Part 5 of Love, Late
When Claire started sleeping with her best friend, 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?
Richard walked out of the arrivals gate like a king surrounded by his court, his shining blond hair easily visible above the circle of chattering women. Claire noticed with some amusement that even some of the flight attendants had been drawn in, fluttering around him as if they were trying to entice him back on the plane.
His face lit up when he spotted her. “Claire!” he called, walking away from his groupies as if he’d already forgotten them. Knowing him, that probably wasn’t far from the truth.
“Hi,” she said fondly, tilting her head up to accept a chaste kiss. “I see you had a nice flight.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” Richard only managed to hold the clueless tone for a minute before a grin peeked through.
“Uh huh. Well, welcome to Salisbury. And remember, no matter what happens after this—you asked for it.”
“I know, I know. I signed the disclaimer, remember?” He looped his arm around her waist, pulling her tight against his side as they started to walk towards the exit. Out of the corner of her eye, Claire could see the gaggle of girls still staring after them, as if unable to see where it had all gone wrong.
It was a look she was intimately familiar with by now—Richard’s quintessentially British good looks and irredeemably haughty accent drew women where he went. It had been a total surprise to Claire when he’d zeroed in on her after a couple of casual meetings in the kitchen of Angelo’s, pursuing her with an amount of determination that had baffled her.
The thought reminded her of something, and she asked, “Hey, did you remember to make sure the wine order was changed before you left?”
“Of course. What do you take me for?”
“Mmm,” she hummed noncommittally. “I hope you like America, because if you have the wrong order delivered—again—you’re going to have to emigrate to escape Angelo’s wrath.”
For a second, his step hitched. “Ah.”
Claire tipped her head down to hide her grin. She suspected he’d be making a few phone calls when they got to the hotel room, and that right there was why she’d eventually agreed to go out with him. He had the looks of a British thoroughbred, but his personality was more akin to a Standard Poodle. It was endearing.
When they got to the car, Richard automatically circled around to the right side and got in. Claire opened the driver’s side door and slid in just in time to see his hands fruitlessly reach for a wheel that wasn’t there.
“Oh no,” she said when he made a move to get out again. “If you think I’m letting you drive, you’re crazy. You’re enough of a menace on the left side of the road, I don’t want to see what you’d do here.”
She didn’t think he’d ever been in a small town, much less one like Salisbury that took the concept of ‘the pedestrian is always right’ to its natural extremes. It was fairly commonplace to have a person suddenly launch themselves in front of the car to stroll across four lanes of traffic, even if the nearing crossing light was less than a block away.
There was a pretty good chance someone was going to wind up in jail this weekend, given the people involved in the wedding, but she’d much prefer it not be her boyfriend. She’d never hear the end of it.
Richard groused, but accepted it. “So how’s your first day back been, anyway? Must be strange to come back to such a small place after being in London.”
Something about the way he said it was faintly irritating, but she tried to brush it off. “It’s been great, actually. I got to visit my old job—”
“Oh, the diner?”
Claire’s lips tightened. “Yes, the diner. I’m actually going to be working a shift there on Monday.”
“No. You’re not really. Why on earth would you? I told you that I’d cover the flight costs if you needed it.”
That surprised a laugh out of here. “Okay, it’s not for the money! Jeez. I’ll be lucky to make five dollars in tips. It’s just… for old time’s sake. You should come! I’ll be wearing a uniform…”
She could see him straighten in his seat. “Oh, really? Well, I suppose it’s not the worst idea in the world.”
“Mmm-hmm. That’s what I thought.”
“So,” he began, his tone elaborately casual. “Which of your old friends have you seen? Jason, I suppose.”
“Yep. I ran into Jenny at the diner and she dragged me over the bar to say hello. Don’t look at me like that, I didn’t drink.” Her fingers tapped on the steering wheel. “Okay, I had one sip of beer. One!”
“One is too many,” he chided her. As part of a family of wine makers, he took everything to do with alcohol very seriously. She couldn’t wait to see his face at the wedding when he tasted the ‘champagne’.
“I know, I know.” It was easier to just give in on this subject and save her energy for the important fights—like why he kept trying to pay for things.
“So you met Jenny and Jason… anybody else?”
Something unpleasant twinged in her stomach. For some reason, she didn’t want to mention that she’d met Noah, but that was crazy. She hadn’t done anything wrong, right?”
