The Invitation
By: Jess Mercer
(© 2008 by the author)
 

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

 

I read the invitation again and smile. Yeah, I'll be happy to attend the Christmas party my best friend and his wife are throwing on the 22nd. I don't get many invitations, for I'm not that social and haven't been to any event where I might be seen since last July when I lost my right foot and ankle. It's taken this long for me to covertly adjust to using a prosthesis and doing it so well no one would suspect. My best friend and his wife know and have been my unflagging support, but it wasn't difficult to keep it from everyone else since I continued to do my job by telecommuting. Yes, I'm sensitive as hell about my loss and depressed now over my chances of finding a wife.

 

I read the pen written postscript and smile again because Dan and Evie say they've invited a young woman I just have to meet. Bless them, they're always trying to match-make, and one or two of their choices haven't been all that bad, but what woman my age could be interested in a cripple?

 

The evening of the party I dress with care in new Black Watch plaid slacks, a green blazer, and cream shirt with a matching green and cream striped tie. Looking in the mirror, I decide that with my black hair and green eyes I'm not too bad looking for a guy of twenty-eight.

 

On the few occasions I do go out, I'm notorious for being early. I push open the door into the family room from the garage and call out when I walk in just as I would at home. Evie immediately darts from the kitchen and takes me in hand,  practically dragging me across the family room towards a woman I hope is the one she mentioned, for she's almost my height and drop-dead gorgeous. Evie immediately introduces me.

 

"Claire, this is Michael," Evie says.

 

Her greeting smile is sincere instead of a party one. I like her instantly, so I give it my best shot, a slight bow as I take her hand.

 

Claire's smile broadens as she looks at Evie. "You said he's a gentleman. I can believe it now."

 

Evie beams. "Mike, Claire and you will have plenty to talk about, because she writes the mystery series you are so fond of."

 

"Really?" I look back at Claire. "Now I wish Evie had told me in advance who I was to meet. I would have shamelessly brought every one of your books along for you to autograph." 

 

Her eyes widen slightly. "Every one?"

 

"How could I not. The first I bought was your fourth. I was so delighted with it, I searched until I found the first three and have a standing order at the bookshop for every new release. I do have one regret though."

 

Her smile fades. "And that is?"

 

"The amount of time it takes you to come out with a new one. I keep wishing you could do one a month."

 

Her laughter is like the tinkle of bells. "If I could do that, you'd be bored silly by the third one."

 

"Never! May I get you a drink?"

 

"I'll go with you. I saw some of the things Evie has put out and they're irresistible. I used to love it when she cooked for us when we shared a flat in college." She pulls a tiny face, then grins. "It's just as well I don't get to visit often or I'd be big as a house. She's a marvelous cook."

 

"I know. I'm here fairly often and what she calls her throw-together meals for just Dan and me are feasts."

 

"Don't I know it." We both have no hesitation in loading our plates with tiny sandwiches, quiche tartlets, and darn near everything else on the table. It's when we get to the punch bowl that Claire pulls a face. "I'd love a glass of white wine to go with this instead of punch."

 

"Would you object to some place quiet where we can talk without all the others? I happen to know it's where Don keeps his wine, and we can open a bottle."

 

"Wonderful. He won't mind?"

 

"Not at all. I make myself at home here. Come along." The door to Don's study is open and there's a fire going on the hearth. He has a small fridge in there he keeps stocked with his favorite wines.

 

Claire and I set our plates on the small table between two leather club chairs I'd kill to own, and I open the fridge. "What would you prefer?"

 

"A white zinfandel would be nice."

 

I bow. "Madam has excellent taste. Quite what I would have suggested." We both laugh at the way I sound exactly like a British wine steward. I take a bottle from the fridge and uncork it, pouring for both of us, then take my seat and lift my glass. "To your next book. May it be as delightful as those which have preceded it."

 

She smiles and touches her glass to mine. When she has sipped, she sets her glass down and looks at me. "What attracts you to my books, Michael?"

 

"The easy pace, the perfect plotting, description so beautiful that I can close my eyes and visualize the scene as you see it when you're writing."

 

She blushes slightly. "And my characters?"

 

"Your protagonist Dirk is the best of all, for I feel as if I've known him all my life. I keep waiting for him to find a woman who returns his love, however shyly he tries to hide it. He's been through two short romances already, and seems doomed to remain a bachelor."

 

She smiles. "He will find her some day. I think having him marry any time soon would limit him."

