Night Kiss Serial: Chapter Two

Claire – Three months earlier…
Cincinnati, Ohio, June, 2012

Claire carefully placed her appointment book on her desk. She turned the page to today’s date and ran her forefinger down the list of meetings and appointments. Three showings, one across the river that would take up most of the afternoon, a conference call with a title company, and an early evening staff meeting.
A full day. She grinned. Just how she liked it.
Glancing at her cell phone, she took in the time. Eight fifty-two. Enough time to check email, make a quick call to Rick to see if they were still on for lunch, and fill her travel mug with coffee; followed by a ten-minute drive to the downtown condominium she was showing at nine-thirty. Plenty of time.
She double-clicked her mouse and her Gmail sprung to life.
Speak of the devil. An email from Rick:

From: Richard Gentry
To: Claire Winslow
Date: June 14, 2012
Subject: Lunch

Can’t make lunch today, honey. Sorry! Travel agent called and wants me to look over the documents for the honeymoon trip. All is okay, I just need to sign and write a check. See you tonight? —R
p.s. Don’t forget to renew your passport. If you don’t have time, put Joyce on it. Quit procrastinating.

Claire frowned.
Well, all right. She could forgive him the lunch, she supposed. They had not spent a lot of time together lately, and she was looking forward to this lunch, but no matter. After all, it was for their honeymoon. She had allowed him that one task to take on himself, and everything else she had told him hands off. The perfect wedding for the perfect couple was going to commence without a hitch, if she had anything to say about it.
And of course, she did.
She was curious about the honeymoon. Rick was extremely tight-lipped about it and she couldn’t wrangle any details from him whatsoever. She had dropped as many hints as she could about where she would like to go, but he wasn’t budging.
Her passport. Dammit. They had time! Why was he hounding her? She jotted a note in her day planner, and scrolled through the remaining overnight mail in her inbox. Nothing she couldn’t deal with later. But she did linger on an email from a realty company in the Outer Banks. She’d signed up for their newsletter several months ago, before Rick had decided to commandeer the honeymoon plans. Of course, that was his deal, she knew that, but she was longing for a quiet and lazy week on a secluded beach somewhere—no phones, no appointments, no list of things to do—and occasionally flipped through the North Carolina company’s website perusing beach rentals.
Well, one could dream. One day.
She responded to Rick with a quick, Of course! and then pushed send to reply.
So, if Rick couldn’t make lunch, then perhaps Vicki could. She wanted to run some wedding details by her maid of honor, anyway.
She pressed the button for the desk speakerphone and punched Vicki’s number in with her index finger.
The phone crackled on the other end. Claire glanced at the odd sound and said, “Hello?”
“Claire? My God! The phone didn’t even ring!”
“Vicki? Is that you?”
“Yes. Weird! We must have picked up at the same time.”
“But I called you.” Claire rummaged through her top desk drawer, looking for a pencil. Finding one, she started making notes in her day planner of things she needed to tell Vicki.
“No, I was calling you!”
“Using your psychic powers, again, my friend? What’s up?”
“Hey. You know I do not use my powers frivolously. I just called to see if you wanted to go to lunch. I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“Well, that’s why I called you. Between the wedding and work…” Claire noticed the red button light up and flash on her phone indicating an incoming call.
“I totally get it. Can you spare an hour today? I have news.”
“News?” Claire’s interest was piqued, and she stopped scratching her list and looked out the window. “Of course!”
“All right,” she said. “How about that little Chinese place in Montgomery. I know it’s a bit of a drive, but it’s so good. Okay with you?”
Claire’s assistant ducked her head in the door and flashed paperwork and then made a phone call gesture with her thumb and fingers by her ear. Claire noticed the call parked on the other line. “Perfect.” The restaurant was on her way to her afternoon showing. “I’ve got another call, Vicki.”
“No prob. I’m on my way to the gallery. Sounds great.”
“See you then.”
