"Heeyyy-hey baby!" John kicks Nicky's bedroom door open, singing loudly to the song playing on the radio. "I wanna know-oh-oh..."
"Nooo," Nicky moans, wriggling down under his blankets. "Five more minutes!"
"School," John says, tugging the blankets down. "No more tardy notes, Nick. Come on." He tugs at his youngest son, hauling him gently out of bed.
The radio alarm blares on in Jordan's room.
I wanna know-oh-oh
If you'll be my girl.
"She's so pretty, she's so fine – I'm gonna make her mine, all mine!" Dee pushes the door open to Mallory and Vanessa's room.
"Up!" she cries. "Vanessa, I don't want you late to school again."
Vanessa rolls over and mumbles something into her pillow.
Mallory half-heartedly throws her own pillow at her mother. "Five more minutes?"
"Up!" Dee cries again, pulling the curtains open. "Please, girls. We've got to get better at this early mornings thing."
"Let me check your homework." John puts his coffee mug in the dishwasher and holds his hand toward Nicky.
Nicky passes him a crumpled sheet of paper. "Can I tie your tie?"
John drapes it around Nicky's shoulders. "Be my guest."
Nicky heads for the mirror in the living room, his tongue between his teeth in a pre-emptive move of concentration.
John sits at the kitchen table and checks over Nicky's homework. "Jordan, don't forget your piano lesson."
"Nope," Jordan says, his mouth full of poptart. "I won't forget."
"And that means you two have to organise dinner tonight," John says, motioning to Adam and Byron, his eyes running over Nicky's careful handwriting.
"Pizza," they chorus.
"No take-out!" John orders sternly. "Something with vegetables, please."
"Check the freezer," Adam mutters to Byron.
"There's no frozen pizza, either," John says, allowing himself to feel smug for a moment. "We're eating healthy tonight."
"Done!" Nicky cries, appearing with John's tie knotted around his neck.
"Thank you, kind sir," John says, signing Nicky's homework sheet and handing it back to him. He takes his tie and slips it over his head. "I've gotta go, you guys. Have a good day. Don't be late, Nick."
"Bye," his sons chorus.
"Violin lesson tonight, Vanessa."
"I know," Vanessa sighs, her chin in her palm, her elbow on the table. "I haven't forgotten."
"Can we make cookies tonight?" Claire asks, fidgeting as Dee combs her hair.
"Um..." Dee glances to the clock. "I don't know, honey. We'll see."
"I've got to stay late at school," Mallory says, nibbling the corner of her toast. "I've got a play rehearsal tonight."
Dee had forgotten, and she has a moment of panic.
Margo beats her to remembering the evening's arrangements. "Kristy!" she cries excitedly.
"That's right," Dee breathes, overwhelmed with relief. She taps Claire's shoulder. "Remember, Claire, Kristy is picking you up today. All right?"
"Okay," Claire answers.
Dee glances at the clock again. "I'm going to be late," she says, hating that she can't ever seem to find enough time in the mornings. She kisses the top of Claire's head. "You girls be good for Kristy. And remember to tell her my number is on the fridge, okay? And that I'll be home in time for dinner."
"Okay," Margo answers distractedly. She turns to Claire. "Maybe Kristy will make cookies with us."
Dee tries not to feel too guilty as Claire cheers. "Bye girls!" she calls from the front door. "Love you!"
John reties his tie after pulling his car into the parking garage at work, grinning as Nicky's handiwork falls apart in his hands.
Dee grips the steering wheel of her car and draws in a deep, shaky breath, trying to gain the courage to start another day; to stick to a routine she still finds so draining and unrewarding.
She puts her hands to her face and lets herself fall apart for a minute.
"It hurts my feelings that you never want to eat lunch with me anymore," Frank says to John. He crunches into an apple.
"You're not as pretty as Dee," John says, pulling his jacket on. "And her table manners are better."
Frank grins at him. "Don't take a long lunch. We've got stuff to do."
"Yeah, yeah." John waves as he heads for the elevator. "I'll be back on time."
"How are the boys?" Dee asks, tearing the corner off her sandwich.
She and John are sitting on a bench in the park just down from their office block. The sun is warm, but the wind has a definite sharpness to it. They both have their jackets on.
"Fine," John answers, polishing his apple against his thigh. "Nicky was on time today – I hope – and Jordan's got a piano lesson." He grins at her. "Nothing unusual. And the girls?"
Dee picks at her sandwich and shrugs. "Okay, I think." She can feel another swirl of guilt in her stomach. "I feel like I've hardly seen them, lately. Mallory's writing this play, you know... And Claire just misses being home with me so much..." She bites her lip, suddenly feeling tears burning at the back of her eyes. She blinks rapidly and hopes she'll be able to blame the cold wind if John notices how bright her eyes are.
