Part 3 of Love, Late
Claire has been in love with her childhood friend Noah since she knew what love was. When they started sleeping together, she thought it was the first step to everything she’d ever wanted. Noah ripped that illusion apart with a few well-chosen words, and she fled their friendship – and the city – to avoid the aftermath. Years later, as her relationship with another man grows serious, has Noah finally seen what he gave up?
Claire took a deep breath, trying to get up the nerve to push open the door to the diner. Okay. She could do this. It was funny how time could make something strange out of something that had once been the most natural thing in the world.
She pushed open the door and stepped inside, lights harsh and blinding after the cool darkness of outside. For a second she just stood there, heart pounding in her chest, grateful that it was too early in the day for it to be busy.
Then a waitress stepped up to her—no, not a waitress. Krista. Krista who’d made her dress for the prom.
“You want a booth or the coun- Claire?”
Something eased in her stomach at the recognition. How was it possible to be afraid to see people and afraid that they’d have forgotten her at the same time? There should be a limit to how much of a mess she could be.
Still, her smile was genuine as she said, “Krista! Long time no see. I didn’t know you were working here.”
The screech Krista let out was deafening. “Oh my god, Claire! You’re back! Mitch, Mitch!”
“What?” The bellow that came from the kitchen was so familiar it made her knees weak.
“How many times I gotta tell you girls, don’t shout on the floor. We got customers out there!”
“We got Claire out here,” Krista hollered back.
“What about Claire? Claire’s in the UJ!”
The giggle bubbled out of her, unstoppable. Stepping forward, she leaned on the counter and yelled, “It’s the UK, Mitch! Not the UJ!”
“Claire? Claire!” Mitch came barreling out of the kitchen like two hundred pounds of puppy, sweeping her up into his arms for one of his much-missed hugs. “Where you been, idiot?”
“London, you big bear,” she laughed. “Have you gotten taller? You’re supposed to stop growing at twenty, not sixty.”
His arms tightened. “Who’s sixty?”
“You,” she wheezed.
He let go of her. “Huh. See you haven’t changed. Thought that they were supposed to be all polite over there, thought some of it might rub off.”
“You’re thinking of Canadians. They’re the polite ones. Londoners are just as snarky as we are, they’re just charming about it. And that’s ninety percent the accent.”
“Jesus, we never should have sent you over there! You were snarky enough already.”
Claire rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t stop smiling. She’d missed Mitch so much. There’d been a hundred times she’d wanted to talk to him over the last few years, but the man was uncomfortable with any form of technology that you couldn’t fry an egg on. She’d only managed to get in a few phone calls with him over the last few years, and seeing him in person brought home how terribly inadequate that had been.
“I missed you, Mitch.”
His thump to her shoulder almost bowled her over. “Well, who’s fault is that! Thought the
program was one year, not – Jesus, how long’s it been-”
“Three years,” Krista put in from where she’d been watching avidly from the sidelines, along with everyone else in the restaurant.
“Three years! What, they can’t tell time in the UJ?”
Claire just laughed. “Don’t even try to tell me Mom didn’t tell you I got a job there. I got your flowers.”
His big face reddened. “What, I didn’t send any – Krista! You told me you didn’t put my name on those!”
“I lied, boss.”
“You see what I have to put up with, Claire? Nothing but trouble. When you gonna come back and save me from all this?”
“I think your memory is going fuzzy on you, big bear.”
A smile spread across his face and his laugh shook the whole room. “Yeah, you were more trouble than any of them. At least they don’t cut up all my vegetables trying to make what-do-you-call-em, turnip tulips-”
“Radish roses,” Claire put in.
“Or start smearing stuff on the plates so that everybody thinks my plates are dirty-”
“That was artistic.” In retrospect, she shouldn’t have used both ketchup and mustard.
“Or go vegan for a month and almost drive out all my customers!” Mitch finished in a roar.
She grinned up at him. “So you missed me?”
“Like hell I did.” His huge hand patted her head briefly, the feel of it so comforting that she wanted to weep. “So you back for good now?”
Hating to do it, she shook her head. “No, just for the wedding. I’ll be staying for a week after, though. Mom would have had my ears if I scampered back after only a few days.”
“Good,” Mitch grunted. “Your shift starts on Monday, 5PM sharp. Don’t be late, you’re always late.”
He turned around and lumbered back towards the kitchen before she could ask him if he’d finally gone crazy.
Beside her, Krista giggled. “Well, I guess we’re working together again.”
“Guess so.” Claire shook her head. “But hey, what are you still doing here anyway? I thought you’d opened your own store last year.” Wait, should she have said that? What if the store had closed down?