 

"It doesn't seem to limit some of the older detective inspectors in British mysteries."

 

"True, but he's only just twenty-three and not very ambitious."

 

"That's one of his most endearing characteristics, though I hate it that he lets the sergeant take credit for his work. Surely you're going to give the sergeant his comeuppance before too much longer."

 

"I'm not disclosing the future. You'll have to wait and see."

 

"Darn! I was hoping for a revelation."

 

This time it's a broad grin. "Oh, no. Have to keep you hanging so you'll continue to buy my books. That's what brings joy to my accountant."

 

"Truth will out, they say."

 

"Every time. You are far more perceptive than most of my readers. Why is that?"

 

It's my turn to blush. "I was an English major in college. I thought about teaching, but had the opportunity to become a book editor for a small publishing house."

 

"I didn't know there was one here."

 

"There's not. He's in Chapel Hill. He was looking for someone to edit all his electronic submissions. I have enough computer background to do that easily, and it does have the advantage of letting me work from home at hours I choose. I'm not a morning person."

 

 She was about to comment, but Evie is standing in the doorway. "I wondered where you got to. You mustn't monopolize Claire, Mike. Some others want to meet her."

 

I stand as Claire does, delighted when she says, " Evie, I may just not forgive you for interrupting us."

 

"You haven't changed a bit, Claire. You never did care for parties, but as youíre the guest of honor tonight, you might as come along and get it over."

 

"If I have to, but please don't leave before we get another chance to talk, Michael."

 

"I shall be in constant anticipation until you return."

 

"Dear Lord, Mike, you sound like something from a bad romance," Evie says.

 

Claire laughs and winks at me. "But he knows it, Evie. That's the charm of it. Are you still reading that trash?"

 

Evie blushes. "If you said that in front of anyone but Mike, you'd be sleeping in a motel instead of our guest room."

 

Claire looks over her shoulder at me. "See what I had to put up with in college? Is it any wonder I started writing mysteries instead of romances?"

 

"In that case, I'm delighted. Thank you for getting her started right, Evie."

 

After they've gone into the other room, I discover that I'm famished for some reason. I pick up my plate and go back to the table. Looking at the assortment of goodies again, Iíd love to take the entire platter of miniature crab cakes back to Dan's study and pig out, but I restrain the impulse, taking only a dozen or so. Evie always has more food than her guests can consume, so I'll be slighting no one. The same with the boiled shrimp; the spicy sauce a perfect foil for the wine.

 

Despite how it may sound, I'm enjoying myself thoroughly. It could only be improved if Claire returned. After my third glass of Dan's excellent wine I reluctantly forego another glass. One more and I'd not dare try driving home. I hear the other guests leaving and glance at my watch. So must I.

 

Evie has Claire by the door saying goodnight. I walk over to them.

 

"You aren't going yet, are you?" Claire asks.

 

"I'm afraid I must."

 

"But we haven't finished our talk."

 

"Perhaps tomorrow evening. I would like to invite you to have dinner with me, Claire. Sorry, Evie, but you and Dan aren't invited. You have to pay for taking this charming lady away after you invited me to meet her."

 

Evie grins, so I know darn well this is what she had planned all along.

 

"I'd be delighted, Michael."

 

"Then I'll come by for you at seven."

 

"Perfect."

 

Our dinner is excellent, but the surroundings are not conducive to the informal chat we enjoyed last evening. I suggest that we go to my house for coffee.

 

"I like this," she says looking around my living room, "but where's the real inner sanctum?"

 

"Inner sanctum?" I reply, not thinking.

 

"Your work space."

 

"Oh, my study." I'm finding it difficult to think rationally with her around. "This way."

 

Whoever built my house originally had put a small family room at the back overlooking the garden, so having no use for a formal living room, I had turned the room intended for that into all purpose room, and turned the family room into my work space and library. It's all the more enjoyable because it has a fireplace.

 

"Oh, how I envy you such a cozy place to work. I'd never get anything done in a room like this. A fire in cold weather would have me curled up in front of it with a book, and in the spring that view of the garden would be a total distraction."

 

I grin. "I'm afraid the view is mostly of weeds. I manage to cut the grass, but I hate gardening."

 

"I love it. I just wish I had more time for it, but when a story starts, I'm totally absorbed." She curls up on end of the sofa and looks longingly at the fire I've laid. Her look is enough. I bend and light the kindling.