"Are you okay?" he asks softly.
"Fine," she answers. She looks down at her sandwich again, not sure if she's managed to fool him or not.
John isn't fooled. He sits still for a moment, trying to decide whether or not to reassure her. Unsure if it will somehow just make things worse.
"It gets easier," he says after a moment. He keeps his eyes on her, watching tendrils of her dark hair wisp against her face in the wind. She glances at him for a moment, but looks away again.
"It does," he insists. "The race to get ready in the mornings, and trying to find enough energy for everything in the evenings... It all gets easier, Dee."
He wishes he could show her – prove to her, somehow, that soon she'll have everything sorted out; that the girls will settle into their new routine as well; that once she can build up her savings she'll be able to afford little vacations and luxuries that will make the longer hours worth it.
He clears his throat. He wants to take her hand, but it all seems too intimate and together, and he isn't sure either of them is ready for that. "Don't forget the girls are still adjusting, too," he says. "They've got a new routine to get used to as well. You'll all get better at it. And it will be worth it, Dee. I promise."
Dee nods, and hastily swipes a tear away. "I know. I'm just used to working different hours... To having more time with them..."
"I know," John says sympathetically.
She sniffs, keeping her face turned slightly away from him. "How'd you do it?" she asks softly. "The boys were so young when... When you were alone..."
He smiles, but he can feel old aches stir within him. "My family helped out a lot," he says quietly. "My parents could watch the kids a lot of the time. And when they couldn't – well, babysitters. Childcare. Lots of promises I couldn't keep..." He rubs his hand over his face, remembering the dreadful moments of guilt and loss. "It was awful," he admits. "I missed a lot. I missed recitals and achievements... I was trying to work my way up, then, and we didn't have a lot of money."
Dee gives a choked laugh. "I know how that feels."
"It gets better," he insists softly. "Just don't be afraid to ask for help, if you need it."
Dee takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself a little. She looks at John and gives him a wobbly smile. "Thanks," she whispers. She takes his hand.
John smiles at Dee and squeezes her hand gently. "You're welcome," he says softly.
Dee stops at Elizabeth's on the way home. "I've got Kristy's money," she says, smiling tiredly at Elizabeth when she answers the door.
"Oh, you didn't have to drop it by straight away," Elizabeth says, waving Dee in. "She doesn't mind waiting a few days."
Dee can smell a meatloaf cooking in the oven. It reminds her how hungry she is, and how late it's getting. "I can't stay," she says. "I'm on my way home. Did Kristy have any trouble?"
"I don't think so," Elizabeth answers. "She said Mallory and Vanessa both got home around 5:30. She left them in charge." She calls up the stairs. "Kristy!"
Dee rummages in her purse for Kristy's baby-sitting money.
"How are you, anyway?" Elizabeth asks softly. "I haven't seen you in weeks."
"Busy," Dee sighs, rubbing her face. "Really busy."
"I know," Elizabeth says sympathetically. "It gets easier."
Dee gives her a small smile. "So I've heard."
"Were you on time for school, Nicky?" John asks, watching Nicky cover his chicken in tomato ketchup.
"Yup," Nicky says. "I was even kinda early."
John gasps. "Never."
Nicky grins at him.
"How was piano, Jordan?"
Jordan spears a green bean on his fork and looks at it suspiciously. "Okay. It was easy today."
"See? Practise pays off."
"Yeah, yeah," Jordan sighs. He bites the end off the bean. "Can we have pizza tomorrow?"
"What is it with you guys and pizza?" John asks. "Friday night, okay?"
"Pass the ketchup, Nicky," Byron says. "This chicken needs some flavour."
Towards the end of the week, Dee is starting to believe that things will be all right. Things are getting easier – the girls are settling into the routine of getting themselves off to school each day; Claire has started planning things for each weekend instead of each evening; Margo has taken an interest in helping Mallory with things for the play; Vanessa is out of bed within ten minutes of the alarm going off...
And then Claire falls ill, and Dee's tentative confidence comes crashing down again.
John's never very formal when it comes to inviting people into his office.
When he hears the knock at his door, he's lounging back in his chair, aiming a scrunched-up memo at the waste-paper basket. As an invitation to come in, he calls, "Yeah," not taking his eyes off his shot.
"Swish!" he cries, spinning around to face the door, his hand already up for a celebratory high-five.
He grins at her in surprise. "Hey!"
"Hi." She gives him a wobbly smile.
He drops his hand immediately and sits up straight. "You okay?"
