Lana headed to her favorite lunch restaurant, a pleasantly relaxed trattoria that served absolutely amazing risotto al salto
. On Saturday, if she wanted a seat, she had to arrive early – the place would fill up quickly. But with her busy schedule, she was lucky to get there while they were still serving lunch.
It was busy, but there were a few tables left, and she went in, smiling at the waiters who knew her well. Lana glanced around the restaurant, wondering where she’d wind up sitting…
…and saw a very familiar profile hiding behind a menu. Recognition halted her in her tracks, sea-green eyes going wide. Is that…? No way. I’m missing him so much that I’m seeing him everywhere, that’s all. But… Unruly sandy hair, and I’d know those hands anywhere. But it can’t be, he doesn’t even know I’ve left Smallville… She walked over to the table hesitantly, half irritated if her suspicion turned out to be right, and half worried that she was about to scare a total stranger. The man’s shoulders tensed slightly as he angled the menu up, almost as though he were trying not to laugh, and that decided her.
Lana grabbed the menu and yanked it cleanly out of his hands. Richard’s broad grin and mischievous eyes looked up at her, full of amusement, and she swatted his shoulder with the menu. “Richard! What on earth are you doing here?” she asked, trying to sound angry in spite of her smile.
He caught her hand and took the menu back, kissing the backs of her knuckles as he stood up. “I came here for you,” Richard said simply, kissing her hand again as he pulled out a chair for her. Lana watched him as she sat down, irked and intrigued at the same time.
Richard seemed utterly pleased with himself as he sat down across from her, and she narrowed her eyes. “You weren’t even supposed to know I was in Milan,” Lana stated.
“Yes, well, I am a reporter, Lana,” he replied, smirking. “I have ways of finding things out.”
“Oh, so you stalked me. I see.”
Richard put his chin on his palm and beamed at her, giving Lana the annoying feeling that he knew perfectly well how irresistible he looked. A handsome man, being cute – she couldn’t decide whether to smack him for his audacity or kiss him for his charm. After a moment, the confident grin faded a bit, and Richard said quietly, “If you want me to go, I will.”
“No,” she replied. The answer needed no thought, and Lana covered his other hand with hers. “Stay. I’m glad you’re here…” That was saying too much, though, especially when his smile brightened like the sun breaking through clouds, so she changed the subject. “How long have you known?”
“Since the day you arrived in Italy,” Richard replied a trifle smugly.
“And you still asked me what was going on in Smallville? You … you…” Lana was laughing in spite of herself. “You jerk! I can’t believe you! How did you find out so quickly?”
“A good reporter never reveals his sources,” Richard replied, leaning back in his chair as the waiter arrived with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
Lana’s lack of facility in the language was revealed the moment she ordered, but her sheepish grin made the waiter smile at her anyway. Richard’s Italian was a little better than hers, and after he’d ordered he teased her about it. “Nice to see there’s at least one thing you’re not perfect at.”
“Oh, there’s a lot of things I’m very bad at,” Lana replied, sipping the wine the waiter had brought them.
“Discouraging you.” Her wry smile made it more jest than snipe, and Richard replied in kind.
“If you really wanted to discourage me, I’m sure you could,” he told her. “Luckily for us all, I get the impression you like having me around.”
Lana’s sea green eyes softened, and she dropped the teasing tone. “You’re right,” she replied softly.
He took her free hand, squeezing her fingers lightly. “I’m glad to hear it. You see, I promised the twins I’d bring you home with me. Even if I had to camp out under your window and sing bad Italian love songs.”
“Your Italian’s better than mine, but I’d hate to hear you sing badly in it.” Lana ran her thumb over his knuckles, all of the stress of her day fading.
“Yeah, well, the only Italian love song the kids know is Bella Notte,” Richard said. “So I’m pretty glad you haven’t chased me away.”
Lana chuckled. “From Lady and the Tramp? It would be appropriate.”
“Ouch,” he laughed. “That was cruel, but I gotta give it to you.”
She smiled lazily. Richard was stroking the palm of her hand lightly, moving his fingertips in tiny circles, and she was rapidly forgetting everything but the two of them. With an effort, she forced her mind away from the gentleness and consideration in that touch, and asked, “So you told the twins you were coming to get me, hmm?”
“I told them I was doing the whole knight-in-shining-armor thing,” he admitted. “Jason and Kala are still a little antsy about me being out of their sight – we got most of it taken care of over Thanksgiving, mainly because Clark was there, and he and I and Lois made the point to everyone in the family that I’m still going to be part of the twins’ lives. Ella says I’m still welcome to all the Lane family gatherings – Clark let her in on the secret, by the way.”
Lana’s eyebrows shot up at that, but it made sense. Ella Lane had seemed entirely too intelligent and observant not to figure things out on her own. And for the sake of her grandkids, she’d never breathe a word about Clark’s identity. Richard continued, “But yeah, the kids are still a bit nervy. So when I called a conference Friday to ask for some personal leave, I included them. And I pinky-swore to both of them that I would come home. I let Jason keep my watch, too, and he knows what a big deal that is. So he’s cool with it.”