 

"Oh, thank you. There's something so comforting about a fire in winter."

After the fire has begun to burn well, I sit down next to her.

 

"I'm so relaxed," she purrs, "I feel like talking now. What did you want to ask me?"

 

"Why did you make the protagonist in your books an amputee? It seems unusual."

 

She smiles. "Precisely why I did it. An amputee is not useless, you know."

 

"Better than you might imagine. Does it take you a full year to turn out a work?"

 

"Oh, no. I have several in progress at the moment." She looks at me for a few moments before answering fully. "One of the reasons I turn out one book a year is that it gives me time to study the effect of the loss of a leg on a young man."

 

She's just hit on the main reason I enjoy her books so much. They mirror my own feelings and experience. Indeed, they have taught me a few things about being an amputee.

 

"You appear to have great empathy for him."

 

Her expression turns sad. "I have a live model."

 

"This is a surprise. I thought perhaps you knew a physical therapist or researched it on your own."

 

She shakes her head slowly. "My parents were killed in an accident four years ago. My brother was with them at the time, and he lost his left leg. He was only sixteen at the time, so he came to live with me. He wants a career in law enforcement and plans to make it his major. After the accident he started working out in hopes he can pass the physical portion of the test they give applicants. Watching him adjust and being a source of information in both areas, I wrote the first book to encourage him."

 

"Aaah! So that's why your writing seems so personal at times."

 

"I'm glad you picked up on that, though it might upset Tommy to know someone identifies with him so completely."

 

"I apologize for asking so personal a question, but has this changed your feelings toward a handicapped person in any way?"

 

"What a curious question. But, yes. Before I felt almost an aversion on seeing an amputee, now I can feel only admiration for them."

 

"Not pity?"

 

"Absolutely not! Tommy can close to hitting me with a crutch the one time I said that word. After watching him, I can honestly say I admire amputees and what they struggle with. It certainly has not changed my love for my brother, and I know I could love the right man, amputee or not."

 

"You must have a string of men friends a mile long with that attitude."

 

She shakes her head. "Far from it. Tommy teases me about being in another world when a story gets going well. I'm afraid he's right."

 

"I can understand that. If I enjoy a work I'm editing, I read the entire thing through before I make a single correction to be certain I understand the author's intent."

 

"Michael, you are precisely the editor I've been hoping to find. The one my publisher uses almost destroyed the intent of my latest book. Would you possibly consider editing a chapter from the one I have in progress so I can see how you work? If I'm happy, I'll have him send you a contract; hopefully with somewhat better than standard rates. He knows how unhappy I've been."

 

"I'd be delighted," I say with a grin.

 

"Why are you grinning like that at a serious proposal?"

 

"Because that means I'll get to read the book before anyone else."

 

"I'm quite serious about this. I'll expect you to be nothing less that perfect."

 

"That I shall be. How do you work?"

 

"I use a micro-cassette recorder when ideas begin to come faster than I can type. Tommy does the transcription for me."

 

"Computer?"

 

"Of course. He's far better at it than I."

 

"Then we could communicate by e-mail and send parts of the work back and forth?"

 

"That's what I've wanted all along. My present publisher wants only printed manuscript. It's a nuisance and an extra expense sending paper back and forth. This way we could work together and eliminate a good deal of paper handling."

 

I nod happily, anticipating constant contact. "Have your publisher contact me, and we'll work out the details."

 

I'm surprised when she shakes her head. "I'll handle him. I know he's worried I might change houses. He knows I've been approached by two others."

 

"You might change, then?"

 

"No. I like the work of the bindery he uses, and I get the choice of the dust jacket. I'd lose that with another house." She smiles. "He doesn't know that, though. That's why I know I can get you approved as my editor."

 

She glances at her watch. "Heavens! I had no idea it was this late. I need to get some sleep. Could you please take me back to Evie's."

 

"Of course, but one favor first."

 

"That is?"

 

I walk over to the shelves and pull out all six books that she's written. "Autograph these."

 

She smiles at me, then says, "I'll be delighted to, but may it wait until my next visit?"

 

"May I ask why?"

 

"I need the time to think of something special to write in each book for such a delightful man."

 

I tend to blush easily, and I can tell my face is rosy. "Thank you, but Evie and Dan will tell you I'm far from being nice, much less delightful."

 

She smiles again. "To a writer your sensitivity and perceptiveness are delightful."