"Um." She rubs her temple and stands awkwardly in the doorway.
"Come in," he urges, getting to his feet and ushering her into the chair across from his desk.
"I can't stay," she protests.
He kicks the door closed. His heart is hammering. He's gone from pleasantly-surprised to panicked in five seconds. For some reason, the triplets' voices chorus in his head: She's gonna bail.
"I just wanted to say I can't have lunch today," Dee says, glancing up at him. Her face is flushed and she looks upset, but John isn't arrogant enough to think it's because she's missing lunch with him.
"That's okay." He sits on the edge of his desk. "Are you all right?"
"I'm sorry," she blurts. "It's not that I don't want to, John, because I do – I really do – but Claire's kindergarten has just called and I need to go and get her. She has a fever, and I've been trying to think of someone who can collect her for me, but there's really nobody and now I have to go back to Stoneybrook and get her and make sure she's okay –"
"It's all right," John interrupts. His heart won't stop hammering and he thinks it's because Dee is suddenly so frantic and upset.
"Oh," Dee says, her voice half a sob. She holds her hands tightly over her eyes and draws in a deep breath. "Why didn't I think of this situation sooner? Why didn't I make sure there was someone around in case of an emergency like this? Someone who could get the girls if something happened, or if I was going to be late..."
She sobs for real, her face in her hands.
"Oh, Dee," John says in dismay. He plucks a tissue out of the box on his desk and hands it to her.
She looks at him helplessly. "I don't know how much longer I can keep this up," she says. Her voice is rough but she's managing to hold further tears back. "I'm barely coping with everything and I don't get to spend any time with the girls anymore..." She presses the tissue against her eyes.
"I promise gets easier," John says reassuringly. He grips the edges of his desk, not quite sure what to do. "Is Claire all right?"
"I think so," Dee says, quivery. "She's got a fever and she's just – miserable, I guess. I don't really know. They said she's just curled up in the nurses' office. I need to go and get her."
"Sure," John says. He feels guilty that she's had to come up and find him to cancel their lunch date.
He mentally crosses out the word date because it feels like something else.
"I can't believe I'm already taking an afternoon off," Dee whispers. She stiffens slightly, and John can see guilt all over her face.
"You can't help it," he says. "Kids get sick all the time. And your boss understands, right?"
"I don't know," Dee mutters. "I don't think he likes me very much."
"Well, he'll have to deal with it," John says. "Everyone has to take time out to deal with this sort of stuff. He'll get over it."
She nods tiredly and gets to her feet before John can say anything else.
"Sorry about lunch," she whispers.
He smiles at her. "That's okay. Another time."
She nods again and looks down at her hands, the tissues crumpled and stained with mascara.
"I hope Claire's all right," John says, feeling a pang of worry that surprises him only a little.
"Yeah." Dee draws a deep breath and blinks her eyes a couple of times. "I'm sure she's okay. An afternoon on the couch in front of the TV, and a lot of juice and cuddling..."
John smiles, and half reaches out to take her hand. He changes his mind rapidly, suddenly not sure that it's the right moment to be pulling moves that end in any sort of physical intimacy.
No matter what happens on the park bench at lunch time.
Dee glances at his hand and draws in another breath. "I should go."
"Yeah." He stands up and opens the door for her. He smiles. "Feel free to stop by any time."
She gives him a small smile as she passes him, and his stomach flips over in response.
Claire's fever develops into spots, and Dee almost curses out loud when she realises it's chicken pox.
"Oh, baby," she says, cuddling Claire close. "It's okay."
"It's itchy," Claire says pathetically.
"I know. Don't scratch. I'll run a cool bath and put some calamine lotion in it, and you can play with your Skipper doll, okay?"
"Okay," Claire agrees cautiously, not daring to sound too optimistic in case it's mistaken for wellness.
Dee silently prays that the calamine lotion won't do anything negative to Skipper's hair or body.
She can't afford a new one.
Skipper survives the bath (blessedly), and Claire is soon curled on the couch in front of a Care Bears video.
Dee calls the kindergarten and tells them it's chicken pox. "She'll be out for a few days, obviously," Dee says, already worrying about who can mind Claire. "And I guess... I guess it would be prudent to warn the other parents that it's going around."
She hangs up and starts to flip through her address book.
She needs someone to take care of Claire. She wishes she could do it.
But she can't afford to take the time off right now.
John spends the rest of the day worrying about Dee. (And Claire.)
He thinks he probably has no right to – that Dee is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, even if she is finding it difficult.
And who doesn't, sometimes? he asks himself.
Sometimes there are mornings where all he wants to do is hide under the covers and do nothing.
He drives home with a funny feeling of turmoil in his stomach.
