Disclaimers: Mine, mine, all mine! *insert evil laugh here*
Sex: Duh!! J
WARNING: I do NOT give permission for this story to be reposted in ANY changed form: change of character names, title storyline, etc. That is considered stealing and I will seek legal action.
Note: For my precious Sebastian “Bubba” : September 1999 – March 2010. I love you with all my heart, my baby boy. Thanks for coming back to see me.
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com .
The room was so quiet, so utterly peaceful. Claire Hobbs watched as her hand ran along the long length of her cat, Sebastian, his form so still, yet still so soft. He lay on his side, eyes partially open. Claire sighed heavily, turning away from him as she gathered her jacket and purse. One last glance and she left the office, forcing everything down as she had to leave the lifeless body of her cat where he lay.
“Thank you,” she said to the receptionist as she breezed her way through the lobby of the vet clinic, pushing out into the cool spring morning. Glancing up at the overcast sky, she knew the rains would be coming. As she let herself into her car, her cell phone chirped to life. She glanced at the caller I.D. window. “Yes, Richard?” she barked into the phone, starting the engine of her car.
“Hey, boss. Just wanted to know how it went, and if you're okay?” Richard Kyle asked, his voice soft and filled with concern.
“Of course I'm okay, and it went fine. What exactly could go wrong?” she asked, backing out of her parking space.
Richard sighed quietly. “Alright. Just making sure.”
“How's everything going there?” Claire asked, making her way back out onto the busy streets of Lakewood .
“Fine. Quiet. As you know, the morning rush hasn't exactly hit yet-“
“It's my shop, Richard. I think I'm well aware of the busy hour.” Before her employee of six years – and truthfully, right-hand man – could speak, she plowed on. “I'm going to go check on our order of the new business cards and brochures that are supposedly corrected and ready, then I'll be back.”
“Uh, Claire, why don't you take the rest of the day? I mean, with everything with Sebastian and all-“
“I'm perfectly functional, Richard. I don't need to go hide out in my house like some sort of cat-crazy recluse. See you in an hour.” Claire snapped her phone shut and tossed it to the seat of her car.
As she drove on, Claire felt a pull in her chest and prickle behind her blue eyes, which she mentally tried to brush aside. Tears would do her no good: he was gone and wasn't coming back, no matter how many tears she did or did not cry. It wasn't worth the time it took to dig a tissue out of her purse to lament over something that was over and done with. She'd done the right thing and that was all there was to it. She'd miss her cat, but at the end of the day, what was done was done: he got sick and nothing was going to change that.
Even still, Claire could feel her heart was heavy and her control was beginning to shred. She spotted Lancer Park up ahead and decided to pull into the parking lot for a moment to gather herself together and the tattered remains of her control. She gathered her purse and cell phone, grabbing the white box of incorrect business cards as they were about to fall out of her large bag, shoving them back in before she climbed out of the car.
The air was beginning to cool further, the smell of rain in the air. Claire glanced up into the sky, closing her eyes as she inhaled the earthy fragrance, one of her favorite. Opening her eyes again, she glanced out into the woodsy park and noticed a trail that would take her deeper in. Deciding to take it, she strolled along the path, taking several deep breaths as she felt her chest tighten a bit more, becoming painful.
“No, I won't do this,” she murmured, shaking her head as she tried to convince herself. “Not going to do this. Will do no one any good…”
Before Claire could stop herself, a loud sob ripped from her chest, and the emotion all hit her at once. Her eyes squeezed shut as grief struck her like a sledgehammer, knocking her to her knees. Her purse hit the ground, the box of business cards tumbling out as Claire's body quacked with the power of her loosed emotion. On hands and knees she sobbed, her heart feeling as though it were about to bleed out of her body. For a moment, she truly thought she was going to lose her mind, the pain of loss so intense and all-consuming.
As Claire cried, she didn't notice the figure that hurried towards her, falling to their knees next to her. Not a word was said by the newcomer, simply arms were suddenly around Claire, the comforting touch of a stranger's warmth.
Claire had no idea who was holding her, and in that moment it didn't matter. She grabbed onto the stranger, desperately clutching at the thin arms, her tears continuing to come, leaving her feeling weak and void inside.
“It's okay,” she heard whispered into her ear, the voice soft and feminine. “I got'cha.”
After long moments, Claire's tears began to slow then stop. She felt numb as she was held and gently rocked. Eventually, reality came back to her and she pulled away from the person who had come to her. Glancing up at the stranger, Claire truly thought she'd been rescued by an angel: short blonde hair was caught in the beam of sunlight that managed to sneak through the heavy cloud cover, a glowing halo around the woman's head. The kindest green eyes Claire had ever seen looked into her own, filled with the understanding of humanity.
“Are you okay?” the woman asked, her voice just as soft and caring as her eyes.
Claire nodded, feeling foolish as she pushed to her feet, the woman's hand staying on her back the entire time. “I'm fine, thank you.” She quickly gathered her purse and hurried back down the path towards the parking lot.
Samantha Reiker watched the woman walk away, wondering what ghosts had finally hunted her down, and apparently were still chasing her.
“What was that about?” Leon asked, stepping up beside his friend. He readjusted the flimsy orange vests they'd been given.
Samantha shrugged, noting something on the path that lay where the brown-haired woman had fallen. She picked up the small white cardboard box, opening it to find neat rows of business cards. She plucked one out, glancing at the information written on it. Glancing up again, back down the path where the woman had hurried to noting the woman had disappeared. The sound of a car starting echoed in the distance.
