Summer of Fun
There were really only two ways that the Fourth of July could go in Florida. It could be hot and humid… or it could be hotter and more humid. So, how could any of them have expected this year to be any different?
Claire hadn't, though. She'd known it would be hot and muggy from the previous day's rain. She'd also known that things wouldn't go quite as smoothly as they always did, either.
It might have been Aunt Tilly forgetting to bring the hotdog buns that gave her the first inkling of dread. Or maybe it was her cousin, Charlie, adding sugar, instead of salt, into the salad dressing. Either way, Claire was fairly certain that this year's Fourth of July would not be a pleasant experience.
Ian, of course, in his sunshine and puppy dogs manner, attempted to convince his best friend otherwise.
"Stop being so pessimistic, Princess. A couple of bad omens doesn't have to mean that things are going to go terribly wrong. Just try to enjoy yourself, huh?"
That was before baby Tommy, Claire's older brother's son, had smashed the glass Tupperware container that housed his mother's famous lemon meringue tart. It was also before the youngest Johnson, Tyler, managed to get his hands into Mrs. Johnson's chocolate pudding.
But it wasn't just the food. Somehow, Claire's father had managed to pick up the wrong decorations and plastic-ware.
"I wasn't paying attention!" he claimed, holding up a bag of "Happy Birthday" themed plates, cups, and napkins. And the tablecloths for the picnic tables weren't any better.
By that time, even Ian looked bashful and guilty. They were walking through the backyard, having been assigned the job of rounding up all the fireworks, and he finally admitted that Claire may have been right in her assumption that the Fourth of July would be kind of a little bit disastrous this year.
"Okay, maybe things aren't turning out as great this year. But whatever, we're still on for swimming and fireworks, right?"
"Course we are, Rex. Just cause the barbecue's burning to the ground doesn't mean we can't keep up with tradition. Jamie told me she wanted to camp out in the treehouse with us, and I told her she could as long as she brought the supplies for the s'mores."
Ian smiled, mussing with his dark hair and pulled Claire into his side.
"What you should have told her is that she wouldn't be allowed entrance unless she brought some of her mom's s'more brownies. Damn those things are good."
His expression became wistful as he thought of Mrs. DeMarco's delectable brownies. She brought them to the barbecue every year and they were a surefire hit each time.
Claire pinched his side, grinning in kind. "Either way, she'll never make it."
"Good. The annual Fourth of July sleepover is our tradition," Ian said, allowing his snarky side to show through. Although Jamie was his cousin, there were certain things he didn't want to share, even with her.
Claire took on a sudden expression of realization as Ian dragged her along through the McAllister's backyard. All around them, their families were setting up for the big barbecue later that day. She noticed her middle brother, John, helping their father bring out a couple of bags of coal. Her grin widened when one of the bags tore at the corner and all the lumps of coal went tumbling to the ground.
"Hey, Rex?" Claire said, twisting the end of her All-Time Low band t-shirt. She pushed a lock of honey-colored hair out of her eyes as the wind swept across the yard.
Ian wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention at all, his gray-eyed gaze concentrated instead on the stack of sparklers near the fence.
Claire bit her lip, smiling as she stared up at his concentrated expression.
"Um, don't you think we're a little too old for coed sleepovers?" she asked.
Ian turned to look down at her and smirked devilishly.
"Actually, I was under the impression that we were too young," he said.
Claire glared up at him.
"Guys have sick minds, you know that?" she said.
"Yet you still manage to sleep with them," he replied easily.
He dropped his arm, which was around her shoulder, lower until he was grasping her waist. She squirmed around and the intensity of her glare increased.
"Sleep WITH, not SLEEP with. Or SLEEP with, not sleep WITH. Whichever one involves 100 percent N-O sex involved, got that?"
"Sure thing, Princess."
Ian chuckled lowly and the sound caused a ringing in Claire's ears. She shivered, yanking off his arm.
"Ugh. Let's just round up all the fireworks, huh?"
But most of the second half of Claire's statement was drowned out as a clap of thunder erupted across the sky.
Guests started arriving to the McAllister's by five o'clock. The whole thing was more of a block party than a Fourth of July deal. People brought food, screaming kids, and any fireworks they wanted to set off, and the McAllisters and Johnsons were more than happy to oblige.
This year, however, Mrs. Martin from across the street and her husband and three children were on an expedition (who knew?) to India and would not be attending. Consequently, this meant that Mrs. Martin's delectable, famous, home-made mac and cheese would not be attending either.