"God damn it." Dee paces by the living room window, the cordless phone in her hand. She's had to hire a sitter for Claire from an agency.
Elizabeth recommended them, so Dee isn't worried that Claire won't be looked after. But the sitter is late and Dee needs to be driving toward Stamford right now, not pacing her living room floor.
"Can I stay home too?" Margo asks.
"No, honey," Dee says. "Please get ready. You have to be on your way to school soon. Make sure you stick with Vanessa, okay? And Vanessa, be careful crossing the roads. No daydreaming."
"But Mallory gets to stay home!" Margo argues.
"No she doesn't," Dee says desperately. She glances at the clock again. "I have to go to work, Margo. I can't stay any longer. Mallory is going to stay here until the sitter arrives, and then she's going to school."
Dee hands Mallory a note to give to her teacher. "In case you're late."
"Don't worry, Mom," Mallory says. "She'll show up soon."
"I'm itchy," Claire wails.
Margo stamps her foot. "It's not fair!" she shouts. "I want to stay home with Mallory and Claire!"
"Claire is sick," Dee explains patiently. "And Mallory is going to school as soon as the sitter gets here."
Margo stamps her other foot. "Mallory, Mallory, Mallory!" she shouts. "Why does Mallory get to do everything?"
Dee has a headache. She holds a hand to her temple. "Get in the car," she says to Margo. "I'll drop you off at school."
Vanessa grabs Margo's hand and drags her outside.
"It'll be all right, Mom," Mallory says. "I'm sure she'll show up soon. And I don't mind waiting with Claire. I'll probably just miss homeroom. No big deal." She gives her mother a smile. "You should get to work."
Dee smiles back, hoping it's more convincing than it feels.
She kisses Claire goodbye. "Be good," she whispers. "No scratching. Do what Emma tells you, okay? She'll be here soon."
"I want you to stay home," Claire says pathetically.
Dee feels like she's being torn every which way.
John spends most of the morning worrying that Dee won't be there to have lunch with him. He wonders when, exactly, she became such an integral part of of his day. Lunch with her has fit so seamlessly into everything else, it feels like a disruption to routine when things change.
He cuts out for lunch early, stopping off at the third floor to find her. He breathes a happy sigh of relief when he sees her sitting behind her computer, hammering out a letter.
"How's Claire?" he asks.
Dee looks up at him in surprise, and then looks at her watch. "I lost track of time!" she exclaims. She pushes her hair back off her face. "John, I can't have lunch. I'm sorry. I was late this morning and I need to stay and get this done, or I'll be forced to stay back tonight, and I can't because I have to get home to Claire..." She draws in a breath.
"It's fine," John assures her, though he's disappointed. "Anything I can do to help?"
She smiles at him. "I'm afraid not."
He grins. Disappointment lifts itself off his shoulders in response to the smile she's just given him. "Just yell."
"Want me to get you some lunch?"
"Um... A sandwich..." She reaches for her purse.
"I've got it," he says, waving the money away. He asks again. "How's Claire?"
Dee sighs again and shakes her head. "Chicken pox."
John pulls a face. "I remember that."
"The others have had it before, thank goodness. But Claire's miserable." She turns back to her computer. "So am I," she adds. She gives him a small smile. "Sorry about lunch."
"Don't worry about it." He smiles at her. "I'll bring you back a sandwich."
He whistles when he strolls across the street to buy his lunch – and hers. He's filled with a funny sort of relief and protectiveness, and it's confusing but not exactly unpleasant.
He buys Dee a chicken salad sandwich and a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting.
Dee can still taste frosting when she writes a careful note to John and slips it into the building's inner mail system. She knows it probably won't reach him until tomorrow morning, but she figures it won't matter.
Maybe we could have dinner one night, instead of lunch?
"Can we play Nintendo?"
John gives a loud groan and hefts the remote in his hands. "Don't you want to watch sports with your old man?"
"We want to play sports," Jordan says, glancing to the television.
"In the form of Nintendo," Adam adds.
John smirks. "Well, I've got the remote."
Adam's brow creases, and Jordan presses his lips into a thin line.
"Get him," Byron says.
"No!" John rolls over, already laughing, but they're on him, fingers digging into his ribs and tickling under his chin. "Don't!" he yells, rolling over again. Nicky climbs on top of him.
"You're all grounded!" He's laughing helplessly, trying to heave them off.
Jordan snatches the remote out of his father's hand, victorious.
John slumps into the couch cushions, trying to catch his breath. "I'll get you back," he mutters.
"Sure, Dad." Byron sits on the floor and leans against the couch, a Nintendo controller already in his hands. "Like you'll ever outwit all four of us."