“Come on, Leon . We don't work, we don't get paid,” she muttered, shoving the business cards into the pocket of her vest then walking over to where she'd dropped the spear-like tool they'd been given to pick up trash around the area.
Claire pulled up behind the huge building that enclosed her decoration business, shutting off the engine as she studied her face in the rearview mirror: her blue eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, the skin of her face tight from the onslaught of tears she'd shed in the park. Not wanting to have to answer any questions, Claire dusted a bit of face powder over her face and under her eyes, then headed inside.
Claire's business was called Party Favorites. The store front, itself was filled with party favors: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, etc. Simple decorations for home or venue, including some Halloween costume accessories and decorations as well as Christmas and Valentine's Day. A customer could walk in and find decorations for any holiday, any time of year, regardless of religious or calendar significance.
All that was great and good, but the bulk of Claire's business – as well as the bulk of the massive building space – was taken up with the creations she built herself. She had been contacted by more than one major Hollywood film for props and set decorations. To walk into the warehouse space of the building was to walk into a virtual wonderland filled with trees of various shapes, sizes and colors as well as wreaths that a grown man could easily stand in the empty space in the middle. Claire's entire life was built around her creations, and had been since her days in the orphanage as a child. It was truly the only way she could escape then – and now.
She made her way through the massive aisles of the warehouse, destination her office. Every aisle was filled with shelving spaced which held boxes and containers of beautifully crafted decorations from gold balls that were half an inch in diameter to gold balls that were six feet in diameter. One of the greatest thrills for her had been when she'd been asked to create decorations for the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree two years before. Hanging from the twenty-foot ceilings were bags filled with more balls, snowflakes and giant St. Patrick's Day hats. Anything the imagine could come up with, Claire's had.
Claire's office was in direct opposition to the warehouse and store up front: ridiculously clean, neat and sparse. It was a very functional space, though outfitted with the equipment and furnishings she'd need, there was nothing extra. She flicked on the light and closed the door, glad to be by herself in the quiet. She'd had her office insulated to keep the noise to a minimum, as when the warehouse workers got going, things could get very noisy, very fast.
She glanced over her clean desk, only a single invoice sitting atop it's smooth-finish surface, other than a computer and phone. She booted up her computer as she took the invoice into her hand, glancing over it to make sure it was correct. Seeing that it was, she tossed it aside, sitting back in her chair and taking a deep breath. She thought back over her day, starting that morning when she'd had to load Sebastian up in her car, not even bothering with his carrier. She wanted to be able to see him as long as possible on the way to the vet's office. He'd curled up in the front seat of her car, glancing over at her from time to time. He'd been so calm, so ready, even as Claire's heart had pounded in her chest, dread filling her entire being.
She pushed all that aside, not wanting to go back there… ever. Instead, she turned her attention to her computer, a few clicks bringing her to her work email – the only one she had, as she had no need for a private email. She read through the requests, happy to have some new clients interested in her business, however was bummed as she wanted her storefront to grow, not just orders from across the US or the world.
Rising from her desk, Claire walked across the office to the small rolling cabinet that housed her coffee maker and dorm-sized fridge. She set about making coffee for herself, deciding to spend her day in the office, catching up on any and all emails, orders and creation thought. She had no desire to meet the sad and understanding eyes of Richard, and certainly had no desire to go home, only to see the empty spot where Sebastian's food bowl had been.
She plopped back down in her leather chair as the coffee maker percolated to life, the fragrant aroma swirling around the space. She shrugged out of her jacket, beginning to thaw from the chill the morning had put into her bones. She glanced at the desktop weather box on her computer, noting the temperature had dropped four degrees since she'd checked it before leaving the house nearly two hours before.
Samantha leaned back against the couch, the scratchy material making her bare shoulders itch. She wore a baby doll tank top, the shirt spreading taut across breasts almost too large for her petit frame, and her flat, muscular stomach. She felt uncomfortable and far too exposed. Leon invited her to yet another party at one of his friend's house – the third in a week – and asked her to chill out and let her hair down. Against her better judgment, she'd dug through her minimal wardrobe and unburied a fitted pair of jeans and the tank top, which was much girlier than she usually dressed.
Samantha spent her days – and sometimes nights – working at whatever job she could find, which typically ended up in construction, as her compact, muscular body attested. She considered herself more of a transient type, moving from town to town whenever the mood struck – or lack of funds. Never had she lived in one place longer than six months, three months the average. She and Leon had met during her stay in her current town, going from job to job together.
Samantha's attention was grabbed – as well as her leg – by an unwanted visitor on the couch. “Hi, John.” She did her best to not get up, but she did move her leg out of his reach.
Undeterred, the large African-American man grinned at her, his teeth blindingly white against his dark skin. “Damn girl, you are so friggin' muscular.” He gave her an approving once over before settling on her abundant cleavage.
“Yeah, well that usually happens when you build buildings all day,” she retorted, feeling like a sow at auction.
“Mmm hmm,” John agreed, though he'd not heard a single word she'd said, too focused was he on her breasts.
Samantha grabbed his chin in her fingers, forcing his gaze back to her eyes. “Up here, big guy.”
John grinned sheepishly, at least having the good graces to admit he was busted. “You want a drink?” he asked, already pushing up from the couch to grab himself a beer and the hot little blonde anything she wanted.