“How are Lois and Clark doing with them?” Lana asked gently.
Richard grinned. “I imagine they’re having fun. Oh, speaking of those two – they decided to go ahead and let the whole office know they’re together and that he’s the twins’ father.”
Lana winced a little, and Richard hastened to correct her first impression. “No, it’s okay, really. I got to make the grand entrance and act like it was no big deal that she was sitting on his desk. Everybody’s got the idea that I’ve known all along and have been covering for them both, which is mostly true. I haven’t said anything about us, but I’ve let it be known that Lois and I parted on amicable terms and we’re still friends.” He squeezed the tips of her fingers and gave her that dazzling grin again. “Enough about me. What’ve you been up to?”
“Haven’t your mysterious sources told you everything?” Lana challenged.
“No, not everything,” he replied. “Enough to get a hotel less than two blocks from where you’re staying, but I want to know how you’ve been.”
“Stalker,” she teased. “Well, the show’s in four days, which means my job now is mostly to prevent everyone from having nervous breakdowns simultaneously. I can’t stop them from panicking, just from panicking together.”
“Like a newsroom the hour before press time,” Richard commented. “Ouch.”
“Yes, but your deadlines are daily,” Lana pointed out. “We only do a major show maybe four or five times a year, so no one gets used to the frantic last-minute pace. And you work with journalists and printers – I work with designers, seamstresses, and models.”
“Yeah, you’ve got it way worse than me,” he replied after a moment of thought.
Lana chuckled. “Yes, well, calling you every day is just about the only thing keeping me sane at this point.”
He gave her that dazzling smile again, but before Richard could make a charming and flirtatious reply, the waiter arrived with their appetizer. That ruined the moment – but when the man recognized Lana and referred to her by name, Richard grinned. “You do realize,” he said, “that if we keep being seen together, you’re going to suffer the fate of all famous women.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
“People will do that weird name-hybridization thing to us,” Richard replied. “Like Brangelina. Which would make us, what, Richana?”
“No,” Lana said automatically.
“I dunno, it’s got a nice ring to it,” Richard teased.
“No, Richard. Absolutely not.”
Christmas shopping with Superman … I would’ve never believed it. Lois chuckled, shaking her head. I would’ve thought anyone who suggested it was out of their freakin’ mind. But here we are, even if he is in civvies.
“And what’s so funny, Lois?” Clark asked her, tilting his head to glance at the amused expression on her face.
“Well, we got up early, went to breakfast – which I don’t eat except on trips and which you know…”
“Pizza at nine in morning,” was his automatic reply, grinning down at her.
She made a face at him, annoyed at being questioned on it. “That’s not breakfast; that’s an early lunch.”
“At eleven it would be an early lunch – at nine it’s a late breakfast. Besides, Lois, it’s the most important meal of the day…”
“Yes, mother, spare me,” Lois interjected, cutting off the lecture she’d heard at least twice. “As I was saying, we got up early, I mean early, went to breakfast with the kids, dropped them at my mom’s house, and now we’re in the mall. You know, that place that every sane person avoids on the weekend after Thanksgiving?”
“Which explains perfectly why we’re here,” Clark replied teasingly. “You’re crazy, and I’m crazy in love with you.”
“Smartass,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “The totally freakish thing is, there’s no one here.” Lois swept her arm out in a gesture that encompassed the entire mall.
Clark looked around, then back at Lois. “It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, Lois. Of course no one’s here. They’re all in church.”
“Oh, right,” Lois said with a sigh. There was no getting out of this now, she realized with utter dread, and braced herself for the toy-buying wars she had mostly left behind in the last couple of years. “Well, let’s make the most of it.”
An hour later, she was vindicated in all of her reasons for doing most of her shopping online every year. The mall had started filling up, and even though it wasn’t yet December, people were ill-tempered and competitive. This was the weekend of Black Friday, after all, and every single store was having a sale.
All was going well for them; three items from the lists the twins had written yesterday were already in the basket when Lois saw the Bratz doll that Kala really, really wanted, and reached for it. Another woman came out of nowhere, dove across the display, nearly crashing into Lois, and grabbed at the same box. Unfortunately for her, though, Lois had better reflexes and snatched the doll out of her grasp, making the woman almost fall to the floor. “See, this is why you don’t grab at stuff,” Lois growled, clutching the box in a death-grip. The expression on her face was of a woman who was willing to physically fight to keep her prize. “Psycho.”
“Bitch,” the other woman hissed.
Clark, watching this exchange, looked politely horrified. “Uh, ma’am? They have several more of those on this shelf – I’d be happy to get one down for you.”
“Yeah, be a hero,” Lois said under her breath, still eyeing the other woman with contempt. “Toss it to her quick or she might bite you, Clark. She looks rabid.”
With an obscene gesture and more profanity for Lois – and no thanks whatsoever for Clark – the woman disappeared into the growing throng once she got her prize. Lois retorted to the stranger’s retreating back, “Screw you, sister – I got the toy first! My kids were better than yours. They deserve it more.”