"What would I ever do without you?" Dee praises Mallory, wrapping her arms tightly around her eldest daughter.
"Mom," Mallory groans. "It's only dinner. I've made dinner a hundred times before."
Dee kisses the top of Mallory's head. "Thank you," she says.
"I helped," Margo says crossly.
Dee wraps her arms tightly around Margo and lifts her, pressing kisses against her face. Margo giggles and squirms to be put down again.
Dee extends her hugs and kisses into the living room, where Vanessa is reading quietly to Claire on the couch. She kisses them both and hugs them tightly.
"I don't know what I'd do without the four of you," she says, sitting down and pulling Claire into her lap.
"Jeez, Mom," Mallory says, her eyes wide. "You're the glue that holds this together, you know. Calm down."
Dee laughs and kisses the top of Claire's head. "It's just nice to know I can rely on you all so much," she says. "It's one less worry."
John tosses another memo at the waste-paper basket in the corner. He rips another envelope open, already desperate for his mid-morning caffeine fix. He glances at the clock, and then back to the paper in his hand.
It takes him a moment to register it's hand-written.
It takes him another moment to realise it's from Dee, and even longer than that to comprehend what she's actually written.
He grins and folds the note neatly, putting it in his shirt pocket.
Dee spends her morning in a state of nerves, not sure if John received her message or not. She's starting to wonder if perhaps she was a little hasty. She's not sure if she's ready to take on something else that could end in disaster.
She wonders if perhaps she was too forward and now she's spooked him.
John spends his morning nervous as all hell. He picks up the phone to call down to Dee's desk a hundred times, only to drop it clumsily back into its cradle within seconds.
The prospect of a real date both thrills and terrifies him. Suddenly everything with Dee seems very real, very possible. Instead of thinking about their next lunch date in the park, he's thinking about her in his house, tutting and laughing at the pile of pizza boxes and the crumpled sports pages all over the living room...
And the boys folding their arms and treating her with suspicion.
Nah, John thinks, trying to convince himself. They'd love her.
He swallows, and checks his watch for the third time in ten minutes.
John stops by Dee's desk and asks if she's ready to go to lunch. She grabs her coat and practically runs to the elevator with him, desperate for fresh air and a break away from her desk and the glare of her computer screen.
John doesn't mention the note, and nor does she. She's not sure how long it would take to reach him, and so she's decided not to say anything until she has confirmation of its arrival.
"How's Claire?" John asks.
"Feeling a bit better, I think," Dee says.
"And you?" He smiles at her.
She smiles back and gives a small shrug. "I'm all right, I suppose. I hate having to rely on a babysitter so much." She wrinkles her nose. "Not to mention it's costing me a fortune."
They stop at the side of the street and wait for a gap in the traffic.
Dee glances sideways at John and catches his eye.
Suddenly she knows – she just knows – that he's received her message.
John shoves his hands into his pockets and glances sideways at Dee.
"So," he says, grinning at her. "I got an interesting note through the mail system today."
"Oh you did?" Dee tucks her hair behind her ears and looks nervous.
"It wasn't signed," John says. "I think I have a secret admirer."
A fleeting grin passes across Dee's face, but she hides it.
"What?" John asks in surprise. "You don't believe me?"
She laughs and leads the way across the street, toward the park. "I didn't say that."
"Anyway, this mystery woman wants to have dinner with me one night," John says.
"How do you know it's a woman?" Dee sinks onto the park bench and smiles up at him innocently.
"Anyway," John says, sitting beside her. He pauses, and then laughs and shakes his head as he gives up his façade. "Dee," he says. "Will you have dinner with me one night?"
Dee blushes like a damn schoolgirl, but she can't wipe the smile off her face. "I'd really like that," she says.
John takes her hand, looking stupidly pleased and not bothering to hide it. (Which pleases Dee more than she'd like to admit.)
"So," he says. "How's your schedule?"
She tilts her head and thinks. "This week is kind of crazy," she admits. "I can't do Friday, I'm afraid."
"I can't do Friday either," John says. "Pizza night."
Dee grins at him. "Exactly. And I haven't seen the girls much lately and I just feel that if I –"
John holds his hand up to stop her.
She smiles and shrugs. "Can't do Saturday either. Liz is coming by. It's been a long time since we had a chance to talk properly. I don't want to cancel on her."
"That's okay," John says. "I can't do Sunday, though. Jordan's got a piano recital and I've missed so many of those over the years –"
Dee holds up her hand to stop him. She smiles. "Next week, then?"
"Meetings on Monday night," John says slowly, his eyes glazing slightly. "And my parents are coming for dinner on Tuesday."