“No, thank you.”
Samantha pushed up from the couch herself and weaved her way through the throngs of people until she found Leon . He was tucked into a corner with his new girlfriend, one movie rating away from X.
“I'm leaving,” she announced, hand on a hip.
Leon glanced over his shoulder at his friend, his girlfriend glaring at her from where she was pinned in the corner. “Huh? Why?”
“Because I'm partied out, Leon ,” she said, irritated at her friend's lack of sensitivity.
“But Sam, I told John you'd hang out with him.”
Samantha glared at him, her other hand resting on her other hip. “You pimped me out to one of your friends?” she growled, green eyes flashing with a hot flash temper.
“No!” Leon tried to backpedal. “You said you wanted to meet some new people, and John wanted to meet you so I figured why not, it would all work out just fine, and will you please just have a beer with him?” he begged, out of breath from his nervous rambling.
Sam kept her glare on him, making her friend squirm. “I'm leaving. Unlike you, I have work in the morning.”
Leon watched his friend storm off – as well as one could storm off in a house full of people. “Shit,” he muttered with a heavy sigh.
The evening was cool, the streets black mirrors from the earlier rain. Sam was lamenting the fact she hadn't brought a jacket with her. Leon had driven them to the party and she hadn't expected to be walking home from it. Along the way she spied a Starbucks, her deep down body chill making her nearly drool at the thought of a mocha breve. Stopping in front of the glass door, she dug into her pants' pocket, pulling out a dollar forty-three.
“Fuck,” she sighed, shoving the money back into her pocket and continuing on her way home.
Hands in her pockets, Samantha looked up into the night sky, which glowed a pinkish-orange as the city lights got caught in the tiny prisms of the moisture in the air. She thought it was beautiful, and wished she could be up amongst those tiny water prisms, glowing. With a heavy sigh, she hopped off the curb, water splashing cold to her ankles and lower shins.
“Damnit,” she growled, angry at herself for not paying attention. She was cold enough already and didn't need anymore help.
It took the better part of an hour for Sam to finally reach her room, but when she did, she was so grateful she wanted to cry. She was shivering violently as the rain had started again during the last ten minutes of her walk. Her short blonde hair was plastered to her head, as was her baby doll tank top. She quickly stripped out of her clothing and hurried into the tiny bathroom that was in her room. It was only a shower stall, toilet and small sink, and in that moment she would have done anything to have a bathtub she could soak in. Oh well, she was grateful to even have the shower stall; she'd had rooms before where there was only a communal bathroom, which pretty much sucked.
Samantha let out a long, languid moan as the hot water pelted her skin, a shiver running throughout her body as the warmth met her chilled flesh, sending goosebumps running rampant over her skin.
Towel wrapped around her wet hair, Sam padded into her small room in nothing more than panties. She was glad to be on the second floor of the broken up Victorian, as she wasn't big on wearing clothing when she didn't have to, and had no interest in giving a free peep show. Back when she was a little girl living with her grandmother, she was always running around the house naked, her grandmother running after her, trying to put any thing on her beloved granddaughter to cover her five year-old naked butt.
Sam smiled at the memory, though it was tinged with the bitter/sweet sadness of the death of the only parental figure she'd ever had, four years before. She removed the towel from her head as she sat down on the twin-sized bed, grabbing the comb off her bedside table and began to comb out her hair. As she did, she allowed her mind to turn back to her grandmother, who had been taken far too young at the age of sixty from lung cancer.
Samantha relaxed back on her bed, staring up at the water-stained ceiling above her head. She didn't see the dingy brown smear as she thought back to her turbulent childhood that her grandmother had saved her from. She hadn't seen either of her parents since she was ten years old, her mother staying in semi-annual phone contact until she was seventeen, her father essentially disappearing off the face of the planet before she'd had her first period at eleven and a half years old.
Rolling over onto her side, Sam sighed, feeling tired physically and emotionally. Glancing over at her bedside table, she noted the time and groaned, knowing she really needed to get to bed in order to be rested for the physically strenuous day she had tomorrow. The white cardboard box that sat next to the alarm clock caught her eye. Reaching over to it, she opened it and brought one of the business cards inside to her eye. She'd ran into the woman at the park more than a week before, and for some reason had held onto the box of business cards the woman had dropped.
“ Creative Mayhem, ” Sam read, noting the address and phone number. She flipped the card over, only seeing a blank card. She looked at the name of the store again, wondering what kind of store it was before tossing the card onto the top of the closed box then getting up to turn off her overhead light. Within moments, she was asleep.
Claire groaned in her sleep as she turned from her back to her side, yelping as she hit something hard. Eyes popped open and a hand brushing thick dark hair out of her face, she realized she'd fallen off the couch in her office – again – and had landed on the floor – again. She pushed up to her hands and knees, her hair falling right back down into her face. She pushed it away then climbed to her feet, dusting off the knees of her pants then letting out a long sigh. She started at the solid knock on her closed office door.
“What?” she bellowed, grabbing the thin blanket she'd been using as a covering and folding it.
“Coffee,” Richard said, voice muffled through the door.
Claire glanced at the coffee maker in her office and decided that a nice cup of coffee sounded wonderful, especially since she knew it would be a white chocolate latte. She walked over to the door and pulled it open, glaring at a smiling Richard as she took the offered cup in her hands.
