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Summer in California
I wonder what her husband thinks when she returns home smelling of sex with fingernail prints on her back. I know why he does not question her. If he did, she would have reason to tell the truth, to leave, and he does not want that. The fear of losing her is just one of many things he and I share. She is another.
C.J. watched her son playing in their backyard and smiled when he poured sand over his head. He clapped loudly and squealed in delight, his strawberry-blond hair lightened by the dust covering it and his pale skin darkened by the dirt a day's play brings. C.J. was content to stay at the window all day, her son her favorite entertainment, but a ringing pulled her toward the next room.
"It's going to take a long bath tonight, buddy," she said aloud to herself before she answered the phone. "Hello."
The voice caused her smile to slide from her lips. She took a deep breath before saying, "Abbey, hi."
"Hello. How are you?"
"I'm fine. Is there something wrong? Is it the president?"
Abbey's low laugh was C.J.'s reminder to relax. It was an old hint, one once shared between them in much more intimate moments. That memory only forced a different type of tension into C.J., and she closed her eyes at the emotion.
"Everything is okay, C.J. Well, almost everything. I was wondering if I could see you."
"I'll be in Santa Monica in two days. There's a conference on MS I'm going to attend. Jed isn't interested, so it will only be me. I'm only staying for the weekend, but I was hoping we could have dinner."
Despite C.J.'s fluttering, she smiled at the hesitation in Abbey's question. Once upon a time, confidence would have made it a statement, but time had softened the connection the two women shared. Or, at least, C.J. hoped that to be true.
"Yes, of course, just tell me when and where."
Abbey sighed. "Good. Good. How about Saturday 8 p.m. at Mélisse's? We can share one of those appetizer trays you love so much."
C.J. chuckled. "You remember."
"I remember everything," Abbey said. "I'll see you Saturday."
C.J. heard the click as Abbey ended the call but she held the phone until the prerecorded operator suggested she hang up. Still, it wasn't until D.J. appeared in the kitchen, dirt covered with a worm in each hand, that she put the receiver back on its hook.
She didn't even remember giving him his bath.
Danny arrived early, and C.J. cursed his timing as she put on her robe. It was almost 7 p.m., and she had been trying on clothes for half an hour without having come to a decision.
"I'm coming!" she yelled when Danny rang the doorbell for the third time. She opened the door and headed for the living room sure he'd follow. "Why don't you just use your key?" she asked, frustration making her question sharper than she intended.
He shrugged. "To annoy you. Where's D.J.?"
"Upstairs." C.J. pushed a ragged bunny into a Batman bag already stuffed with little boy things. "He's watching cartoons."
"Has he eaten?"
"Not yet," C.J. said as she moved about the room making sure nothing else was forgotten. "He wanted to wait for you. He said the two of you were going to have a man night."
"Yep." Danny watched her for a long moment and then, "Big date?"
C.J. cut her eyes at him but shook her head, cautiously adding, "Actually, Abbey is in town."
"Bartlet?" C.J. nodded. "She called you?"
"Two days ago. We're having dinner." C.J. handed the bag to Danny. "Go get your son. I have to finish getting ready."
Danny smirked as he watched C.J. walk up the stairs. "Wear something blue. She likes you in blue!"
C.J. glared down at him before continuing to her bedroom. When she reappeared to say good night to her son, she was dressed in a pale blue blouse and gray slacks.
The restaurant was crowded when she arrived, but the maître d' recognized and seated her without a word. The table was in the private dining room, something C.J. should have expected but five years out of the White House had dampened her entitlement. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes to gather her strength, but she knew the moment Abbey walked into the room. That feeling of awe at Abbey's appearance had not diminished, and C.J. just stared at the other woman until she felt she could stand. Abbey allowed the perusal, waiting by the door with an enigmatic smile in anticipation of C.J.'s acknowledgement.
Finally, C.J. rose to meet Abbey halfway, reaching for Abbey's hands with a barely concealed longing. Abbey pulled C.J. closer, hugging her loosely.
"Claudia Jean, you look lovely," she whispered into C.J.'s ear before releasing her.
C.J. knew she was blushing, but she ignored the heat coloring her cheeks. "So do you. How was your trip?"
"Fine. Being a former First Lady does still have its perks."
As they sat, C.J. glanced at the closed door. "Agents?" she asked.
"Out there. Not as many and not as stringent so better."
C.J. nodded, surprisingly glad their shorthand had not subsided. "And the conference?"
A waiter appeared, easily charmed by Abbey's smile as she made a request for a particular wine. He gave them menus, and C.J. busied herself at reading hers until the young man was gone.