 

Our drive is made in silence, but with occasional fond looks at each other. I'm falling in love with Claire.

 

 

"Will you have dinner with me again tomorrow night?" I ask at the door.

 

"I wish I could, but I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon. Please come in long enough to give me your address and phone number. Your e-mail address as well."

 

I pull out my billfold and hand her one of the personal cards I made up while playing with my new printer. In return she hands me one of hers, then kisses me lightly on the cheek.

 

"Michael, I'm really sorry we got off into business because I would like to know you better."

 

"I think our business association might well lead to more personal contact, if you would like."

 

"I would indeed. Thank you for being so understanding."

 

I smile. "How can two book people not understand each other?"

 

"Very easily, but you are different from most." She nods. "I believe I've made a good choice in an editor and, I hope, a friend."

 

"Shame we don't have a drink. I would raise my glass to a growing friendship."

 

"Before it goes very far, I want Tommy to meet you."

 

"My pleasure, but do you need his approval?"

 

"For his sake, yes. I know that he'll probably be leaving home before too long, but I want him to feel at ease with anyone I see. So far, that hasn't happened."

 

"Then you're both invited to spend a weekend with me at any time."

 

She kisses me again. "We shall see. You're as special as Dan told me you are. Good night, Michael, and thank you for a lovely dinner." She smiles. "And though it wasn't intentional, the most pleasant business meeting I've ever attended."         

 

Two days later I get a couple of chapters from Claire, asking me to edit them, add comments, and return. I don't usually respond to tryouts of my editing ability, but this is Claire. I'd hate to think she deliberately sent me such a convoluted piece of writing that I'm more than ever thankful for my small but excellent reference library. I spend a full day putting the chapter in a prose style as close to hers as I can manage and send it back with some withering comments. It's not two hours later that I answer the phone.

 

It's Claire, bubbling with delight. "Michael, you're wonderful! I've never written so badly before in my life, but your work is perfection. I'm not changing a word you wrote. It confirms everything you said to me, and I'm sending you the rest of it immediately, so start work. You'll have a contract as soon as I can talk with Arnold."

 

"Glad you approve."

 

"I do. And your comments were right on target. I appreciate your bluntness. I enjoyed our time together so much."

 

"As did I. Make another trip this way soon."

 

"Definitely. I must run now. Thank you again."

 

I hang up relieved, for after I sent them, I regretted my pointed comments about her writing. I'm glad she can separate work from pleasure so completely, for when it comes to work, she's truly a professional.

 

 

A few days later the contract arrives for my signature. I can't believe what Claire demanded and got from her publisher in the way of pay for me. Editing her material will be remunerative as well as a pleasure.

 

With Claire's fast writing, I'm almost swamped by her work and the sudden influx from the publisher I usually edit for. I have time for little else, but Claire's work gets my undivided attention and closest scrutiny.

 

It's early April before I hear from her again, other than an occasional brief e-mail. It's Claire on the line asking if she may come for the weekend to discuss the new book she's starting and if she might bring Tommy with her. I insist they stay with me, and I get a cleaning service in so that my house is spotless.

 

When they arrive I can hardly believe my eyes. Claire looks even more beautiful in casual clothing, and there's no mistaking that Tommy is her brother. Except for the difference in their ages, they could pass as twins. He's almost too beautiful to be male.

 

After what Claire told me of him, I'm surprised to see that he's on crutches. His jeans leg folded up neatly showing a mid-calf amputation. He sees me looking and his face flushes, but he comes in with Claire.

 

I take their bags to their rooms and give them time to freshen up, while I start a pot of coffee. Tommy comes down first. "Sorry you have to see me on crutches the first time we meet, but my leg is in the shop for adjustment."

 

"I understand completely. It's nothing important."

 

"How would you know?" He asks sharply.

 

"Sit down."

 

I sit down also and pull up my jeans leg. Tommy's mouth drops open. "Claire never said anything."

 

"She doesn't know, I'll tell her when I think the time is right. I've shown you because I want you to be comfortable with me."

 

"It's hell, isnít it?"

 

"Not something I'd wish on my worst enemy, but I've learned some things from your sister's books, and I've found a few interesting web sites."

 

Tommy smiles. "You'll have to show me. Sis keeps the computer tied up so much I don't get much chance to browse."

 

"See if you can get her to make it an early night then come to my study. I'll show you the best ones. What she doesn't know won't hurt her."