Richard followed his boss into the room as she made her way over to the desk, booting up her computer. His gaze scanned the neat office, shocked to find Claire's shoes tossed in the corner and the half-folded blanket thrown over the arm of the couch. It was obvious his boss had slept the night in her office again.
Oblivious to her employee's observations, Claire sipped her latte as she logged into her email. “Was there something you wanted, Richard?” she murmured, never taking her eyes from the screen of the computer.
Used to ignoring his boss' rude behavior, Richard turned to her, arms crossed over his chest. “Have you even been home once this week, Claire?”
Claire glared up at him. “Assuming that it's any of your business, no I haven't spent much time at home. I have a little thing called a company to run and orders to fill.”
Richard threw his weight to one hip as he studied the beautiful woman sitting before him, her blue eyes on fire. He knew he had to be careful, as her temper was whip-fast, and just as sharp. “Alright. I guess I was just wanting to make sure that you weren't trying to ignore-“
“What have I ever ignored, Richard?” Claire barked, her temper and defenses flaring. “I have what I have because I don't ignore things.”
Nothing but emotions, Richard mused to himself. “Alrighty. Well, we got a call last night from a group that is throwing a party soon.”
As Claire listened to the details of the upcoming business, she began to feel bad. Slightly. She was fully aware that she was avoiding going home as she had no desire to go home to an empty house without her Sebastian in it. She'd never admit it to him, however.
Once Richard left her office, Claire let out a heavy sigh then wrinkled her nose as she realized she needed a shower. She had one set up in one of the bathrooms of the warehouse, but what she craved was a nice long and relaxing bath. Gathering her purse and keys, she headed out.
Claire's one part-time employee, Chad , rang up the purchases of a woman who was planning a baby shower, his spiked hair just so. He gave her a flamboyant smile and wish for a nice day as she headed out, bag loaded with merchandise. He fixed the lifted collar of his polo shirt when the bells above the door rang as a customer stepped inside. He watched the gorgeous blonde woman, his eyes roving up and down a gorgeously muscular body.
“Good afternoon,” he grinned as the woman walked up to the counter, her green eyes brilliant and alluring next to her deeply-tanned skin.
“Hi,” Sam greeted, placing the white box of business cards on the counter. “Is Claire Hobbs here?”
Chad raised a carefully shaped eyebrow. “Looking for Claire, are you?”
Samantha stared at him, not understanding the significance of her request. “Yeah. She left these and I want to return them to her,” she said, tapping the box she'd laid on the counter.
Chad eyed the box, curious as to what's inside. “I'll let her know.” He leaned on the counter, his brown eyes again roving over Sam's impeccable body. “May I tell her who's calling?”
“Yeah.” Sam took the piece of register tape that was slid across the glass-topped counter along with a pen, scribbling her name and cell number. For some reason, she wanted to talk to this woman, assuring herself that she was okay after the breakdown in the park.
“Alright, Samantha,” Chad said, glancing at the name and number. “I'll let my boss know.”
Sam smiled graciously then decided to wander around the large store, captivated by many of the decorations and creations she saw. Suddenly, Sam felt she was lost in a wonderland of angel wings, fangs, boas, crazy masks and fantasy accessories. She was so lost in the world of fantasy that she didn't even hear the bells above the door open.
Chad noticed his newly-showered boss enter the store, a large grin spreading across his face. “Claire,” he accused, waving her over. “Why didn't you tell me you were hanging out with hot blondes with green eyes that can kill?”
Utterly baffled and even more annoyed, Claire glared at him. “What the hell are you talking about, Chad ?”
Chad slid the box of business cards across the counter to his blue-eyed boss. “I peeked.”
Claire opened the box, pulling out a card. “Were these delivered? If so, this company is full of even more idiots than I had imagined, as there is a mistake,” she tapped the incorrect phone number and spelling of her last name on the card. “It's the same mistake as the first-“
“A women dropped them off and said you'd forgotten them,” Chad interrupted. He'd been warned several times by Richard that he should leave Claire alone, but he just couldn't do it. He found her moodiness amusing. Dark eyes twinkling with mischief, he leaned slightly over the counter. “Since when did you start hanging around hot little blondes with killer bodies?”
Claire stared at her employee for a moment, her mind somersaulting to see if Chad had just said what she thought he'd said. “I don't know what you're talking about Chad , and I don't like it.”
For a moment Chad was worried that maybe Richard was right and he'd pushed too hard, but then he noticed that the hot little blonde was still in the store, roaming and oblivious to the fact that she was being talked about. “Well, she said she was returning the cards, so I just kinda wondered where exactly did you leave them. I didn't know you were into the ladies.”
Despite herself, Claire was amused. For some reason she kept Chad around. It certainly had nothing to do with good work ethic. “I believe you're the one with the sexual identity crisis, Chad , not me.”
“It's about the person,” he said, waving off her words.
“Lovely. I'm not into any thing or any one ,” Claire said, tucking the box of cards under her arm and turning to walk away. “I'm quite happily a-sexual, thank you.”
“Yeah, well don't look now, ‘cause the hottie is walking right towards you,” Chad smirked, making eye contact with the woman and giving her a little wave.
Sam walked up to the counter where she recognized the woman instantly from that day in the park. Quite the difference time made, as the woman at the park had been broken, crying like Sam had never heard before. The profound pain and sorrow she'd sensed from the stranger was very much akin to what she, herself had felt the day her grandmother died. This woman, however, stood tall and poised, her blue eyes no longer electrified by sorrow and upset, but instead cold and aloof.