Joyce, Claire’s assistant, hurriedly stepped toward her desk. “I need your signature on these contracts, and it’s Joe Bachmann on the line about the house in Hyde Park.”
Claire nodded, closed her planner, and glanced at her watch while heading for the door. “Tell Joe I’ll call him from the car. I have to run.”
She stopped and half-turned back to Joyce. “My passport is in the safe. Would you see what I have to do to renew it?”
Claire arrived early and was sipping her tea when Vicki bounded into the restaurant. She watched her friend approach the table, long skirt flowing nearly to her ankles, her ample breasts bouncing beneath her poet’s blouse. The jewelry she wore, her trademark, was as long and flowing as her skirt. Dangling, chunky earrings, ropes of beads at her neck, layers of bangles around her wrists. Her Bohemian friend.
Claire smiled. They were a mismatched pair, but she loved Vicki to death and beyond. She hated her clothes, but she loved her friend. And they had been best friends since their freshman year in high school when they took the same gym class. Then the next year, the same science class, and finally, they took an art class together. That was when Claire first witnessed Vicki’s talents. Her many talents, art being only one.
Vicki’s uncanny ability to anticipate a response from someone, predict an event, or go with her gut instincts were spot on—and amazed Claire. She knew things, sensed things, and Claire knew that Vicki’s gift probably extended a lot deeper than her friend had ever let on.
As artistic on canvas as she was in reality, Vicki added the color to Claire’s life. She added the pizzazz, the cherry on top, the mint on her pillow. Claire had always found her life to be incessantly boring. Vicki was her alter ego. Her fun. Her imagination.
Claire had not one iota of creativity, or free-spirited-ness, or spontaneity.
Always too busy, checking off lists.
Claire looked down at her prim navy suit and thought they were still as odd a couple today as they’d been throughout high school.
“You’re early!”
Claire smiled at her friend and motioned her to sit. “Got away a little sooner than I expected. How have you been?”
“Great!” Vicki was all sparkles and light.
Claire stared at her for a moment longer. “Okay. Out with it.”
Vicki popped her napkin and laid it across her lap. “Excuse me?”
She leaned forward. “I said, out with it. You’re a freaking Cheshire cat. What’s going on with you?”
“Oh, nothing.”
“Is it the gallery?”
Vicki shook her head. “The gallery’s doing great. My paintings are selling well. But that’s not it.”
“Then what?”
She stared at her, and then her lips broke into a slow grin. Her eyes damn near twinkled. “I’m pregnant.”
Claire arched a brow and whispered. “Pregnant?”
Vicki leaned closer. “Pregnant,” she echoed back.
“Are you happy about it?”
“And Jeremiah?”
“The same. We’re getting married. Two weeks. You are standing up for me. We’re just doing a civil ceremony.”
Claire sat back, dumbfounded. She couldn’t believe her ears. “You? Who said you’d never wear that ball and chain? The woman who cried that marriage was never an equal partnership, and you wanted none of it? You, the woman who—”
Vicki held up her hand. “You can stop now.”
“I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, it’s true, and I’m very happy about it.” She frowned then, and fiddled with her napkin. “I know the timing of this isn’t great. I mean, with your wedding coming up in a month and all, but with the baby…”
Claire reached out and took Vicki’s hand. “Stop worrying. It’s fine! I will stand up for you, you’ll get your happy family on its way, and all will be well.” She squeezed her fingers. “I am thrilled for you!”
Claire really was pleased for Vicki. She and Jeremiah had lived together for a few years, and were a couple long before that. She had never expected they would actually marry though…and a baby. Wow. She hadn’t known that Vicki was interested in motherhood…
A baby.
“Uh-oh. What did I say?”
Claire snapped out of it. “What?”
“You are frowning.”
Purposely, Claire widened her eyes and gave what she hoped was an animated smile. “I am not frowning! I am so freaking happy for you!”
But the thought of Vicki with a baby nagged at her. Rick wasn’t interested in children, and she’d known that for a long time. She was fine with that.
Sort of.
This time Vicki frowned, and after a long enough pause that Claire felt her own face fall a little, Vicki said, “So, what’s up with you? Why the long face? Correction. Why the fake smile on the outside that tells me that everything is not hunky dory in River City?”