Biting the bullet, she said breezily, “Oh, well. Noah was there at the bar too, but I just saw him for a second. You know, just in passing.”
“…and?” Claire shrugged. “We said hello. It was nice to see him again. Weird, but nice.”
“So you didn’t…” his voice faded out, and when she looked at him she was surprised by the intensity of his frown.
“For God’s sake, Claire!” His voice was a sudden explosion. “You just saw the man you were in love with again for the first time. Can you honestly think of no reason why I, your current partner, might be concerned?”
Some women cringed when their partner got angry, some tried to calm them down, some cried. Claire felt none of that. All it did was stir up a matching anger inside of her.
“No,” she said in a quiet and deadly tone. “I can’t. I can think absolutely no reason why my partner-” And lord, how she loathed that term. “—who presumably trusts me, would be concerned about me seeing someone who dumped me three years ago!”
“So you’re saying you didn’t feel anything? Is that what you’re saying?”
Claire pulled into the parking lot of the B&B with a little extra oomph, pulling to a stop in the parking lot of the old Victorian so she could turn and look at him. “Where the hell is this coming from?”
Richard looked shifty under her angry stare, and her anger softened a little bit as she realized he also looked confused.
Jealous wasn’t a thing that he was used to, he’d told her that once. That he was feeling it for her now spoke to how much he cared for her. Not for the first time, Claire wished that she felt the same way about him. She was trying. She had to believe they’d get there in the end.
“Hey,” she said softly. “I talked to Noah for like five seconds, okay? I’m here with you.”
Richard reached out to take her hand. “No, I’m sorry. This trip is about meeting your family, and it’s not like the town is so big that you could avoid him.”
There were two problems with that speech. One, the trip was emphatically not about Richard meeting her family—that was just an unavoidable side effect of him coming. Two, Claire had no intention of avoiding Noah. Not only would that be unfair to him, it would hurt Gloria… and she’d already done more than enough of that.
Rather than restart the fight by saying any of that, she just squeezed his hand. From the way Richard smiled at her, that seemed to be enough.
Their check-in at the front desk was uneventful, though Claire had no doubt that Mrs. Redmond had noticed them sitting out front in the car arguing. Still, she was tactful enough to keep it to herself… at least for now.
When they got to the rooms, Richard took one look at the expansive canopy beds and crazy amount of crown molding and let out a low whistle. “Well, well. Just like home, eh?”
“I told you. Mrs. Redmond is a certified Anglophile. I think she had these carpets knitted from English hair.”
Richard leaned against the open doorframe and raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh yes?” he said, deepening his accent to a crisp honeyed drawl. “And is she the only one?”
“No.” Claire stepped closer, letting him catch her in his arms and tug her closer until they were pressed together. “I’m a fan of British things myself, you know.”
“Good to hear,” Richard said as her leaned forward, catching her mouth in a short sweet kiss. Her lips parted under his, and she could feel his body shudder against her.
When he pulled back, his brown eyes were dark and heavy-lidded. “Hmm… you know, these beds are big enough for two. And I might get nightmares, being so far away from home.” He pressed his lower body against her, letting her feel how very serious he was.
Claire laughed, stepping back. “Drink some warm milk.” There was no way she was sleeping with him for the first time in Mrs. Redmond’s domain—she’d probably start giving them advice on technique over the breakfast buffet.
Richard took the rebuff with good grace, only an ironic twist to his mouth showing his dissatisfaction as he bid her goodnight and stepped into his room.
Once she was safely behind the door of her own room, Claire flopped down on the bed with a heavy sigh.
Why was she so reluctant to sleep with him anyway? He was gorgeous. He was sweet. He’d flown across an entire ocean just to have the chance to hang out with her and her crazy family, didn’t that tell her something?
She could tell herself that she just wasn’t ready, but that didn’t ring true even to herself. Maybe part of it was that she knew that she wasn’t the only one he was seeing—he still dated other people, probably slept with other people, though he made it clear that all those dates were supposedly much more casual than what he was doing with her.
And maybe that was it. Maybe she didn’t want to sleep with him because she knew that he’d take that as a sign that he should stop sleeping with other people, that she was ready to move this into the serious place he occasionally hinted that he wanted it to go. Then she’d be committed to him, committed to London, because if she knew nothing else about herself, she knew that she was loyal.
Would that be so bad?