“Hi,” Sam said, extending her hand out to the woman, whom she learned was named Claire Hobbs. “I wanted to return these and make sure you were okay.”
Claire felt a moment of slight panic, worried the woman would unwittingly embarrass her in front of Chad by divulging the secrets of that day in the park. “We'll be in the back if you need me, Chad .”
Without preamble, Claire turned and headed towards the back, leaving Sam standing there, confused. She spared a quick glance at the man behind the counter, and saw that he was gesturing for her to follow the taller woman. Sam quickly caught up to Claire Hobbs, wondering if perhaps she'd made a mistake by coming.
She was led through winding hallways and aisles filled with absolutely gorgeous decorations, many of which she wanted to stop and study, but she knew that wouldn't be wise, considering Claire Hobbs' quick pace. Sam did, however stop when she was led through a forest of fake Christmas trees and other types of trees, all expertly created for ultimate realism. The pine trees were in natural colors of summer and fall, but there were also trees in vibrant reds and metallics, as well.
Claire heard a gasp far behind her, and felt immediate irritation when she turned to see the blonde woman had stopped and was looking at her trees. Her irritation was instantly replaced with a sense of pride when she saw the wonder and aw on tanned features. She made her way back through the forest until she reached the blonde.
“I've been doing this so long now, I forget just how whimsical others can find it,” she said, looking around at the trees that surrounded them. If she allowed herself, she could recall every single tree's inspiration and creation.
“It's absolutely amazing, Miss Hobbs,” Sam marveled, giving the brunette a bright smile.
Claire was struck by the genuine admiration she saw in those green eyes, and it made her feel distinctly uncomfortable. Her creations were to vent her own feverish imagination, not garner the adulation of others.
Sam was confused by Claire Hobbs, as she suddenly turned on her heel and headed back through the maze of trees, getting them on their way again. If she didn't know better, she'd say that the temperature in the room had fallen by at least ten degrees. Confused and slightly stung, Sam followed.
Claire wasn't sure what to say to the woman sitting across from her. The reason they'd met in the first place was now a moment of embarrassment and heartbreak for Claire, and certainly not something she wished to relive. But, the blonde woman had been very kind to her in a moment of perceived need, and Claire couldn't refute that. Clearing her throat, Claire met the curious, yet guarded green eyes of the blonde.
“What did you say your name was?” she asked politely.
“Samantha, but you can all me Sam or Sammy. I pretty much answer to anything,” Sam smiled.
“Samantha. Alright. Well, Samantha, I thank you for bringing the box of cards back, that was very kind of you.” She looked down at that box, which she'd set on her desk as she was unable to look at Samantha while she said the rest. “And thank you for what you did at the park. That was very kind of you, considering I'm a complete stranger.”
“I didn't see you as a complete stranger in that moment, Claire, I saw you as someone who needed comforting,” Sam said softly. She reached across the expanse of the desk and placed a gentle hand on Claire's arm. She could once again see the profound sadness in the blue eyes, which Claire was desperately trying to hide.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by Sam's kindness, Claire gingerly moved her arm out of Sam's touch, needing a bit of space. “I lost my best friend that day,” she said so softly that Sam almost missed it.
Sam felt her heart fall at the quiet words, the day her own best friend – her grandmother – died. She said nothing for fear that if she voiced her sympathy, Claire would lock back down.
Claire was mortified as she felt the sting of tears behind her eyes, and fought valiantly to keep them in check. “Isn't it sad when you get along better with a furry, four-legged creature than you do the two-legged variety?”
Sam noticed a framed portrait of a beautiful cream and brown cat, looking at the camera with lazy contentment. “Is this her?”
Claire glanced at the picture, nodding. “Him.”
“What was his name?” Sam took the picture in her hands and studied the feline, missing the slight tension that move brought to Claire's face.
“He's beautiful, Claire,” Sam said, carefully placing the picture where she'd gotten it.
Beginning to feel a bit emotionally pinned in, Claire squirmed slightly in her seat. “You're a kind woman, Samantha, and I appreciate all you did. Thank you.”
Sam had the distinct feeling she was about to be dismissed, so decided to leave on her own. “Well,” she said, pushing up from the chair. “I should go. But hey, would you mind giving me a tour of this place before I do? From what I've seen, it's amazing!”
Utterly relieved at the drastic change in subject, Claire stood from her chair and took Sam on a tour of her warehouse and store, explaining where the ideas had come from for various pieces, as well as what feature films many had been used in or made for. Finally, standing in the deepest recesses of the warehouse, Sam stood, hands on hips and looking around.
“This place is magnificent, Claire. Have you thought about maybe creating wonderlands for customers or clients to walk through? I mean, you mentioned that you wanted your store to be more locally successful…”
Claire looked around as well, trying to see everything through Sam's eyes. “I don't know. Seems like a great deal of work and money for a gamble that just might be foolish.”
Sam was a bit stung, but said nothing. After all, it was Claire's business. “Thank you so much for the tour, I truly appreciate it. I'll go and get out of your hair.”
The two women shook hands, Claire making it very known that she was not up for the hug that she could sense Sam wanted to give her.
“Take care, Samantha.”