 

His grin tells me he's still kid enough to enjoy the prospect of putting one over on his sister. "Deal, dude!"

 

About nine, Claire looks at me. "Michael, I'm afraid our drive was rather tiring, so if you'll forgive me, I'll go to bed and let you and Tommy talk."

 

"Please feel free to do here as you would at home."

 

"If you have a couple of Tylenol, I'd appreciate them. I'm getting a bit of a headache."

 

I get them for her, then return to the living room and wink at Tommy. "Okay, guy. Let's go web surfing."

 

"Cool."

 

I bring up my favorite devotee site and watch Tommy with amusement as he reads some of the postings. "Wow, man! I'm not believing this. Those guys actually get off looking at amps? What are they, a bunch of kooks?"

 

"Not unless you consider respected professional people kooks. I'll admit there are a few, and occasionally an amp who's bitter as hell about it will blast them. I was the same until I found several writers and professors, and even one doctor who are a pleasure to talk to. They started my acceptance of myself."

 

He points to one message. "What about that one?"

 

"He's what we call a drooler."

 

"Why?"

 

"Cause he's the kind starts drooling every time he sees a stump. He made me feel like a freak the first time I read one of his postings."

 

I'm surprised at Tommy's genuine laugh. "Don't ever use that word around Claire."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because I said that's what I was when I realized my leg was gone. She slapped the shit out me." He laughs again. "Don't know who it surprised the most, me or her, but that's when I knew she still loved me."

 

"I'm glad. I wish I had had someone to knock some sense into me. I had to learn it the hard way."

 

"Stay around her and she'll probably do it. Any guys on this site my age?"

 

"Quite a few. Most of them are gay, but I think I can find one or two young amputees in the bunch that you might enjoy exchanging messages with."

 

He shakes his head. "Maybe later. You're here and I like talking with you."

 

"I enjoy chatting with you, also, Tommy. If you get bored, there are some excellent stories in the fiction section linked to this site."

 

Over dinner the next evening, Tommy asks Claire for the car keys. "There's a flick I want to see."

 

"Michael, I can hardly believe how Tommy has taken to you," she says after Tommy has gone. "Since the accident he's refused to associate with almost anyone. I was seriously considering having him see a psychologist. How have you managed to bring him out of himself so well?"

 

"This." I pull up my jeans leg.

 

"Oh, Michael, I had no idea."

 

"This is why I can talk to Tommy so easily. Coming to accept losing a leg is difficult, especially at his age. I'm speaking from experience, though I'm older." 

 

"Thank you for being so open with Tommy. I know he feels better having someone to talk to."

 

"I hope. You asked me why I didn't mention Dirk when we were talking about your books. I wasn't ready then to tell you it's because I can identify with him so readily. The way you related his internal feelings helped me quite a bit, just as you intended them to help Tommy."

 

"But he didn't identify with Dirk as I had hoped, so I never dreamed there were others who could and did."

 

"I certainly did, and I thank you for the intensity you've put into his character."

 

"If I've helped anyone, I feel more than repaid for my work."

 

It's surprisingly difficult for me to watch them get ready to return home. I adore Claire, and Tommy's dry wit and pranks amuse me. I carry their bags to their car for them.

 

"Can we come back real soon?" Tommy asks.

 

"Tommy!" Claire is shocked.

 

"Knock it off, sis. Mike's cool and a lot of fun."

 

"And so are you, guy. I hope you'll come any time you can."

 

"Indeed not," Claire says emphatically.

 

"Why not? I had hoped you would enjoy yourself."

 

"I did, perhaps too much. Now I've work to do and so have you, editor. I'll send you the first six chapters when we get home."

 

"See what I mean, man? Don't even think about marrying Claire if you want any fun out of life." Tommy says with a grin.

 

"Just wait until you have a lazy constantly eating teenager to raise. You'll change your tune." Claire snaps, but with great affection.

 

"Haven't been a teenager since my last birthday."

 

In late May I hear from her again. She asks if they can make another weekend visit. Tommy has become depressed over school and has expressed the wish to talk to me. I ask her for his private e-mail address and send him a note inviting him to write or visit me at any time.

 

His reply is that he wants to talk about his future. It seems he failed the initial physical requirement for law enforcement. I tell him I'll get back to him asap.

 

The next morning I phone the registrar at the university. I got to know him when I taught a few creative writing courses there as an adjunct professor, and have seen him on a few social occasions since. I lay out Tommy's problem with him,  delighted when he says he'll call back with some answers shortly. He calls back within the hour asking me to come by his office just after lunch.