Stunned, Claire sat. Words wouldn’t come. She had never been able to fool Vicki. Finally, she said, “It’s nothing. The wedding. The plans. The stress… Rick’s acting a little weird lately. I guess I have been, too.”
Vicki leaned in. “Weird? What do you mean by weird?”
Claire screwed up her face. “Evasive, in a way. Different. You know Rick is usually the Mr. Perfect incarnate. Highbrow accountant all the way. A suit. The thing is he’s just not Rick lately. He’s chucked the oxford cloth shirts. His hair is longer... I don’t know. Just weird.”
“You still love him, don’t you?”
Claire balked at the question. “Of course!” Of course I love Rick! She had always loved Rick….
Their server stepped to the table. Conversation ceased as they glanced over the menu. Soon they had ordered, and Vicki sat patiently, waiting. Watching her.
“I don’t think I’d worry about it, Claire. Maybe it’s just some midlife thing. When he starts wearing gold chains and red polyester, with rings on every finger, that’s when you worry. Now, tell me about you.”
“What do you mean?” Claire fidgeted in her chair.
“How are you handling all of this wedding crap? My God, Claire, why all the hoopla? Just set a date and go to the justice of the peace and save all of your time and money.”
“You know I don’t do things like that, Vicki.” She reached for her tea, bringing the glass to her suddenly parched lips. She sipped the cold beverage, set the glass back down and stared at the amber liquid, swiping the sweat from the outside of the glass with her fingertips. Glancing past Vicki, she thought seriously about telling her friend everything, but her mouth wouldn’t move, the words wouldn’t come.
Feeling her eyes suddenly flood with tears, she said, “This is stupid.” She rose, dropped her napkin onto her chair, and practically ran toward the women’s restroom. She heard Vicki’s chair scrape across the floor behind her.
“We’ll be right back,” her friend told the server.
They entered the restroom together and Claire turned her tear-streaked face to her friend. Vicki enfolded her into her arms. When her sobs subsided, Vicki drew back and looked into Claire’s eyes.
“Sorry. I’m not sure what hit me there.”
Vicki narrowed her gaze. “Yes, you do. So tell me. Get it out of your system and tell me. I didn’t want to say anything before, but you look like hell.”
“No sleep.”
She sighed. “I think I’m going crazy, Vick.”
One corner of Vicki’s mouth drew up. “Hey. I’ve known that for years,” she joked. “Get on with it.”
“No, I mean, really. I’m… Rick is a little off lately. I’m obsessing about the perfect wedding and that typically is not like me to obsess. And I wonder if getting married is really what both of us want to do.”
There. She said it aloud. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s not been great between us lately, Vicki. There’s something wrong. With me. With Rick. With life. There’s something incredibly wrong with Rick, I think. It’s like he wants to control my every move. Like he wants all this power over me all of a sudden. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I need to break it off.”
“Whoa,” Vicki interjected. “Maybe you just need a short break. A vacation. Time away to clear your head. Before the wedding.”
“Oh no. There is no time.” She waved Vicki off. “Besides, I’m being ridiculous. It’s pre-wedding jitters. On both our parts, I am sure.”
Vicki stared at her.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
But Vicki didn’t stop looking at her. Her gaze went so deep that Claire was sure she could see into her soul.
“There is someplace you want to go, Claire. You need to go there. And go now. Soon. It is what you need to do.”
Claire swallowed and gazed back into her psychic friend’s face. “What? I don’t know…”
“Look at me, Claire,” Vicki whispered. “You are perfect on the outside and a mess on the inside. You can only hold up this perfect fa├žade, this buttoned-up, live by the list life, for so long. Go now. You need a break. I am telling you this for your life. You won’t regret it.”
Claire sighed. When Vicki talked like this, she listened. “Okay,” she whispered. “I will do it.”
Vicki smiled and gave her a sympathetic look. “Good.” Her voice was calm, lower, and Claire felt reassured. “It is the right thing. Believe me.”
She was probably right. Vicki was always right.
“I know where I want to go. I’ll call the realty company today.”
Rick is going to kill me.