“Lois, calm down,” Clark said, looking around in embarrassment and sounding alarmed. “It’s just a toy…”
“Yeah, you weren’t around for the godforsaken Tickle-Me-Elmo craze a few years back,” she replied sharply, triumphantly putting the doll she’d snagged into the cart. “Fights broke out, people went to the hospital. I’m telling you, Christmas shopping for kids is madness. It’s a frikkin’ war zone, and your only weapon is your cart.”
“Fear me, Kent, for I am the master of shopping-cart-fu,” Lois replied sarcastically, eyes weary as they started moving again. “I’m serious – I had to practically carry the cart up to the register last year because some psycho rammed me hard enough to knock a wheel off.” Smiling in dark triumph, she added, “I got the truck Jason wanted, and it was the last one in the store.”
Clark just looked around the store, his eyes wide. The season of giving and sharing had become the season of mass commercial feeding frenzies. “You know, I usually do my Christmas shopping way ahead of time. In August.”
That seemed to break most of the tension in her. Lois snorted with laughter. “You’re a sick man, Kent.”
“Oh, hey,” Clark said, noticing an end cap. “Isn’t that the chemistry set Jason wants?”
“It’s too expensive and he’ll blow up the house,” Lois said automatically, not even looking. “Give it a couple years.”
“How about the microscope?”
“Once he sees what’s in the water, we’ll have to buy him juice every day.”
Clark could look through several aisles at once, and grinned. “Hey, they’ve got a karaoke machine…”
Lois stopped and looked up at him in horror, thinking that he clearly hadn’t heard his daughter’s attempts to sound like Celine Dion. It could be worse, though. She could be trying for Mariah Carey. She winced at the thought. “Not ‘til Kala’s voice settles a bit. She can hit notes that shatter my eardrums now; she doesn’t need amplification.”
Clark sighed at her, shaking his head. He clearly wanted to spoil the twins and Lois was making it difficult. “Okay, so what gifts are on the approved list?” he asked.
“Anything that isn’t going to require me to take more Tylenol than I already do,” Lois said, giving him a grin and taking his hand. Her smile was warm when she looked up at him. “I promise, there’s stuff they can have. You act like I’m telling you that you’re not getting this stuff.”
“All I want for Christmas is the chance to spoil them,” Clark said honestly. “It’s the first time I get to buy them presents…”
“But not the last,” Lois reminded him gently. “Keep this up, and you’ll have to buy them new cars when they’re fifteen just to top your previous gifts – and you won’t be buying them cars. Ever. If they wanna drive, they can save up like I did.”
“If they turn out to be as responsible and determined as you are, then I’ll say your plan worked,” Clark replied, ruffling her hair.
Lois glared sourly, swatting at his hand. “I wasn’t nearly as responsible as you think I was when I was seventeen.”
“Responsible seventeen-year-old girls don’t sneak into bars with fake IDs and make their grocery money playing pool against guys who can’t play in the presence of underage cleavage.” Lois arched an eyebrow and added unnecessarily, “Which Kala will not be doing. I’m responsible now because I had to take care of myself pretty much since high school, although I did a lot of irresponsible, crazy, dangerous stuff to get here.”
“Oh, and jumping out a sixtieth-story window to try and prove someone’s secret identity isn’t crazy or dangerous?”
“Not for me it isn’t,” Lois retorted, grinning. “All right, help me find the puzzle aisle. Jason needs something he can put together on Christmas Day, and something that’ll keep him busy for a few weeks.”
They navigated across the store, dodging harried shoppers and whiny kids. Just before they reached the puzzles aisle, Lois saw Clark surreptitiously trying to sneak a couple of action figures into the cart when she wasn’t looking. My God, it’s as bad as shopping with children, she thought.
Sighing, Lois caught his face in her hands and looked directly into his mournful expression. “Clark, m’love, I don’t care if you insist on paying for this trip, stop trying to single-handedly keep the store in business.”
“Lois…” he began, and in that one word she read everything, and hushed him with a finger over his lips.
“Clark, listen to me. It doesn’t matter what you buy them, you can’t make up for missing the first six years of their lives. But that wasn’t your fault. You’re part of their lives now, that’s what matters. And having you for a dad is the coolest gift they’ll ever get.” She paused, looking lovingly up at him, the crowd in the store forgotten as she fell further into those amazingly blue eyes. “Honestly, it does wonders for me, too.”
No words could express what that admission meant to him; not just that Lois wanted him in her life, but that she wanted him to be the twins’ father in actual fact, not just technical truth. She loved Jason and Kala so much, and was so fiercely protective of them, that hearing her say he was a welcome part of their family made Clark’s heart tighten in his chest. He smiled slowly, lovingly, and leaned in a little closer to her.