 

"Nice to see you again, Mike," he says in greeting. "I'm a little puzzled by your request."

 

"I'm making an inquiry for a young man who has a handicap, but wants a position in law enforcement."

 

"I see. What type of handicap?"

 

"He's missing his left leg below the knee."

 

The registrar nods. "That would limit his mobility, but I think I have an answer you'll like. If he wishes to transfer to this institution, he could take a degree in criminal justice. Being more investigative, it doesn't require the strenuous physical activity required by regular street cops." He shows me the course requirements in the college's catalogue.

 

"I think this is exactly what he's interested in most. He told me he would love to become a detective. May I take this catalogue and mail it to him?"

 

"That's a new addition to our curriculum, so let me work out his courses for that specialty. I'll them to him with our new catalogue which is due at the end of the week."

 

"I really appreciate this. I'll send him a note and tell him to expect it."

 

"Always glad to help, especially if it means another student for us," he says with a grin as he rises and shakes my hand.

 

I send Tommy a message about my findings that evening, and tell him to have a transcript sent to the registrar immediately. He responds that he will the next day.

 

Friday afternoon a week later, I admit to sitting there looking out the window when Claire's car pulls into my driveway.

 

Tommy grabs me in a hug the moment he's out of their car. "Oh, man, you're the best! That information on school was exactly what I wanted. I've applied for a transfer."

 

"Tommy, for heaven's sake, you might at least greet Michael properly."

 

I smile over Tommy's shoulder at her. "Can't think of a better greeting than being hugged by a happy young man. How are you, Claire?"

 

"Never better since you've been editing my work. You're demanding, but it's just what I've needed. This will be the best book yet and Arnold is thrilled."

 

"Good. Come on in where it's comfortable."

 

"Yeah. It's hot out here," Tommy says and swings off toward the door.

 

I help Claire with their bags. "Tommy isn't having trouble with his leg again?"

 

"No, but now he doesn't hesitate to switch to his crutches if it bothers him in the least. You've been wonderful for him, Michael."

 

"He more than deserves what little help I've been able to give him. He's a help to me, too. I insist this be strictly a pleasure trip, Claire, so what do you and Tommy wish to do to enjoy yourselves while you're here?"

 

"Go swimming!" Tommy replies instantly. "Wish I could still water ski."

 

"No reason you can't. Dan will be delighted to take us tomorrow. All I have to do is call."

 

"How can I ski with one leg?"

 

"Didn't you ever try on just one ski?"

 

"Yeah, but I always started on two then kicked one off."

 

"Slalom is much the same. It's a little harder starting out on one, but a slalom ski is more stable and the additional strength in your leg will help."

 

"You've done it?" He seems surprised.

 

"Of course. I adapted my slalom ski with a holder for my stump since mine is longer than yours, but we can do the same with yours if you have a ski and ski often. Dan's boat is so powerful I skied even before I made the change."

 

"Great, man. I gotta try it. Let's go!"

 

"Are you certain Dan won't mind?" Claire asks.

 

"He loves company when he's out. Evie won't go with him; she hates the water."

 

"Then I can visit with her while you men are playing."

 

Dan is ecstatic when I call with my request, just as I knew he'd be, and Evie can't wait to see Claire again.

 

Tommy insists I go first so he can watch. Much to his amusement, I fall the first time because I'm out of practice, but after that I'm back in form. It takes Tommy several falls before he finally makes a circuit, then Dan pulls us both for a long ride before we stop for lunch.

 

Tommy all but monopolizes our lunch conversation in his excitement at having succeeded so quickly. When the three of us take our leave, Dan invites Tommy back to ski anytime he wants. Evie winks at me. I can tell she's thinking she's finally found the right woman for me, which leaves me wondering just what she and Claire talked about while Tommy and I were skiing. On the way home, Claire mentions that she and Tommy just might have to move here. I'm about to ask, when she gives me a 'later' look.

 

While Tommy is showering and I'm starting dinner, Claire comes into the kitchen to help. "I have been friends with Evie since we started college together and known Dan since they were married, but I've never known how really kind they are until now. Tommy thinks Dan is wonderful and Dan seems to enjoy him. It's no wonder you're so fond of him. It was kind of him to take the time to let you teach Tommy to ski again. I can't tell you how much it means to me to see him so happy. He's adores you for all you've done for him, especially putting him on the right track in college. He wants us to move here permanently."