Samantha had noticed the HELP WANTED sign on the way in, so asked for an application on the way out. It might not be a bad idea to get a job for the time being that was far more consistent then her current construction jobs.
Claire walked into her house, dark and closed up from her lack of occupancy over the previous week. She flicked on lights and opened a few of the heavy drapes, allowing the dying light of the day to enter the spacious rooms. She as she made her way up the winding staircase to the upper level of the three-story house, she began to shed her clothing. It was raining again, and she'd become nearly drenched just from her run from her car to the back door.
Chilled and wanting a hot bubble bath, Claire made her way into the huge space that was her bedroom. Once upon a time, her “house” had been a rundown warehouse with three floors and huge, dirt-covered windows. She'd bought it for a steal seven years before, using the money from her inheritance to make it into a wonderland, as well as start her business.
Tonight, as she ran her bath, she didn't see the world of aw she created around her, she only saw sadness. Sam's visit earlier that day had filled her with such a mixed message of how she felt about things regarding her own life. Claire hadn't seen someone with Sam's zest and light for quite a long time – Chad notwithstanding. That zest and light made Claire curious about where that light came from, but also made her feel angry and dark. Could she have ever had that same kind of light?
“Probably not,” she muttered, stepping into the bubbling tub, which was half-filled with hot water and the fragrant suds.
She lowered herself in, resting her head against the inflatable headrest that was suction cupped to the side of the tub that could easily fit four. With a loud groan, Claire allowed the bubbly warmth to consume her. Her eyes slipped closed and she relished the relaxation.
What she wasn't aware of was Samantha, more than eight miles away, who stood in her shower stall, wishing with all her might that her showerhead would push out a wee bit more power, just once. Giving up, Sam turned off the water and grabbed her towel, drying herself with the rough terrycloth – a towel washed a few too many times.
She pulled her panties up her legs to rest snug low on her narrow hips then padded across her room, noting the application she'd picked up from Claire's store three days before. She took it in her hands and scanned it, deciding she might as well fill it out and return it. As she did, her lips curled into a wicked grin as an idea formed.
Finished, she lounged on her bed, the frame squeaking obscenely as she lay down. She chuckled, amused. As quickly as her amusement came, it turned into irritation as she began to hear the thumping against her bedroom wall. She'd only met her neighbor briefly – a guy with crazily spiked red hair – who had a massive sex drive. At least five times a week she heard him and some random woman – she assumed he had no girlfriend, as he'd hit on her each time he'd seen her – having sex, loudly.
Sam hated to admit it, but as she listened to her neighbor doing the deed, it made her own body burn; it had been far too long since she'd had sex.
“This sucks,” she muttered, groaning as she pulled her pillow over her head. She tried to get her mind off it by going over her plans of the following morning.
Despite his sense of foreboding, Richard was completely charmed by the cream-colored fluff ball that was batting a tiny paw at his finger. He winced as one of the kitten's razor-sharp claws caught the tip. Chad and Sam chuckled as Richard carefully extricated himself from the furball.
“So, you know there's a high possibility that Claire will be pissed beyond words, right?” Chad said to Sam, a challenging brow raised.
“How on earth could anyone get pissed beyond words at this face?” Sam asked, picking up the kitten and raining kisses all over the tiny face.
“Because she won't see it as the gift you intend,” Richard supplied, moving down the glass-topped counter of the store and beginning preparations for the opening of the store.
Sam looked at him, baffled and truly not believing him. She lifted the kitten until they were face to face. “Well, if she doesn't like you, I might just keep you myself,” she said to her, the kitten's bright blue eyes looking back at her.
She felt confident in her gift as the bells above the door chimed Claire's entrance into the store. The business owner's steps slowed when she saw Sam standing at the counter, then stopped altogether when she first saw the kitten in strong arms, followed by a small kitty carrier sitting on the glass-top and a bag with PetsMart printed on the side.
“What's going on?” she asked, moving forward again.
“I brought you a gift,” Sam said with a smile that should have lit up Claire's day. Instead, it seemed to bring in storm clouds.
“I see,” Claire said, feeling emotion begin to rise, but immediately stamping it down with a sledgehammer. She eyed the kitten for a few seconds before turning hard blue eyes on the blonde, who had begun to lose her smile. “So, you think you can come in here with a cute little kitten and replace what I've lost?”
“Of course not!” Sam breathed, incredulous. “I know what it's like to lose something so precious, and I know that loss can leave a hole in your heart the size of Texas . I wanted to give you something that could help give you a bit levity back in your life-“
“A bit of levity?” Claire put her hands on her hips, ignoring the tennis-match gazes of her two employees. “I don't think you know me well enough to know what I might need, Samantha, and I resent the implications.”
Sam could only stare at the woman who stood before her, cool as a cucumber, and about as appealing. She shook her head, lost for words. “Well, my heart was in the right place, so if you're pigheaded enough to not see that, than you don't deserve Lilly, here.”
Chad and Richard exchanged a stunned look before they turned their attention back to the women. Sam gently placed the kitten back into the carrier then angrily gathered up all the accessories she'd bought. She picked up the page that had been lying on the glass-topped counter, turning to Claire and holding it up.
“And to think I was actually going to apply for a job here.” She ripped the application in two, letting the pieces float to the floor as she gathered the kitten and PetsMart bag, and stormed out of the store, leaving three quiet and stunned people behind.