Lois tilted her face up … but the instant before their lips met, a kid in the next aisle started wailing for a toy. “Mommmmmeeeeeeee … I wanna wanna wanna…”
Lois and Clark both laughed, glad they’d left the twins with Ella even though they were better behaved than that little monster… “Welcome to the madhouse, ‘Daddy’,” Lois joked, cracking herself up with the absurdity of calling him that. If he addresses me as Mommy any time other than in front of the twins, I’ll just flip out. If you’d told me seven years ago… Not just that my kids would call Superman ‘Daddy’, but that I had kids at all – and if you really wanted to blow my mind, you could’ve told me back then that I’d finally break down and breed with Kent. Oh, dear God…
“Lois, you’re laughing way more than that comment entails,” Clark said, watching her with what appeared to be her own raised-eyebrow dubious look. The familiar expression only made her laugh harder. “What, exactly, is going on in that devious mind of yours?”
“You wouldn’t want to know, Kent,” Lois chuckled, elbowing his side affectionately. “Just that the kids know our names, so we don’t have to traumatize ourselves by calling each other Mommy and Daddy in front of them.”
“Sure, Lois…” Clark trailed off, certain there was more to it than that, but Lois was picking out puzzles.
“What do you think, Clark? Motorcycle or sailboat?” Lois held both boxes up, looking at them with a keen eye for difficulty and the coolness factor.
He just chuckled. “Promise me you won’t get him that one, okay?” He nodded toward one of the upper shelves, and Lois burst out laughing. The puzzle Clark was looking at was a picture of Superman, taken when he’d momentarily landed on the White House roof.
Controlling her snickers, Lois grinned up at him. “Aw, why not? They say he’s the hardest one to get.”
“Not when people really need him.” Clark kissed her forehead and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Especially certain lovely, irascible lady reporters with a penchant for falling from high places.”
“I prefer the term reckless, thank you very much,” Lois said, almost primly, and headed for the back of the store with both puzzles in the cart.
“You’ve caused so much trouble in your life, Lois, I’m surprised Santa sends you any presents at Christmas,” Clark teased her.
She halted and turned completely around, her hands behind her holding onto the cart. Smiling wickedly, Lois purred, “Clark, I’m the whole reason Santa has a naughty list.” She let her expression become a smarmy grin as she whipped back around, and added, “Hasn’t stopped me from getting presents yet.”
Clark stayed frozen in place, a wicked little smile of his own bringing a gleam to his eyes. His first thought was, Hmm, I know what I’m getting you for Christmas, Ms. Lane. And after he started following her, admiring the sway in her hips – and knowing that she knew he was watching – he also thought, The guys at the office would go wild if they saw us acting like this.
Guess they’d better get used to it sometime.
Lana had been late returning from lunch with Richard yesterday, an event that caused much speculation amongst her staff. She had never been late to anything, and Kay in particular had given her a skeptical look when she hurried out to lunch today.
She hadn’t thought about that until the waiter came to clear their table, however. Glancing at her watch, Lana realized she would be late again, not a precedent she wanted to establish. The meal had been over for a while, she and Richard just talking and delaying the moment of departure. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go,” she told him, smiling ruefully.
Richard shrugged. “I know, you’ve got a lot to do. But I’ll miss you until I see you again.”
There was such resignation in his voice that she didn’t want to leave. Not yet, anyway. But she had to get back to the hotel… Lana made an abrupt decision. “Would you like to come with me?” she asked. “I’m going to be incredibly busy, but … I suppose you could figure out how to stay out from underfoot…”
Catching her hand, Richard leaned forward to kiss her fingertips, completely unaware of how that simple gesture affected her. “I’d love to,” he replied. “Lead on.”
He paid the bill – he insisted on doing so – and walked back to her hotel. Richard was surprised to find himself pleased out of all proportion by the simple fact that Lana held his hand during the short walk. She was so strange about touch; sometimes she would seem to delight in the warmth of her hand in his, other times she would shy away from any contact. It was hard to tell why she had such contradictory reactions, and he was too drunk on her presence to try and puzzle it out.
The moment they arrived back at the hotel, however, Richard was stunned out of his current train of thought. Lana and her staff had basically taken over the old-fashioned hotel, and he walked into a downstairs conference room full of women. Mostly younger, very attractive women, who were all looking speculatively at him. He hadn’t gotten a reaction like that since sneaking into the women’s dorm in college, and sheer surprise made him flash his brilliant grin at all of them.
This was stupid, Lana thought, as every single employee (and half the married ones) returned that smile. She cleared her throat and said, “Ladies, this is Richard White. He’s…” Well, what exactly is he? ‘Boyfriend’ is far too teenage a term, ‘lover’ isn’t accurate…
“I’m Lana’s boy-toy,” Richard said, sliding his arm around her waist and beaming.
“Richard!” Lana turned to look at him, blushing, utterly scandalized, and just a bit delighted…
“Well? My own paper printed it, so it must be true.” And now that million-watt grin was just for her, which woke a flame of possessive pride in her heart.