 

"I'm glad things have worked out so well. I hope any kids I ever have are as fine as Tommy. You've done a wonderful job getting him through some difficult times."

 

"It would never have happened without help from you. I was almost at my wit's end."

 

"I hope you do decide to move here. It's a nice place to live, and there's an active writers group if you're interested." I smile at her. "It means we can see each other more often, too."

 

"That I would like. But if I'm working you might find me calling on you for a brainstorming session if I get stuck in a story."

 

"That would be a distinct pleasure, too."

 

After we've eaten, Claire asks, "May I use your computer, Michael? I have some story ideas I want to get down before I forget them."

 

"Of course. I have some new floppies you can save them on."

 

"I don't think I'll need them. I'll just send it to my mail."

 

"Whatever. Call if you need anything."

 

As soon as she's absorbed in her work, I fix Tommy a drink and we go out to sit on the patio.

 

"Mike, are you seriously interested in Claire?"

 

"Do you have to ask? I never thought someone so beautiful and talented as Claire could accept a man like me."

 

"What do you mean, 'a man like me'? You're a great guy, Mike, and Claire is wild about the way you edit her work. All she did was bitch about the one she had before."

 

"I mean a cripple."

 

Tommy picks up his crutch and fakes a swing at me with it, then puts it down and grins. "You should learn what you've been trying to teach me, dude."

 

"Oh? And what is that?"

 

"You're a cripple only if you want to believe it. Seriously, Mike, you've made me realize I'm still the same guy as before, and" he lifts his stump, "this is only a minor inconvenience."

 

"It works both ways, Tommy. I've learned a lot from you, even when I didn't know Claire was writing about you in her books."

 

"Cool. God, I hope you and Claire make it. I can't think of a better guy for her." He grins broadly. "And you're a hell of a lot better cook."

 

"I'm glad, Tommy. I like having you around. There's plenty in the fridge, so if you can take care of yourself for dinner tomorrow night, I'm taking Claire out."

 

"Oh?"

 

"Yeah. Be back in a minute."

 

I return and open a small box, holding it out to Tommy. "Think she'll accept this?"

 

Tommy stares at the diamond solitaire for a moment and jumps to his foot to hug me with a big grin. "Man, if she doesn't I'll kill her."

 

Dan and Evie insisted that we come back so Tommy can ski again, so we have a repeat of yesterday, leaving early enough for us to get home and dress for dinner.

 

Claire and I are lingering over our after dinner coffee when she reaches across the table and takes my hand. "Michael, I love you for what you've done for Tommy. It's as if the accident never occurred."

 

I give her my best sad puppy dog look.

 

"What?" She asks.

 

"You only love me for that? I was hoping maybe you felt a little something for me as a man."

 

She smiles at me. "Oh, Michael. You can be such an idiot at times. I care for you deeply."

 

"I'm glad, Claire. I hope you care enough to accept this." I hold out the ring.

 

"Oh, Michael, it's beautiful! I'd love to accept it, but Ö"

 

"But what?"

 

"Tommy. I have to consider him. He's had such a difficult time."

 

"Darling, I love you and I like Tommy a great deal. It would please me if he wants to live with us."

 

"Oh, you dear man. I couldn't ask for more." She holds out her left hand.

 

I slip the ring on her finger. "Claire will you marry me?"

 

"Yes, my darling." She smiles. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't say no."

 

"Oh?"

 

"Tommy would kill me. He told me you are the first man he's wanted for a brother-in-law."

 

"I'm glad. Our home will always be his."

 

She kisses me soundly. "Thank you, love. I was afraid you might feel differently, and Tommy is all I've had. Let's go home so you can tell him."

 

Tommy starts grinning at Claire the moment we walk in. "Mike going to make an honest woman of you, Claire?"

 

"You knew?" She asks astonished.

 

He nods. "He asked me this afternoon while you were working."

 

"Michael, how old fashioned of you."

 

I put my arm around Tommy's shoulders. "Didn't want to do anything behind this guy's back, I think a lot of him. I'm asking you now to stand up with me at the wedding, Tommy. Okay?"

 

"I'll be proud to. Thanks, Mike."

 

"And one more thing. You're going to be a part of our family. Claire and I want you to make this is your home for as long as you want."

 

Tommy hugs both of us.

 

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Posted: 02/08/08