Claire could feel her heart pounding in her chest: no one had ever spoken to her that way, in her own store, no less! She was livid. She stormed through the store, stepping on one of the halves of Sam's application as she went, intending to disappear in her workshop for the day.
Chad met Richard's wide-eyed gaze. “Holy shit!” he whispered.
Sam pulled off the side of the road, her tears coming too fast for her to feel safe driving. She was deeply hurt and angrier than she'd been in… ever ! She removed the mewling kitten from the carrier, tucking the soft bundle under her chin.
“What am I gonna do with you?” she asked, feeling calmer as she petted the tiny animal. “I can't have you at home.” She sighed heavily, placing a kiss on the kitten's head, then putting her back in her carrier for the drive home.
Claire was sawing so furiously she didn't even hear Richard enter the workshop. She felt eyes on her after a moment, so stopped, bringing a forearm up to wipe the sweat away from her eyes. Covered in sawdust, she removed her safety goggles and glared at her employee.
“That was rude, Claire,” Richard said quietly. Normally he would never say anything to his boss about her behavior – which was usually far more bad than it was good.
Claire looked away, knowing damn well that Richard was right. Even still, she wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. “Is there a point to this, Richard? My guess is you have more important things to do than interrupt my work.”
Richard recognized Claire's irritation for the guilt it was. It was a rare emotion, and one he'd only seen a few times in his six-year acquaintanceship with her. He was never sure how to handle it, as he knew it would be very, very easy to push her too far.
“I've got plenty to do, yes. I just wanted you to know how I felt, that's all.”
“Duly noted,” Claire muttered, sliding her goggles back into place as she took hold of the saw once more and turned her back to Richard, effectively letting him know their little chat was over.
With a heavy sigh, Richard headed back to the front, making a quick stop in Claire's office first. “I just hope she doesn't kick my ass,” he muttered, Claire's office door clicking softly shut behind him.
The sun had begun to set by time Claire made her way to her office. She had a little bit of paperwork to finish up before she headed home for the night. She was in serious need of a shower too, as she'd spent the entire day working in her shop creating. That was always where she escaped when she was confused, upset or simply wanted to disappear.
She flicked on the light and flopped down into the leather chair behind her desk. She noticed the page that sat on her keyboard and realized it was Sam's application, the two pieces taped back together. Picking it up, Claire read the information written in small, neat handwriting. With a heavy sigh, she tossed the page back onto the desk and scrubbed her face with her hands.
“Ah, shit!” Leon exclaimed, sucking on his bleeding finger.
Sam laughed. “I warned you! Her teeth are like needles.”
“That's no joke.” Leon returned to the play, the kitten on the floor between him and Sam. “God, she is too friggin' adorable, dude. What are you gonna do with her, though?”
Sam sighed, leaning back on her hands as she watched her friend play with the furball. “I don't know. I already feel like I'm getting really attached to her, but I can't have her here. May have to move.”
Leon studied his friend, surprise in his dark eyes. “You'd move for a cat ?”
Sam shrugged. She was about to respond when a knock sounded on the door of her room. She and Leon shared a wide-eyed glance. “Shit. Did the landlord find out already?”
Sam pushed to her feet, running a hand through her messy hair as she made her way to the door. She unlocked it and pulled it open, shocked to see Claire Hobbs standing on the other side, her hands tucked nervously in the back pockets of her jeans. Sam was too shocked to say anything, but quickly her anger and hurt flared to the surface, her expression closing.
“Hello, Samantha,” Claire said quietly, her voice somewhat contrite.
“Yes?” Sam said, unable to keep the anger out of hers.
“Can we talk?”
Sam glanced over her shoulder, noting Leon had already gotten to his feet, Lily the kitten in his arms. “Hey Leon , I'll see you in the morning at the site, ‘k?”
Able to feel the rising tension coming off his friend in waves, he grabbed his keys, handing the kitten to Sam as he left.
Samantha stepped aside, silently inviting Claire to enter, which she did. She looked around the small room, taking in its neat appearance, despite the size and obvious age of the space.
“Want something to drink?” Sam asked, getting herself a bottle of beer from the dorm-sized fridge.
“No, thank you.”
Sam took a swig from hers then stood and waited, wondering what exactly Claire Hobbs had to say to her, and if she'd even care.
Knowing the spotlight was on her, Claire took a deep breath and tried to give a brave smile to the blonde. They both knew she'd failed terribly, which made her nerves crank up another notch. “Listen, I've only said this once in my life, so please take it for what it's worth.” She me the angry green eyes of the younger woman who watched her every move. “I was wrong and I'm sorry.”
“You've only said that one time?” Sam asked, a dark blonde brow raised in amusement.
Not expecting that that would be what came out of Sam's mouth at her heartfelt – and hard-done – apology, Claire felt herself getting irritated and antsy. She was in hugely unfamiliar territory here, and wasn't sure what to do. “Forget it,” she muttered, turning to head the few scant feet to the door.
“Hey, wait,” Sam rushed over to her and grabbed Claire's hand, stopping her just before she got to the door. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I was just surprised.” She waited until she had Claire's gaze again, a gaze which was hard for to hold as it was hard and cold. “Okay?”
After a long moment, Claire's nodded as she clenched her back teeth, trying to keep anything stupid from falling out of her mouth. Once she felt herself calming a bit, she glanced at Sam's beer. “I think I've changed my mind.”