That also provoked indulgent chuckles from most of the girls, and Lana swatted Richard on the shoulder affectionately before addressing them again. “Now ladies, I didn’t intend to distract everyone. We do have three days…”
A collective groan answered her, and Kay appeared at her side. It was the first time Kay and Richard had seen each other; he didn’t know who she was, this brunette with the short razor-cut hair and serious gray eyes, but he didn’t like the intent way she looked at him. “Boss?” Kay asked after a moment, turning to look at Lana.
“I hate it when you call me that,” Lana replied.
“You are,” Kay said. “A word?”
Lana gave a sigh, shooting Richard a long-suffering look. He shrugged; apparently this girl didn’t like anything that interfered in business. Looking around, he found himself a free seat and watched in rapt fascination as two older women operated their sewing machines at such speed that he expected to see one of them stitch her fingertips into the garments at any second.
Kay pulled Lana aside, still giving Richard little looks over her shoulder, and the redhead took a deep breath. “Kay, I should not be getting a lecture from someone nine years younger than me.”
“Yeah, well, apparently you need one,” Kay replied, crossing her arms and giving her employer an incredulous look. “What is wrong with you, Lana?”
“Nothing–” The retort was cut off by Kay’s next words.
“You ran from that? Damn! That is a fine-looking man – a little too scruffy for my taste, but … damn. Unless he’s got like a criminal past or something, go for it, lady.”
Lana’s jaw literally dropped – that was not the lecture she was expecting. “This from the woman who scolded me for being absolutely head-over-heels in love?”
“Well, you were being pretty flaky,” Kay replied. “And showing up late – it’s just not you. But seeing that, I can see why your lunch breaks are taking a bit longer.”
For the second time in five minutes, Lana blushed to match her hair. Under her breath, she muttered, “Kay, I am not sleeping with him.”
“Why not?” Kay looked over her shoulder, catching Richard in the act of returning one of the older women’s smiles with one just as dazzling as the grin he’d offered the girls. “Hell, I would.”
“Don’t get any ideas,” Lana growled, and then blushed even redder when she heard her own jealous tone. “I mean…”
Kay just snickered. “Never mind, I get the hint. Let’s get back to work.”
“Why do I get the feeling I’m going to hear about this for weeks?” Lana sighed, and quickly made her rounds of the various groups. She and Kay kept things so well organized that there wasn’t much to do in the final three days before the show, but the few tasks left were utterly critical. Soothing a few egos and calming several tempers, she wound up back in the main room…
…where Richard was accepting a glass of wine from one of the models, who really didn’t have to flash quite that much cleavage at him. To his credit, he was looking at her eyes, but Lana shot her a green-eyed glare that made the girl scurry off abruptly. Richard turned slightly in the chair as Lana came up behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders possessively. “I have this feeling that bringing you into a hotel full of younger, better-looking women was not one of my best ideas,” she said archly.
“Hey, now,” Richard replied, looking up at her. “Who says they’re better-looking? I didn’t. I happen to be highly partial to redheads.”
“I know, Lois told me,” she said, tousling his hair. “Most of them are still younger than me.”
“As if I care.” He searched her face, looking worried, then stood up quickly and caught her hand. “Is there someplace we can talk for a minute?”
“Sure…” she answered dubiously, and led him out across the hall into one of the meeting rooms that they weren’t using at present. “What is it?”
“We need to get something settled right now,” Richard replied seriously.
Lana felt a little queasy. “What’s that?”
He took a step closer and cupped her face in both hands, making her look directly at him. “I don’t care if you lead me into a room full of barely-legal bellydancers, Lana. You will still be the most beautiful woman in the room. And the only one I’m interested in.”
She blinked; that wasn’t quite what she had expected him to say. “Richard…?”
“You are amazingly gorgeous,” he told her. “Yeah, there’s about three billion other women on the planet. At least half of them are more than pretty. So what? None of them are you. You’re the reason I took personal leave and flew to Milan, not a bunch of fresh-out-of-college girls who think I’m cute. I love you. And yes, I like it when you’re possessive over me, but you don’t actually have to be. There’s no one else but you.”
For a long moment, she just stared up at him. She didn’t want to ask the question that had been lurking in her mind since the moment she saw the way the girls reacted to Richard, but in the end she couldn’t deny that she worried about it. “Even though half of those girls out there would probably go to bed with you tonight, and I won’t?”
“Lana, I spent four years in the Air Force, four years in college, and about three years after that just looking to get laid,” he replied frankly. “If that was all I was after now, I wouldn’t be worthy of you. You’re not that kind of woman – I figured that out. Believe me when I say this: I. Want. You. No one else. If you want to wait until we’re married, that’s fine. I’ll wait. You’re more than worth it.”
She had no words for the way that made her feel – loved and cherished and adored all at once. So instead of speaking, Lana slid her arms around his neck and kissed him. And as was rapidly becoming usual between them, the moment their lips met, she lost all track of time and place.
Finally drawing back, Lana looked up at him with a fey gleam in her eyes. Richard chuckled and kissed her forehead. “Of course, if you want to change your mind about the whole wait-‘til-marriage thing, there is a lock on that door.”