"Mallory's play starts on Wednesday and runs for three nights," Dee says. "I told her we'd all go to the opening night – and I haven't organised a sitter for Thursday or Friday, but I suppose I could, if that's the only time we have..."
John rubs his brow. "Meetings Thursday night," he said. "I could do Friday."
"I think I could do Friday..." Dee bites her lip, unsure. It's more than a week away and she's not sure she's able to plan an evening away from home so far in advance. Especially when Mallory won't be around to babysit.
John takes her hand and squeezes it. "We'll figure it out," he says. "I'm just glad you accepted the invitation."
John comes downstairs in bare feet and old sweats, only to find Jordan rummaging through his wallet.
"Excuse me," John says. "But what are you doing?"
"Pizza guy's here," Jordan says. "Where's all your money?"
John tugs his wallet out of Jordan's hands. "Pizza guy's here?"
Jordan points through the window and John spies a spotty teenager struggling with a heavy load of pizza and sodas.
"How about you go and help him?"
Jordan smirks. "Will you tip me?"
John taps the back of Jordan's head. "Does it look like I can afford to?"
Jordan laughs and runs to the front door. "Pizza!" he shouts through to the living room.
As John pays for the pizza, he can't help but wonder what next Friday's dinner will be like.
Kristy, Mallory and Vanessa have escaped upstairs to talk about last-minute changes to the script for the school production.
Charlie, Sam and David Michael are out back with Claire and Margo, playing something that involves a lot of running around and yelling.
"At least they'll be worn out by bedtime," Dee says, watching Claire tear past, chased by Charlie.
Elizabeth laughs and cups her hands around her cup of coffee. "So," she says, now that they're alone. "How's work?"
"Fine, I suppose," Dee answers, sinking into a seat opposite her. "But it's starting to pile up. I think I'm going to have to stay late one night next week and I'm trying to figure out which night it should be." She rakes her hands through her hair and bites her lip. She's been avoiding the subject of John, but she has an idea Elizabeth knows something anyway.
Elizabeth raises her eyebrow. "Working late?"
"Yes," Dee answers, and she laughs and buries her face in her hands. "But there might be something else, as well."
"Ha!" Elizabeth says gleefully, leaning forward. "I knew it. Who is he?"
Dee glances toward the stairs to make sure they're alone. "John Pike. He works in my building."
Elizabeth tilts her head. "Haven't heard of him."
"He's nice," Dee says, turning her coffee around in her hands. "Very nice."
Elizabeth waits patiently.
"But," Dee says cautiously, "liking someone so much again makes me nervous." She swallows and shifts in her seat. "After what happened."
"I know," Elizabeth says gently.
Dee knows Elizabeth knows, and that's why she trusts every word she says.
"You should give him a chance," Elizabeth says. "Don't let fear get in the way. If he can make you and the girls happy, Dee, you go for it." She winks and leans back in her chair. "Now," she says. "Tell me what he looks like."
John grins at Jordan and ruffles his hair gently. "See?" he says. "All that practice paid off."
"Yeah, yeah," Jordan says, but he looks pleased.
"Want to stop for a soda or something on the way home?" John asks, moving aside to let a crowd of parents and their children through.
"Really?" Jordan asks. "Can I get a cheeseburger or something? I'm starving."
"Sure." John squeezes his son's shoulder gently before he steers him toward the door. "And feel free to brag about this to your brothers," he adds. "If they miss a piano recital, they miss out on cheeseburgers."
"Suckers," Jordan says, grinning at him.
Dee hugs Mal tightly – perhaps for a little too long.
"Mom," Mallory hisses, mortified.
Dee lets her go and Mallory glances around to see if any of her friends saw.
"It was a beautiful play, honey," Dee says, grabbing hold of the back of Claire's dress before her youngest daughter wanders off again. "I could hear you in every word."
"Really?" Mallory asks, smiling.
"I liked the costumes," Margo says.
"Want to come backstage and have a closer look?" Mallory asks.
"Can I?" Margo asks, tugging at Dee's hand.
"Sure," Dee says. "Don't run off anywhere though. Stay with Mallory."
"I'm coming too!" Claire says, following along after her sisters.
Vanessa sighs and trudges after them, committing herself to the team spirit but making it clear that seeing the costumes aren't high on her list of priorities.
Dee watches them all weave their way through the crowd, hands linking them together in a chain.
She decides to use some of her precious, hard-earned money to buy ice-creams on the way home.
John is starving and his eyes have glazed over. Conference calls are definitely on his list of Least Favourite Things Ever.
His floor of the building is mostly dark. He's linked on the phone to four other cities across the country and he's tired and bored.