Five minutes later, Sam sat cross-legged at the end of her bed, Claire sitting in the one and only chair, Lily in her lap. The joy that Sam saw enter Claire's often-hard eyes made them suddenly seem like a June afternoon, rather than a glacial ice storm. Lily had brought all that joy into them, and she knew that her issue of finding a new place in order to keep the kitten was a moot point, as she knew Claire would be taking her with her.
“I have to be completely honest with you, Samantha,” Claire said softly, her gaze riveted to the kitten who happily chased after Claire's moving fingers. These were the first words uttered since Claire had asked for a beer, which she held in her free hand. “What you did today,” she spared a very quick glance up to the blonde, then returning her attention back to the cat, unable to take the compassion she saw in Sam's eyes. “no one has ever done anything like that for me before. I was shocked and completely taken off guard.”
“Is that why the bitch came out?” Sam asked as she took a swig from her beer, ignoring the glare that comment got. Hey, you act like a monkey you'll be called a monkey. She felt no apology for her assessment.
“Yes,” Claire said at length. She palmed the kitten, grinning as she brought her to eye-level. She looked into those blue, blue eyes and felt herself becoming lost. “You are too cute to be legal,” Claire murmured. She glanced sheepishly at Sam, who was smiling at her antics. No one had ever seen Sebastian in the flesh, let alone her interaction with him. She felt slightly foolish being so free and open with her animal affections in front of an audience. “Listen, it looks like you've pretty much got Lily all settled in your room. I don't want to take her from-“
“I got her for you, Claire,” Sam said softly, cutting her off. Yes, she'd love to be able to keep the most adorable kitten she'd ever seen, but knew in the end two things: she had gotten the kitten for Claire, and she'd have a bear of a time affording a new place, all in order to keep Lily. “I think you two need each other far more than Lily and I do. Besides, I move around too much and don't want to do that to an animal.” She grinned with a shrug. “Precisely why I don't have one now.” That was only partially true: Sam had lost anyone she'd ever loved and didn't want to chance losing a beloved pet, too. So, she stayed alone, traveled alone and lived alone.
Claire brought the kitten up to her face once more, her heart feeling lighter than it had since the day she found out Sebastian was sick. “You wanna come home with me?” she asked, the kitten mewing in response and swiping at Claire's nose, making both Claire and Sam laugh.
Fifteen minutes later, Sam stood beside Claire's Kia Sorento, holding the litter pan, which was loaded with a bag of kitten food and an array of toys. Claire was getting Lily's carrier situated, then turned and took the items from Sam.
“You've got to let me pay you for all of this,” Claire said, indicating everything she'd just loaded into the car.
“Nope,” Sam said stubbornly, shaking her head. “Just give Lily a good home and be nicer.”
Claire smiled despite herself. “Listen, I looked over your application, which Richard so thoughtfully taped back together and placed on my desk. I was impressed with your construction background.”
Sam was surprised by the seeming non-sequitur. “Yeah, well it's easy work to find and I love working outside.”
“How would you like to do some work for me?” Claire gushed before she lost her nerve. She looked as surprised as Sam did, as the work she had in mind would bring Sam to her home, which she allowed no one to come to.
“Doing what?” Sam asked, recovering first.
“Building. I have a constant influx of ideas, but don't always have the time or skills to carry them out. I know my way around a workshop by far, but there are things I'm admittedly not good at. From what I saw of your experience, you are.”
Sam studied her long and hard, so long she unwittingly making Claire very uncomfortable. “Okay, but under one condition.”
“Which is?” Claire drawled, ready to back out on a moment's notice.
“You have to be nice,” Sam said simply, arms crossed over her breasts, which were cradled in the snug tank top she wore.
Claire stared at her for a moment, wanting to tell the blonde to stick it where the sun don't shine and walk away. Somewhere deep inside, however, was a grudging respect for Sam's guts. “Fine,” she nearly spat out.
“Fine. What, where, when and how much?”
To say Richard was surprised would be a huge understatement as he hung up his phone. Never in six years had Claire ever called him to tell him she wouldn't be in the following day, other than the one time she went to a convention in Alabama for her creations. What could he say other than, “Okay, I'll take care of everything.” He stared at the phone for a long moment after he'd hung up.
Claire lay on her bed on her side, head supported in the palm of her hand. She watched Lily as she slept, her tiny body snuggled up against Claire's side. The tiny cream-colored body proved far too alluring as Claire ran gentle fingers over the softness. She had heard others who had lost beloved pets getting a “replacement”, which is what she'd always thought of it as, so had been vehemently against getting another cat after Sebastian left her. But, as she watched Lily sleep and thought of her baby boy before her, she realized it had nothing to do with “replacement”, but rather leveling the family dynamic, which was knocked off kilter by the death of the previous animal.
For more than ten years it had been just Sebastian and Claire. When he died, their family of two suddenly became a family of one, and that shift had been as hard on Claire as the loss of the cat, himself. Though she'd only had Lily for three days, she could already feel that balance coming back to the household, to her family of two.
“Sweet, sweet Lily,” she whispered lovingly, feeling her heart expand with love for the tiny life that she'd been so generously and compassionately blessed with by Samantha. She leaned down, placing a soft kiss on the sleeping kitten's head, then lay down herself, grabbing the remote from the bedside table that could control the DVD player, TV, lights and stereo. With one push of a button, the large bedroom fell into shadow, leaving the two to sleep peacefully.
To be continued
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