Krista’s smile reassured her. “I did, but I only have the space a few days a week. People who need custom clothes know when to find me. I made Amy’s wedding gown, you know.”
“No!” That was genuinely impressive. In high school, Amy was the type of small town girl who treated fashion catalogs from the big city like holy writ. Claire would have bet money that her dress would have come from a New York boutique.
“Well… I didn’t design it.” Krista giggled again. “I made her a lookalike copy of one of her favorites. All the dress, half the price! It might have started something – I’ve gotten a lot of women coming in with pictures printed off the Internet.”
Claire briefly thought about mentioning that Krista might want to look up some copyright law before she turned herself into the xerox of fashion. But why crush her bubble? The chance that a big fashion house would be trawling twitter for forgeries was probably pretty slim.
Besides… “Hey, have you ever done a Chanel?” It’d be nice to go to a party in London and not feel like she should be serving the drinks.
Krista’s reply was interrupted by the bell jangling over the door, swiftly followed by Jenny’s shriek.
“Ohmygod! You really are here!”
Oof. Claire’s ribs were not going to last the week if this kept up. She patted Jenny’s back, half welcome, half plea for air.
“I thought you weren’t coming until later tonight,” Jenny said when she pulled back.
“Were you trying to surprise someone?” Her eyebrows waggled meaningfully.
Claire smiled back calmly. “Nope. You must have gotten confused – it’s Richard who’s coming in later tonight.”
It was almost comical how fast Jenny’s face fell. “Richard? He’s coming? I thought you guys weren’t that serious?”
They weren’t, but Claire was kind of hoping this would change that. When Richard had offered to come home with her for the wedding, she’d taken it as a sign – when a guy offers to go to a wedding in another country with a girl he isn’t even sleeping with yet, it’s a pretty good sign that he wants something serious. She’d been on the fence about whether she felt the same, but maybe there were worse ideas… and worse people she could do it with.
Rather than say any of that to Jenny, she said, “Well, now you know. Besides, I couldn’t not bring a date to my own brother’s wedding, right? It’s already bad enough that my younger brother is getting married before I am.”
“I would die,” Krista put in.
“You don’t have to worry about it,” Jenny shot back. “Your brother is going to have to move to another state if he wants to get married. Too many of us around here still remember what he did.”
Krista’s face went dark red, her brows coming together. “That wasn’t his fault! He didn’t know those condos were a scam!”
“Tell that to-”
“Oh-kay,” Claire put in, grabbing Jenny by the arm. “That’s just about enough of that. Julia, I’ll see you on Monday – 5 o’clock sharp.”
She didn’t give them a chance to start up again, hauling Jenny out of the diner by main force. Once they were safely out in the street, she let go.
“Geez, three years and you can’t find something new to argue about?”
Jenny was still glaring back in the direction of the diner. “What? I’ll stop bringing it up when grandpa stops having to pay back that loan. If her brother was any kind of a man, he’d pay it back himself.”
“Jenny. People lost like a million dollars. What do you want Ben to do, sell his organs?”
“He might as well, they’re already pickled,” Jenny muttered, before finally turning away from the window. Her face brightened. “Enough of that, you’re back! It’s so good to see you! C’mon.” She grabbed her hand, started to pull Claire down the street.
“What… Jenny, where are you taking me? My luggage is still in the car!”
“What, you think someone’s gonna steal your underwear? You know you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Not since-”
“Arnie passed on.” They said together.
“Aw, Arnie.” Claire felt a pang. “I can’t believe I couldn’t go to the funeral.”
Jenny nodded, face solemn. “I know. He was why my mom finally broke down and bought a dryer.”
Claire sighed. “For ten years, that man was my excuse for buying new bras. If he stole them, well, then I knew I was on to a winner, but if they lingered on the clothesline, it was time to try something new. Either way, new bras. I wish he’d lived long enough to see the ones I got in London.”
They shared a moment of silence for Arnie Elliot, scourge of clotheslines everywhere. Victoria’s Secret should have paid him a commission.
By then, Jenny had dragged Claire halfway down the street and she’d realized where they were going. The bar, of course. She stopped resisting, quickening her steps instead.
“Is Jason working?” Claire asked.
“What do you think? It’s Friday, isn’t it?”
That put a skip in her step. Oh, it’d be good to see him in person. He’d been an unexpected rock during her first few months in the program, always willing to let her stare silently into the webcam while he kept up a mile-a-minute chatter about everything going on back home. It had been a relief, especially since everyone else only wanted to talk about her and all the exciting things she’d been doing.