He wishes he'd grabbed something to eat earlier. He's starving.
Dee is alternating between anger and desperation. She wants to kill someone or burst into tears – she's not sure which.
She puts in a call to Elizabeth and begs a favour. "I have to stay late," she says. "It's the final night of Mal's play, but she's staying at Jessi's. Vanessa, Margo and Claire will have a babysitter until seven, but I won't be home by then. Can you...?"
"I'll take care of it," Elizabeth promises. "Don't worry."
"If you can't, I'll come home," Dee says hastily. "I can always stay late tomorrow."
"You're supposed to be having dinner with John, tomorrow," Elizabeth reminds her.
Dee toys with her pen. "I know."
"Maybe," Dee whispers, feeling a wave of guilt sweep over her. "I don't know. We've both been busy this week and I haven't seen him much..."
"Give him a call tomorrow and see what he thinks," Elizabeth suggests. "Don't worry about the girls. I'll go over and sit with them for a while. Charlie's home – he can watch David Michael."
"Thanks, Liz," Dee says gratefully.
John steps into the elevator and, out of habit, hits the button for the third floor.
"Shit," he says, annoyed with himself, before he jabs the button for the basement parking garage.
The doors slide open on third, and Dee's desk lamp catches his attention. He steps out, just as she looks up.
"Hi," he calls across the room.
"Hi," she answers in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"Conference calls," he says, awkwardly pointing upward to indicate his office. "And you?"
She tosses down an envelope and sighs. "Sealing and labelling envelopes," she says.
The elevator doors slide closed again, and it rattles away.
"Need help?" John asks, wandering over to Dee.
"No, it's okay," she assures him. "I've already called and told the girls I'll be late. If I can get this finished, I'm free tomorrow night..." She trails off and looks down at her desk.
John glances over Dee's desk. It's a jumble of folded papers and envelopes and labels. "I'll help," he says. "It won't take long. Then you can get home early." He grins at her. "The boys already know I'll be late."
"Are you sure?" Dee asks helplessly.
"Uh-huh." He shrugs out of his jacket, but pauses. "Have you had dinner?"
Dee realises she's starving. John orders Chinese and pulls a chair across from a neighbouring desk.
"Newsletters in the envelope," she says, demonstrating, "and then choose an address label..." She hands a couple of sheets to him.
He loosens his tie and rolls his shirt sleeves up to his elbows, and for some reason Dee finds everything very... intimate.
"How was Mallory's play?" he asks after a moment. "I haven't even asked."
"Oh, it was great," Dee says, smiling. "Really good. I almost cried."
Dee seals another envelope. "Do you still want to have dinner tomorrow night?" she asks. She prays she's not turning red, or sounding reluctant. Or desperate. Whichever is worse.
John looks at her and smiles. "Tell you what," he says, "have dinner with me now, tonight, and I'll give you tomorrow night off."
"That's not really fair to you," she says, smiling back at him.
"Then you owe me a favour," he says, winking at her.
She laughs, and relaxes. "Okay."
They've made a lot of progress, and John's glad he stayed behind to help Dee.
Her desk is scattered with papers and envelops and Chinese take-out cartons, and she's starting to act more like herself again.
John wonders if she was as nervous about the prospect of tomorrow night's official dinner date as he was. He likes the way things have worked out – impromptu take-out at her desk, swapping stories about their kids and laughing at some of the names and addresses on the envelope labels.
"You know," John says quietly, keeping his eyes on his fried rice instead of looking at Dee, "now that we're all serious and having dinner..."
"Yes?" Dee swings her chair around to look at him, her eyebrows raised, a small smile already creasing her mouth.
John clears his throat. "Well... I mean... I was just thinking that... if we're starting to get... I mean..."
Oh, for God's sake, John.
"Don't you have to talk in court, in front of a lot of people, on a regular basis?" Dee asks, sounding amused.
He grins, embarrassed, and pushes his rice away. "Yes."
"You should be better at speaking, then."
"I usually am." He tugs the arm of her chair and pulls it (and her) across the carpet, close to him. "I haven't told the boys about you yet," he admits.
She blinks at him. She's so close he can smell that sweet, floral smell that seems to radiate out of her skin. He doesn't know if it's perfume, or shampoo, or soap, or whatever... He likes it, though.
"I haven't told the girls about you, either," she says. "Maybe that's the next step, hm?"
"I was kind of hoping there was another step before that one," John admits.
Dee bites her lip, and he grins.
He leans in and kisses her sweetly.
The girls are still awake when Dee gets home. She whispers a thank you to Elizabeth at the door, and makes a mental note to repay her by going over every little detail of dinner with John.