“Richard,” she muttered, swatting his shoulder affectionately, but her tone was much less scandalized than before. “Enough of this, I’ve got work to do.” She kissed him one last time – briefly – and turned to leave.
The moment she opened the door, however, Kay was standing there grinning and shaking her head. “I don’t even want to hear it,” the younger woman laughed. “C’mon, don’t make me separate you two.”
Lana just groaned heavily and walked past her. “And I’ll be hearing about that for months.”
Life in the Lane household was getting back to normal, and normal meant Wednesday afternoon piano lessons for Jason. Kala was over at Barbara Thomas’ house, too, even though she didn’t take piano – she played well with Barbara’s daughter Ashlyn, keeping both of them out of trouble while Jason practiced. And having the twins out of the house gave Lois and Clark another chance to go Christmas shopping and hide the gifts.
Once that was done – Lois muttering threats at the high linen closet shelf which she could barely reach, even with a stepladder, and which only required Clark to stand on tiptoe – they headed out to pick up the twins. Clark didn’t think anything of it until they were at the door, and then he suddenly wondered if Mrs. Thomas knew about the recent changes in Lois’ life…
It was already too late to wonder. The door was opening, and Barbara greeted them both with a smile. “Lois, it’s lovely to see you – and you must be Clark. Pleased to meet you.”
“I gave her the scoop,” Lois replied to his surprised expression.
“Very nice to meet you, too, Mrs. Thomas,” Clark replied, shaking her hand. She gave him an appraising look and a warm smile as she invited them inside.
He was listening for the kids, already hearing Jason on the piano, and happened to overhear Barbara’s whispered comment to Lois: “Very nice – good catch.”
“Thanks,” Lois whispered back. “He’s definitely a keeper. And he can cook.”
Chuckling – she had to know he could hear her – Clark turned his attention to Jason’s playing. He was very good for his age … and he was playing Heart and Soul.
That gave Clark a moment’s pause, remembering the Pulitzers, Lois in his arms, her mouth so close to his – and then she’d dropped the bomb of knowing his secret. Only Lois would choose to do it like that, he thought, half fondly and half exasperatedly.
The three adults went into the music room. Jason was so absorbed in his playing that he didn’t hear them, completely focused on making each note exactly right. For a long moment, Clark just watched his son, seeing an echo of himself in the intensity of Jason’ concentration. He didn’t want to break the spell of the music…
But it was soon broken for him. Kala had heard her parents arrive, and she barreled into the room with Ashlyn in tow. “Mommy! Daddy! Didja mail our Christmas lists to Santa?”
“We did,” Lois said, hugging her daughter. Jason turned around at his sister’s voice and hopped off the piano bench, hurrying over to hug Clark. Lois rumpled Kala’s hair and smiled at Ashlyn, who giggled and hid behind her mom.
“You were gone a long time,” Jason said. “I almost learned another song, but I like Heart ‘n’ Soul best.”
“There was a long line at the post office, sweetheart,” Lois said, changing the subject quickly. “I like Heart and Soul the best, too. Daddy and I danced to it at the Pulitzers.”
Both twins beamed. “When you wore the pretty gray dress?” Kala asked.
“Yes,” Clark told her. “And it is a very pretty dress, but not half as pretty as the lady who wore it.”
“Yay!” the twins cheered in unison.
“Flatterer,” Lois laughed, and kissed both twins. “Come on, you munchkins. Barbara, thank you so much.”
“It’s always a pleasure to look after them, Lois,” she replied, giving her friend a brief hug. The twins got longer hugs before they skipped out to the car, arguing over who was going to get more of the toys on their list.
Clark just slid his arm around Lois’ waist. “So you’re keeping me?”
“Unless you plan to go rocketing off to Krypton again,” she replied very quietly, tilting her face up for a quick kiss. “Do that, and you won’t be welcome on the same planet with me anymore.”
“I wasn’t welcome when I came back the first time,” Clark told her, giving her a brief, affectionate squeeze. “That dress you wore to the Pulitzers was absolute murder, I hope you know.”
“Good thing it wasn’t a rental,” she said, her eyes bright. The twins were waiting patiently beside the Audi in Barbara’s driveway, giggling over the silly affectionate antics of their parents.
“So I’ll get to see you in the pretty dress again?” Clark asked, lightly teasing.
“And out of it,” Lois whispered, kissing him again quickly.
“Stop kissin’ and let’s go!” Kala called. “I’m hungry, and you promised we’d make cookies!”
“As if Barbara didn’t feed you two heathens,” Lois grumbled. “Fine, fine, we’re coming. Hold on.” She and Clark shared one more look full of amusement before they opened the car doors for Jason and Kala.
Once inside and buckled up, Clark looked in the rearview mirror and winked at Jason and Kala. “Hey, you two. Remind me later there’s something I have to ask you.”
Lana and Kay had planned to arrange a catered dinner party for everyone after the show, but when two finished white dresses got splashed with red wine the night before, everyone who could run a sewing machine or cut fabric was pressed into service trying to recreate them. Even Richard found himself playing peacemaker amongst the panicking seamstresses and running out for coffee or bottled water. They finished in unheard-of time, but the dinner plans were basically scrapped as Kay and Lana hurried on with the show.
