very gay, very dramatic."
"Oh." He signaled the waiter for another Glenlivet. And asked for a double.
"Walter -- will you shut up a minute? Break out the expensive Scotch and tell 'em a couple of stories. I don't know, try the one about the new rabbi and the bris. Just relax. I'll be there in twenty minutes."
"Problem?" Claire asked as Molly slid the phone back into her purse.
"I'm really sorry. Walter's having another crisis and I have to go hold his hand." She grimaced. "Everything's a crisis. He thrives on them. Anyway, I have to go. Don't worry about the check. Have whatever you most desire." Leaning down to hug Claire around the shoulders, she smiled and was gone.
Nonplused, Jack watched another Scotch being set before him and wondered what the hell had just happened. He looked across the table at Claire.
She was blushing.
"What?" he demanded.
"Isn't it obvious?"
"That sneaky bitch -- she set us up. You don't really think her publisher's having a crisis that requires her specific presence at eight-thirty on a Wednesday night, do you?"
All at once Jack felt himself liking Molly McClure. A lot.
"She wanted to pay me back," Claire was saying. "Damn her, anyway."
"Oh, the infamous bet? You want to tell me, or do I get it out of you with torture? About the Medieval versions of which I'm sure your friend could lecture for half an hour, at least."
"That was an act, too. Oh, she can blither with the best, no question. But she was just marking time, waiting for that bogus phone call." She picked up Molly's almost untouched vodka. "She didn't even stop to drink, let alone for breath. I'm gonna kill her."
"Why? Seems to me she did us a favor." He could have kicked himself for using the plural, and went on swiftly, "We get a great dinner we don't have to pay for. And since I'm your boss, I won't dock your pay if you're late tomorrow with a hangover."
"I'm still going to kill her," she muttered.
Jack leaned back in his chair and laughed. Despite her gruff and grumpy tone, Claire was flustered. He supposed it was wicked of him, but he enjoyed seeing his calm, efficient, earnest assistant blushing like a schoolgirl. Almost as much as he'd enjoyed having her insinuate herself between him and Sally Bell in the courtroom a couple of months ago -- when she could just as easily have walked behind them. He was pretty sure she didn't even know she'd done it.
And how he could conduct his roundabout pursuit of her one day, and the next stand ready to arraign himself for felony cradle-robbing, was driving him crazy. What the hell was wrong with him, anyway?
The maître d' hovered at his right shoulder. He accepted the folded note and read an unfamiliar scrawl:
Happy Birthday, Jack. Don't blow this. I'm assuming that by now you know
what it is Claire most desires. If not, wake up and smell the espresso. Believe
it. I've known her a lot longer than you have. By the way -- treat her right or
I'll put you in my next novel as the palace eunuch.
"Work?" Claire asked with equal parts disappointment and relief.
"Nope." He stuck the note in his pocket, grinning to himself. Sneaky bitch, indeed.
"Nothing." No -- everything. "You don't have to kill Molly, y'know. Let's order something obscenely expensive from the wine list instead."
Very late that night--or very early the next morning--he decided that being one candle shy of fifty wasn't so bad after all.
"Hmm?" He buried his lips in fragrant silken hair.
"Did you mind much? That Molly --"
"-- had to kick us into this?" He chuckled. "Hell, I may send her flowers."
Claire punched him lightly in the ribs. "I'm the one you're supposed to send flowers to."
"My favorites." She kissed the ribs she'd just abused. "Happy birthday, Jack."
"Best one ever." He held her closer. "So tell me about this bet that it turns out I won."
She lifted her head from his chest and regarded him with shining eyes. "You did, huh?"
Laughing softly, she settled back down again. "I've been trying to set her up with Mike Logan for over a year. Finally I bet her that within thirty seconds of meeting him, she'd want to rip his clothes off. She told me no man in the universe was that charming, that gorgeous, or had that great a body. Monday night I called her, and she admitted I was right."
Charming, gorgeous, and a great body. And thirty-seven as of two days ago.
Then he started to laugh. "Logan and --? That poor bastard -- God help him!"
"God help you if you don't kiss me right this instant. Talking about another woman when you're in bed with me--!" A delicate fist threatened his solar plexus.
"But you can be in bed with me and talk about Logan's great body?"
"Jack," she purred, "if I thought it was that great, I would've jumped it a long time ago."
He blinked, then rallied. "And this is supposed to make me feel better?"
She propped herself on her elbows, laughing again, and his heart heeled over at the sight of her -- all tumbled dark hair and porcelain white skin and big brown eyes. This was no little girl whose lips hovered a breath from his. This was a woman, whispering in a low, sultry voice, "Oh, I bet can make it all better, Jack."