For the first year or so, those things had been entirely fictional. Claire had been too embarrassed to admit that, after a day in the kitchen, she was too exhausted to do more than collapse onto her bed the minute they got home. Her roommates were in the same boat. For three women in an advanced culinary program in one of the greatest cities in the world, they’d eaten a hell of a lot of frozen dinners.
Her steps slowed as she approached the bar. “Wait. Is that a mural?”
Jenny averted her eyes. “You could call it that, I suppose.”
“Jenny. Is that a mural of you?”
Jenny didn’t answer, but then she didn’t really need to. There she was, stretched out along the brick wall of the bar—twice the size and in living color. It was quite the sight.
“Wow,” Claire breathed. “Is this what you were talking about when you and Sam broke up for a bit? His ‘surprise’?”
“Uh huh.” It was an unhappy mutter.
“Okay, I know I said all that stuff about how you had all those years together and blah blah blah. I take it all back. Jenny, you should have killed him.”
Jenny sighed. “I know. It might still happen. If I snap while you’re in town, I expect you to be my alibi.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Claire waved it off, still staring at the mural. “I remember those coupons. I think I still owe you three, right?”
“Two. I used the third one while you were gone—if Sam asks, you took his golf clubs with you to London. And then lost them.”
“Why in the world would—fine. I don’t want to know.”
“Good. Now stop looking at that thing and get in here.” Jenny walked through the bar door, leaving Claire outside alone. She lingered there for a moment, just admiring the sheer scale of the thing. She thought it was almost a perfect likeness, though she couldn’t say for sure: she’d have to get Jenny into a iron bra and panty set first, and where she’d find a helmet with wings on it she had no idea.
At least she knew what to send Jenny for Christmas.
She was still smiling at the idea when she walked into the bar, feeling nostalgia hit her like a brick between the eyes. It had been difficult to go back to the diner – that had been her home away from home, and coming back as a stranger felt somehow wrong. The bar, however, was more like meeting a dissolute old friend—she’d had her first beer there, using an unconvincing fake ID on someone who’d been to her sixteenth birthday party. She’d had her last beer there too, since the stuff in London was always served warm.
And behind the bar, Jason. Already brightening at the sight of her as Jenny spoke rapidly into his ear. For a moment his expression dimmed, and his eyes darted to the left, but then his smile returned. He came around the bar, arms already outstretched.
Three hugs in one day—she’d almost forgotten what that was like. That almost made up for not getting to see her family until tomorrow, though she didn’t doubt that Alex would rather be here at the bar with her rather than driving his future in-laws cross-country. Thank god Mom was there to make small talk or the wedding might not happen—Alex was a crabby, crabby driver.
“It’s so good to see you!” He pulled back, holding her at arms length so he could leer at her. “And so much of you, too. My, my, my – London has been good to you.”
Claire fought down the urge to cross her arms over her chest. It would only give him more ammunition. She knew she shouldn’t have worn the slinky black top, with its long cowl neck that hinted at the shadow between her breasts, but she’d wanted to look her best. Just in case.
She scowled at Jason. “You were a lot more likeable long-distance, I hope you know that.” Turning to Jenny, she added, “I swear, he’s sweet and sensitive over a webcam, if you believe that.”
“I don’t,” Jenny said dryly. “You do realize that by putting the webcam on top of your monitor you were basically giving him a view right down your shirt, right?”
Jason’s unapologetic grin was all the confirmation Claire needed.
“What?” she squeaked. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Horrified, Claire thought back to all the talks she’d had with various people over the last few years. Jeez, one of her job interviews had been over that webcam.
“I wanted to look at your breasts,” Jason said cheerfully.
Jenny shrugged. “Well, I would have if I’d known you were talking to him. I figured maybe you were doing some online dating. I hear it’s good to show off the assets on those kinds of sites.”
Claire wanted to cry. These were her friends, ladies and gentlemen. Why had she missed these people again?
“Buy me a drink,” she ordered Jason. “And maybe I’ll forget to move the webcam when I get back.”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said with a salute, moving back behind the bar with alacrity.
Claire took a seat on one of the stools, years of well-trained instinct letting her settle on the ragged floppy thing without falling straight off again. You could always tell who was new to drinking at Moonlight—they were the ones falling on the floor when they were stone cold sober.
Jenny settled on a stool next to her like a flighty butterfly, her hands fluttering as her eyes moved restlessly around the room.
Claire opened her mouth to ask what was the matter with her. Had Sam and she been having problems again?
“Claire.” The voice came from behind her, so familiar that it sank into her gut like a knife made of ice.
She turned around, heart pounding against her ribs like it wanted to break out and run away. And there he was.