At the end of the day, however, all of the exhausted women came back to the hotel to find that Richard had taken it upon himself to contact a catering service while they trooped off to the show without him. They had dinner waiting for them when they arrived back hungry and tired. He’d done it all on his own tab, as well – the thoughtfulness and generosity of it impressed Lana enough that she kissed him in front of all of her employees, most of whom giggled in delight.
As the champagne was being drunk and the buffet demolished, Lana headed upstairs to her suite. She’d stayed only long enough to personally thank everyone. After the hectic pace of the past few days – and two hours of sleep the night before – all she wanted was a chance to relax and unwind.
Richard was waiting for her, however, standing outside her room with a bottle of champagne, two glasses, and a tray of hors d’oeuvres. She looked at him with raised eyebrows, folding her arms and waiting for an explanation.
“You have to eat something,” he said, gently chiding. “And a glass of champagne won’t kill you. You deserve some celebration after pulling that off today – nobody else I know could’ve fixed a mix-up that big, that fast.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “But champagne’s probably not a good idea right now…”
“It’ll put you to sleep,” he said. “And you need the rest. You were still up when I finally went to bed, and you got up before me, too.”
“I’m so worn out I could fall asleep right here,” Lana murmured, and went to him. She leaned against his shoulder as she nibbled a canapé.
With both hands full, Richard couldn’t put his arms around her like he wanted to, so he had to settle for kissing her cheek. “Don’t fall asleep out here. Open the door, have a little more to eat, and fall asleep in your room. It’s gotta be much more comfortable than this floor.”
She chuckled softly. “You really want to be in the gossip pages again, don’t you?”
“You’ve got a balcony,” he retorted. “We’ll eat out there, with the entire city as our chaperone.”
“Still wind up in the papers,” Lana replied, but she unlocked the door and led him through the rooms.
Richard was quite impressed by the suite – it was huge by his standards, and the balcony outside was almost the size of some motel rooms he’d stayed in while traveling on the newspaper’s budget. A small table and two chairs gave them enough space to eat and drink in comfort, Lana going very easy on the champagne.
She sat back at last, licking a crumb off her lip in a totally unconscious way that made Richard’s heart stutter. Looking lazily over at him, she smiled slowly. “There’s only one problem.”
“What’s that?” he said, seeing the warmth in her gaze. It was only one drink…
“Now I’m awake,” Lana replied with a quiet laugh, getting up and walking to the balustrade. “And I know myself, it’ll be a few hours before I fall asleep again.”
“You must be the only woman on earth whom alcohol doesn’t make sleepy,” Richard remarked, polishing off the last bit of prosciutto-wrapped cheese. He got up from the table and went to her cautiously, but Lana didn’t back away as she so often had during the past few days.
Lana leaned against the railing, looking out over the city, and she gave a sigh in pure contentment as Richard slid his arms around her. He was standing behind her, his chin on her shoulder, and she felt wrapped up in him as if he were a warm, comforting blanket. Her eyes slid closed as she murmured, “Thank you.”
“For what?” he asked gently, leaning on her just the slightest bit.
“For dinner tonight,” she replied, her voice growing softer as Richard kissed her shoulder very lightly. “And for coming here at all. You really are … so very…”
Her voice trailed off; she had tilted her head when he started kissing her shoulder, intending only to make her long hair fall out of his way. Richard took it as an invitation, however, and began kissing his way up to her neck. His mouth on bare skin just below her ear brought her train of thought to a sudden halt and sent a shiver down her spine.
Richard took a step forward, pressing close against her as he nuzzled her neck. No more than this, you know she’s jumpy; he told himself sternly. But he couldn’t resist one more kiss at the curve of her jaw, and felt Lana lean back against him with a languid sigh…
…seconds before she suddenly tried to pull away. “Richard, no,” she whispered, her voice sounding strained. “We shouldn’t…”
“Why not?” he asked, getting a little frustrated. Lana had pulled the come-here-go-away act on him several times in only a few days, usually without any warning. “It’s only a little necking…”
“Richard,” she said quietly, and now there was a note of sadness as well. “We … we can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
He sighed sharply, ruffling her hair with his breath, and heard her gasp. “Lana, listen, I’m not trying to seduce you. Especially not now, when you’ve had a glass of champagne and I know you’re not a drinker,” Richard said, surprised to hear a hint of anger in his own voice. “You don’t have to flinch like I’m some kind of convicted rapist every time I touch you.”
That startled a laugh out of her. “It’s not that!”
“Then what is it?” Richard gave her some space, totally confused now, but his hands on the railing to either side of her prevented Lana from sidling away. “Seriously. You’ll let me hold your hand or kiss you, but then you run away from anything more than that. I mean, you act like I’m going to drag you away by the hair and ravish you if I kiss you more than twice in the same hour! Please, whatever’s going on, let me know, all right?”
