© 1998 Jess Mercer

The Invitation

I read the invitation again and smile. Yeah, I'll be happy to go to the Christmas party my best friend and his wife are throwing on the 22nd, because I don't get many invitations. 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 just above the ankle. It's taken this long for me to covertly learn to use a prosthesis and do it so well no one would suspect. My best friend and his wife know and have been a great 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 having lost my foot and depressed now over my chances of finding a wife.

I read the penned 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 really haven't been all that bad, but I never tried to take the introductions anywhere. After all, what woman near my age could be interested in a far from wealthy cripple when there are far better prospects in the offing?

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. Sitting on the sofa a woman I hope is the one Evie said I must meet, for she's absolutely beautiful. Evie sprints from the kitchen and immediately introduces me.

"Claire, this is Michael."

Claire's greeting smile is sincere instead of a party one. I like her instantly, so I give it my best shot. I bow slightly as I take her hand in mine.

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

Evie beams. "Mike, Claire and you will have plenty to talk about, because she writes that 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 have read them all? The first one I bought was your fourth in the series. 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 in three months!"

"Never!" I notice her hand is empty. "May I get you a drink?"

"Let me go with you. I saw some of the things Evie's put out and they're irresistible. I loved it when she cooked for us in college. We shared an apartment, you know." 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 Evie 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 ask. "I happen to know it's where Dan keeps his wine. We can open a bottle."

"Wonderful. He won't mind?"

"Not at all. Dan insists that I make myself at home here. Come along." Dan's study door is open and there's a cheerful fire going on the hearth. I also know 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 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 nods graciously and touches her glass to mine. When she has sipped, she nods her approval, then 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 just as you see it when you're writing."

She blushes slightly. "And my characters?"

"Your protagonist Dirk is the best of all. 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 deter 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 when 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 sneak preview."

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

"The truth will come 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 might have commented, but Evie sticks her head in the door. "I wondered where the two of you had gotten off to. You mustn't monopolize Claire, Mike. The others want to meet her, too."

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

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

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

"I shall remain 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 absolute 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 buffet table. Looking at the assortment of foods again, I'd love to take the entire platter of miniature crab cakes back to Dan's study and pig out, but I resist the impulse, taking only a dozen or so. Evie always has far more food than her guests can eat, so no one is going to miss out. The same with the boiled shrimp; the spicy sauce is a perfect foil for the white wine.

Despite how it may sound, I'm enjoying myself thoroughly. It could only be improved if Claire rejoined me and we could resume our chat. After my third glass of Dan's excellent wine I reluctantly forego another glass. One more and I'll have to stay the night. 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." She sounds sincerely regretful.

"Perhaps tomorrow evening you would do me the honor of having dinner with me, Claire. Sorry, Evie, but you and Dan are not invited. You have to pay for taking this charming lady away after inviting me here to meet her."

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

"I'd be delighted, Michael," Claire replies.

"Then I'll call for you at seven."

"Perfect."

Our dinner is excellent, but as nice as the restaurant is, 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 cosy 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," I reply with a private smile. "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 only one book a year is that it gives me time to observe the continuing adjustments a relatively new amputee must make in his life style as conditions change."

She's just hit on the main reason I enjoy her books so much. They mirror my own feelings and experience fairly closely. "Are there that many after one has learned to use a prosthesis?" Her protagonist has had far greater problems than I.

"More than I had expected."

"You appear to have great empathy with 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 in the accident. 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 in college. 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 his providing me with information in both areas is the reason I wrote the first book. I hoped 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 came 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, except to make me care for him more. And yes, I know now that I could love the right man, amputee or not."

"You must have a string of male 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'm not great company at those times."

"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. It's extremely time consuming, but it's the only way to do the job properly!"

"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. I was so furious I threatened to find another publisher. Arnold assured me that he would find another editor for my work." She looks thoughtful for a moment then asks, "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."

"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 your books before anyone else."

"I'm quite serious about this. I'll expect you to be nothing less than perfect, if you take this on."

"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 types swiftly so he often does transcription for me."

"Computer?"

"Of course. He's far better on 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. He took my threat to change houses seriously. He knows I've been approached by two others."

"You might change, then?"

"No. I like the quality 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 tonight. I would really like to know you better."

I flash her my best smile. "I think our business association will be a good excuse for us to see more of each other, if you would like."

"You know I would. 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 any time."

She kisses me again. "We'll see. You're as special as Dan told me. 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's work. I'd hate to think she deliberately sent me such a convoluted mess that it makes me more than ever thankful for my small but well chosen reference library. I spend a full day putting the two chapters in a prose style as close to hers as I can manage and send them 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 the novel immediately, so start work. You'll have a contract as soon as I can talk with Arnold."

"I'm glad you're pleased."

"I am. And your comments were right on target. I appreciate your bluntness. I also wanted to tell you again how much I enjoyed our time together."

"I did, too. 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 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 profitable as well as a pleasure.

With Claire's fast writing, I'm almost swamped by her work and a 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 personally 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 asks if she might bring Tommy with her.

"How wonderful. I've been hoping to see you again, and I'll enjoy meeting Tommy. After all I've learned about him from your books, I feel that I know him already."

She tells me that Tommy has decided he wants to meet me as well.

I interrupt her. "You will both stay here, of course. I have plenty of room."

She protests, but I insist. "And I'll be looking for you on Friday afternoon, then. Have a good trip."

The minute she hangs up, I call the cleaning service I use to tell them I want them Friday morning so the house will be 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.