Her daughters are piled on the couch in front of the TV. Claire's eyes are starting to close, though she's making an effort to keep herself awake until one of her sisters admits similar fatigue.
Dee still feels jittery from John's kiss. "Hi," she says, sitting in the arm chair.
"Hi," the girls murmur, their eyes fixed on the television.
Dee can't figure out a good way to break the news. She still feels keyed up, and she knows that deep down, waiting until tomorrow is probably a better plan. But the little shivers of excitement still running down her spine encourage her to say something now.
"I, uh..." She trails off, suddenly understanding John's difficulty with words. "Someone asked me out," she blurts.
Mallory sits up. Vanessa looks at her. Margo yawns, and Claire's glazed eyes never leave the television.
"On a date?" Mallory asks.
"Yes," Dee says nervously. "He's – he's very nice. I've known him for a little while now. He works in the same building as me."
"Are you going to go?" Mallory asks, astounded. "Is that where you were tonight?"
"No," Dee says. "I was working. But... But I might go out with him next week sometime."
Mallory nudges Vanessa, who springs into action.
"Aren't you happy with the way things are?" Vanessa asks. "You've got your daughters, a house, a car. Why do you think we need a boy? The four of us give you so much joy..."
"That's... very nice, Vanessa," Dee says, blinking.
"One of your better ones," Mallory mutters out of the corner of her mouth.
Vanessa looks pleased.
"Listen, it's not going to change anything," Dee says. "I mean, not really. I'll just... go out with him, now and then. The four of you will still come first."
"Will he come and visit?" Claire asks curiously, finally tuning into the conversation.
"Oh, no," Dee says. "I mean – not for a while, honey. Not until we're ready."
"I'm ready," Claire says simply. She turns back to the television. "I don't care about boys, anyway."
"I don't like boys," Margo says, siding with Mallory and Vanessa. "I never have, and I never will."
Dee's eldest daughters both exchange another glance.
"What does he do?" Mallory asks. "Is he divorced? What does he know about us? What have you told him?"
"Nothing that will end civilisation as we know it," Dee promises. "Mallory, please. I haven't given away all of our secrets to the enemy."
Mallory sighs and rolls her eyes. "Fine," she said. "But I don't think this will end well, Mom."
"Me either," Vanessa says, widening her eyes dramatically.
Dee's stomach flutters a little. It hasn't gone badly. It hasn't gone brilliantly.
But she's willing to take slight suspicion and distrust over tantrums and tears.
Adam's reaction is tantamount to the world ending. "Are you serious?" he says. "Dad, this is the sweetest bachelor pad ever. Do you really want a bunch of girls here?"
"Seriously," Jordan agrees. "They'll be complaining about the toilet seat, like, all the time." He side-eyes Adam and mutters out of the corner of his mouth. "Right?"
"Totally," Adam agrees.
John gazes up at them wearily. He's still collapsed in his arm chair, arms and legs loose, sleeves rolled up and tie undone. "They're not aliens, you guys. And besides, I'm not marrying her. It's just dinner now and then."
"They may as well be aliens," Nicky says, chiming in.
"And dinner is exactly how it starts," Jordan declares. "That's how they trap you. Like one of those fly-eating plants."
"She's not a fly-eating plant," John says firmly.
"We're balanced here," Byron adds emphatically. "I thought you were happy with things the way they are."
John thinks all four of his sons have the makings of Lawyers From Hell in them.
But they learned from the master, and John has a trick or two up his sleeve yet.
"Fine," he sighs, and he offers his hands in an 'I give up' sort of gesture. "You guys have to come first. I'll call it all off. I'll tell her I can't see her. I'll tell her you guys are too important and you don't want me to date anyone."
Byron and Nicky are the first ones to look uncomfortable. Byron shuffles his feet and glances at Adam, who looks out the window.
Jordan folds his arms across his chest. "Really?" he asks, not buying it for a second.
"Really," John says, and there are no tricks this time. "You guys will always come first. I promise. If you say no girls, then I guess... no girls."
Jordan's shoulders slump, and he kicks the toe of his sneaker against the carpet, glancing around at his brothers guiltily. "Well," he says eventually, "I guess one or two dates wouldn't hurt. If it would make you happy."
John tries not to look too smug. "Thank you," he says graciously.
Dee stretches out in bed, her eyes closed. The house is silent and the street outside is hushed with soft rain.
She touches her fingers to her lips for a moment, remembering the warm press of John's mouth against hers.
John stretches out in bed and closes his eyes with a sigh. The house is quiet and the air smells like rain.
He breathes in deeply, remembering the warm, floral scent of Dee's skin and hair, so close and soft against him.