“Whatever’s going on?” She sounded totally disbelieving, and just a bit angry herself.
“Well something’s clearly wrong here…”
“You want to know what’s wrong?” Lana twisted in his arms so that she faced him, her eyes blazing. “Fine, you asked for it.” With that, she grabbed his belt and yanked him tight against her, the other hand running into his hair and pulling him down for a kiss.
And what a kiss. Richard would have said he’d never been kissed like that out of bed, but he’d never been kissed like that in bed, either. As he pinned her against the railing and returned the hungry kiss, the only coherent thought in his mind was, Damn, I thought Lois was hot-blooded… I guess everything they say about redheads is true…
Lana only broke away when she needed air, and looked up at him with that same fierce desire in her eyes. “That’s what’s wrong, Richard,” she said, panting for breath.
He shivered and tightened his arms around her. “Lady, there was nothing wrong with that. Trust me.”
“Richard…” she murmured, and belatedly realized she was still holding his belt. Blushing furiously, Lana let go and placed both hands on his chest as if to hold him away from her.
“Well?” The irritation was gone from his voice, replaced by warmth and a touch of bewilderment. “Please, tell me how on earth that could be wrong.”
“Because I’ve never wanted anyone that much,” she said in a rush. “Because everything I am, everything I’ve done, I built by myself, and I’m used to running my own life now, I’m used to being independent. I don’t want to give that up, but my heart isn’t listening to me anymore. Because I’d give you anything, and that scares me half senseless.” She took a deep breath and met his eyes as she added, “When I’m with you, I turn into the stupid light-headed besotted romantic teenager I never was. And I am far too close to forty to be acting like this.”
Richard kissed her forehead gently, then her brow. “Lana, Lana, I’m not trying to take advantage of you. I love you. Yeah, love is scary – you think I wasn’t scared to chase you halfway across the world, knowing you might kick me out for stalking you? The only time in my life I’ve been this much in love and this terrified was when I met the twins.”
That wasn’t what she expected to hear, and Lana looked up at him, startled. A jealous little voice in her mind whispered, He wasn’t even like this over Lois…
“I’d never wanted to be a dad – I liked kids well enough, but I wasn’t out there trying to get married and start a family. I met Jason and Kala, though, and they stole my heart. I loved them before I ever loved their mom; she fascinated me, and I was attracted to her, but I had to grow to love her. The twins, though, I loved them on sight. And it scared the hell out of me how much I cared about them.” He kissed the bridge of her nose. “It’s been like that with you. I wouldn’t let myself think it when we first met, but from the moment I saw you…”
Lana leaned up to kiss him again, slower this time, lingering and loving. “I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you, too,” he replied. Some of that familiar mischief gleamed in his eyes, and Lana knew he was about to break the solemn mood a moment before he said, “And you’re nowhere near forty.”
“Richard,” she heaved a sigh, leaning back from him a little. “Do you know how old Clark is?”
“Three years older than me,” he replied. “What does that have to do with it?”
“I went to school with him,” she said. And when understanding still didn’t dawn in his eyes, Lana elaborated, “We were in the same grade, Richard.”
“You’re… Damn. I thought you were younger than me.”
She cut him an annoyed look. “Yes, well, I’ve known from the moment we met that your ex is five years younger than me.”
“And that matters to me because?” Richard challenged. “I didn’t fall in love with your age or your zodiac sign, Lana; I fell in love with you.”
“Say that in ten years, when I’m pushing fifty and you can still pass for forty,” she said, hearing her own voice get a trifle snappish.
“Oh, stop it,” Richard said, tightening his arms around her again. “You know what? Almost forty or not…”
He leaned in close and whispered into her ear, making Lana gasp. She’d been trying to pull away slightly, expecting him to kiss her, but the things he was saying… Eyes wide, she pressed her cheek against his as her hands gradually tightened on the fabric of his shirt.
Richard was very, very careful in what he chose to say – this was Lana, and a certain level of propriety had to be observed. But he managed to tell her what he would’ve liked to do this evening, if she wasn’t both tired and under the influence, without being too explicit.
When he could feel the warmth of her blush against his face, as well as her constant trembling, Richard laughed softly. “Does that sound like I care in the least about anything but you?” he asked her.
Not expecting a reply – and he wouldn’t have gotten one at that point – he kissed her neck, her cheek, and her lips as he drew back from her gently. Lana watched him with an absolutely dazed expression as he loosened her grasp on his shirt and kissed her cheek again. “I’ve got to leave,” Richard whispered, and she heard desire trembling in his voice, making her eyes slide closed again. “Before I do something we’d both regret. But not until later – I’d make sure we didn’t regret it until later.”
Lana didn’t trust herself to look at him or to speak, leaning back against the balustrade as he picked up the champagne bottle and the tray. She had to hold on to the railing to keep her balance, suddenly dizzy as if his whispered promises had made her more drunk than a dozen bottles of champagne. Only once he was gone, and her breathing was somewhat back under control, could she whisper to the cool night air, “Oh, dear God…”