I'm totally surprised to see that he's on crutches, after what Claire told me of him. His jeans leg is folded neatly showing a mid-calf amputation. He sees me looking at it and his face flushes, but he comes on 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," he says, "but my leg is in the shop for adjustment."

"I understand completely. It's not important."

"How would you know?" He asks sharply.

"Sit down."

I sit down next to him and pull up my jeans leg. Tommy's mouth drops open. "Claire never said a thing about it," he finally gets out.

"I doubt she's aware of it; I'll tell her when I think the time is right. I've shown you because I want you to know that I do understand. I want you to be comfortable with me."

"It's hell, isn't 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 that help."

Tommy smiles. "You'll have to show me. I have a lap-top, but Sis has only one phone line and she insists it stay open in case her publisher calls, so I don't get much chance to surf."

"See if you can get her to make it an early night tonight, then come down 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 her watch. "Michael, I'm afraid our drive was rather tiring, so if you'll forgive me, I think I'll go to bed and let you and Tommy talk."

"No problem," I tell her. "Please make yourself 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, watch her disappear up the stairs, 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. All those guys really get off looking at amps? What are they, a bunch of kooks?"

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

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

"He's what the devotees call a drooler."

"Why?"

"Cause he's the kind that starts drooling every time he sees an amputee. He made me feel like a freak the first time I read one of his postings, like I was a life support system for a stump."

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

"Which word?"

"Freak."

"Why?"

"Because I said that's what I was when I realized my leg was gone. She slapped the shit out of 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'd 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 talking with you, too, 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." She tosses him the car keys, and he drifts out the door on his crutches.

"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 everyone. I was seriously considering having him see a psychologist. How have you managed to bring him out of his shell so well?"

"With this." I pull up my jeans leg.

She looks at my prosthesis, then to my face. "Oh, Michael, I had no idea."

"This is why I can talk to Tommy so easily. Coming to accept the loss of a leg is difficult, especially at his age. Though I'm older, I understand him. I can speak from experience."

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

"I hope he does. If you remember, I asked why you made Dirk an amputee when we were talking about your books, then we got off on Tommy. I wasn't ready then to tell you it's because I can identify with him so readily. The way you related his feelings helped me quite a bit, just as you intended them to help Tommy."

"He didn't identify with Dirk as much 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 put into his character."

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

The weekend passes so quickly, 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 no end. 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 really cool; we've had 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, Mr. 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." He waves to me as they drive off.

In late May I hear from her again. She asks if they can make another weekend visit. Tommy has become depressed over school and tells Claire that he wants to talk to me. I send a message to his private e-mail address telling him to write or visit me at any time.

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

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 occasions socially since. He'll accommodate my request for information, so I lay out Tommy's problem with him. I'm 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 send 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 exactly what I've needed. This will be my 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 is strictly a pleasure trip, Claire, so what do you and Tommy wish to do to enjoy yourselves?"

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

"No reason you can't. I know Claire must have mentioned Evie to you. Evie's husband Dan is a close friend of mine. He'll be delighted to take us skiing tomorrow. All I have to do is call."

"How can I ski on one leg?"

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

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

"Same difference. It's a little harder starting out on one, but the additional strength you've developed in your right 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 one 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 in his boat. 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, just as I knew he'd be, and Evie can't wait to see Claire again.

When I start to get in the boat, Tommy insists that I ski first so he can watch. Much to his amusement, I fall the first time because I'm out of practice. I motion for Dan to bring the boat around so I can grab the line again, and I try a second time. After that I'm back in form. It takes Tommy several falls before he finally finds his balance and completes a circuit, then Dan pulls us both for a long ride before we stop for lunch.

Tommy all but monopolizes our lunch conversation with his excitement. When the three of us take our leave, Dan invites Tommy and me back to ski tomorrow. 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 so much. It's no wonder you're so fond of him. It was really 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 adores you for all you've done for him, especially putting him on the right track in college." She pauses and takes a deep breath. "Tommy 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 never would have happened without you, Michael. I was almost at my wit's end."

I smile and bow slightly, accepting her thanks. "I do hope you and Tommy 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."

"I would like that. 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 finished eating, 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 forward them 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 editor she had before."

"I meant would she accept a cripple?"

Tommy picks up a crutch and fakes swinging at me, then puts it down and grins. "You should follow what you've been preaching to me, dude."

"Oh? And what is that?"

"You're only a crip if you believe it. Seriously, Mike, you've made me realize I'm still the same guy as before." He lifts his stump, "This is only an inconvenience."

I nod. "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 than she is."

I grin. "I thought you had an ulterior motive in there somewhere. Seriously, I'm glad you're happy being with me, 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 your sister 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.

Tommy has put on his leg and grins when mention it. "Hey, dude, if you and Sis are running out on me, I gotta be mobile to cook for myself."

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 had 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. Because," I pause dramatically as I reach into my pocket and bring out a small plush box, "I hope you care enough to accept this."

Claire looks at the ring a few moments, as if not believing her eyes. "Oh, Michael, it's absolutely beautiful! I'd love to accept it, but …"

"But what?"

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

"Darling, I love you and Tommy. It would really make me happy if he wants to live with us."

"Oh, Michael, I couldn't ask for more." She looks into my eyes, then down at the ring.

Taking her left hand into mine, I slip the ring on her finger. "Claire will you marry me?"

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

"Oh?"

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

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

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

Tommy starts grinning at her the moment we walk in. "Hey, 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 look at Tommy. "I'm asking you now to stand up with me at the wedding. 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 your home for as long as you want."

Tommy shakes my hand, then gently kicks my prosthesis with his own. It softly 'clunks', and I return his knowing wink. Yes, we've both found a winner in Claire!


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