"Not as promising as I'd hoped although there is a group of scientists making headway with a new adult stem cell treatment, but they are still several years away from any real progress. How are D.J. and Danny?"
"Having a boys' night in. D.J. is growing faster than I thought possible. He's very much like his father, always questioning, always pushing."
"That's what happens when you marry a reporter."
C.J. laughed. "Yeah."
Silence descended but then Abbey closed her menu and placed it on the table. "So, how long are we going to pretend to be old acquaintances?"
"I " C.J.'s attempt to deny Abbey's accusation died on her lips. She sighed. "We really haven't been alone in over five years. It's I don't know who we are anymore."
"I don't know either." Their eyes met, but C.J. looked away. "I do know I think of you often. I wish we had not let our friendship fade."
"It's hard to be friends with someone when you know how she tastes," C.J. said, the color draining from her face. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "Maybe this was a bad idea."
C.J. glanced at Abbey. "Why did you call me? What are we doing here?"
The waiter appeared again, and Abbey ordered for them both. C.J. watched her carefully, studying the line of her neck and the shifting of her hair.
When they were alone again, Abbey turned her attention back to C.J. "You used to watch me when you thought no one was looking."
"You called me on that habit a long time ago. Answer my questions."
"If you want to leave, C.J., be my guest. I don't want to keep you here against your will."
"I think of you every day. I moved across the country to get away from you but I can't escape. I wonder what you're doing. I catch myself telling D.J. about you or dialing your number before I realize I have nothing to tell you that you need to hear." C.J. paused, struggling with her emotions.
"You should really let me make that decision," Abbey said, a gentle rebuke.
"And tell you what? That I ended my marriage because my husband didn't have soft hands or smell like autumn. I knew you wouldn't make the same choice."
"Our affair I never meant to hurt you."
"I should have told you " Abbey shook her head, dismissing her thought. "I was selfish. I let you suffer because I couldn't let you go but I couldn't keep you either. I still can't."
C.J.'s response was lost to the arrival of their food. The tension was reflected in the silence that lasted until the door closed behind the waiter.
"Well," Abbey said.
"Well," C.J. repeated.
"We came here for the appetizers. They look good."
"Thank you for ordering them with our meal."
"It's endearing. Odd but endearing."
"I like the flavor of the stuffed peppers mixed with the sole fillet."
"I'm leaving tonight."
C.J. stopped dusting her food with parmesan cheese and stared at Abbey, the pronouncement startling her. "Why? I thought you were staying until tomorrow."
"We both know what will happen if I stay."
"We're adults, Abbey. We don't have to jump in bed every time we see each other."
"I should have told you I love you before you left Washington five years ago. I should have told you eight years ago when we first began our affair. I should have told you ten years ago when I first realized it. I should have "
"You should have known I already knew." Abbey's surprised and questioning expression made C.J. smile. "You love your husband, Abbey. For you to step outside of those vows, I knew it was because you felt more for me than you could put into words."
"You never asked."
"Why would I?" C.J. pushed her plate away, breaking the eye contact she couldn't seem to maintain. "I also knew you wouldn't leave him."
"You never asked."
C.J. scoffed. "Don't. I can take you confessing. I can take you coming and going in and out of my life. I can even take your guilt and your desire and your love. But, I can't take you offering a life I know I can't have. So, just don't. Don't." C.J.'s pleading was laced with anger, and she stood from the table, pacing the length of the room before facing Abbey again. Her tone was delicate. "If you want to come home with me tonight, then come. I want you to. But, we've both always known what we were doing. It's not right, and it's not fair, but it's what we have. It's all we have."
Abbey sighed and relaxed into her chair. "For five years, we've had very little."
"Then, we probably need to make up for lost time."
"It has never been easy to leave you."
"You always manage."
"You're the one who moved across country."
C.J. reached out a hand. "I never asked you to leave him."
"Yet here I am."
"Just for the night."
Abbey took C.J.'s hand, allowing the other woman to pull her up. "You're wrong," Abbey said as they started for the door. C.J. stopped to face Abbey when Abbey didn't continue. Catching C.J.'s eyes, she said, "We always had more than just a collection of one-night stands."
Leaning forward, Abbey touched her lips to C.J.'s, the kiss almost chaste but intense. When Abbey pulled back, C.J.'s eyes were still closed as she took a deep breath, overwhelmed by the feelings the gentle and sweet gesture provoked. Sighing, C.J. said, "Autumn has always been my favorite season."
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