With this knowledge at hand, Claire found herself upstairs in her bedroom staring dejectedly down at the backyard. The festivities had begun some time ago. The younger children were running amock anywhere they could squeeze themselves, the women were grouped around the swimming pool with martinis in hand and babies on knee, and the men had congregated around Mr. McAllister's brand new Grill Master 5000.
Claire sighed. Well, it seemed the barbecue was going on without any foreseeable dangers. Yet as the thought crossed her mind, she noticed her father's sleeve catch light on the coals. In seconds, he was jumping around trying to put out the flames.
Claire moved away from the window to begin dressing for the party. Her mother had bought her a brand new dress, a strapless pink number with giant white polka dots all over it. She slipped out of her clothes and had just begun to slip into the dress, when Ian barged through the door.
As Claire screamed, Ian tripped over her flat iron lying on the ground and landed on his stomach across the orange carpet.
"Ian Bradley Johnson! What the hell is wrong with you?" Claire yelled, holding the pink polka dotted dress up in front of herself so that Ian would be spared the trauma of seeing her nearly naked. "Get out! You're worse than my brothers, Rex!"
Ian scrambled off the floor, his long limbs tangling all over themselves, and crab-walked toward the door.
"Sorry, sorry, Princess! I thought—"
"Don't you know how to knock?" Claire continued.
Her best friend finally managed to stand up and backed over to the door with his hands up.
"Look, Claire, I thought you'd be ready by now!"
"Well, obviously, I'm still in the process, aren't I?"
Ian winced, scratching the back of his neck, and turned around. He waved his hand at her.
"Go on, I won't look. Just put some clothes on so we can get downstairs. I'm hungry as hell."
Just for good measure, Claire snuck over to her bed and tossed Mr. Snuffles, the stuffed panda bear, at the back of Ian's head. He grumbled something under his breath, but didn't turn around.
After making sure he would keep his word about not looking, Claire slipped on her dress.
"Rex?" she said meekly.
Ian turned around and raised an eyebrow. "What?"
She gestured vaguely at her back with one hand while holding the front of the dress tight to her chest.
"Zip me up?"
Ian sighed, but came up to her anyway. His nimble hands dropped to the small of her back and tugged up the zipper in one fluid motion. He was so close that Claire could feel his warm breath on her shoulder.
Ian rested his hands on her hips from behind, and lowered his lips to the back of her neck.
"Well, don't you look like a princess, Princess," he whispered, and dropped a feather light kiss right behind her ear.
Claire shivered. "T-Thanks," she mumbled.
Ian stepped away after another second or two. "Come on, come on, finish getting ready, will you?"
Claire snapped out of whatever daze she'd been in and nodded. That was odd. It almost felt like her heart was fluttering. She put a hand over her chest and looked over at Ian who was leaning against the frame of her door reading one of her Cosmos.
"I didn't know you liked reading Cosmopolitan, Rex," Claire teased, grinning.
Ian rolled his gray eyes and smirked.
"Only for the What Kind of Lingerie Accentuates YOUR Figure Best? article."
Claire sighed and turned back to her vanity. She finished playing with her hair when she was sure it sat absolutely perfect, and then finally walked over to her best friend.
"Come on, Rex, time for food."
Ian dropped the magazine on Claire's dresser and allowed her to drag him out of the room.
She twined their fingers together and pulled him along down the stairs and out to the backyard where, it seemed, the whole world had gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July.
"There you are, Claire. Darling, do me a favor, won't you?"
They'd barely stepped off the deck and Mrs. McAllister was already swooping in to assign chores. Claire nodded, pulling on hers and Ian's locked hands so that he was forced flush against her back.
"Sure thing, Mom. What's up?"
Mrs. McAllister's green eyes, which she'd bestowed on Claire, lit up.
"Honey, all I need you to do is butter the corn."
Claire looked up at her mother.
"Butter… the… corn?"
"Yes, dear. The corn Mr. Johnson bought got… misplaced. Your cousin Christopher should have two more boxes in his car. Just bring them into the kitchen and butter them so your father can grill them up for later."
"Come on, Princess. Between me and you, it'll take like five minutes," Ian said from behind her.
Mrs. McAllister grinned and patted his cheek.
"Thank you, Ian. I owe you guys."
"No problem, Mrs. M."
Ian tugged Claire through the gate near the left corner of the fence, until they reached the driveway. He stopped so suddenly that Claire ran straight into his back.
"What? What is it, Rex?"
She peeked out from behind his shoulder and gasped. The driveway, and much of the rest of the street, was completely filled with cars. There had to be at least fifty, Claire figured.
"Which—Which one is Christopher's?" Ian asked in a tone so low that Claire thought he seemed almost… frightened.
"No flippin idea."
But it seemed that not all of the gods were out on break that day, because the boy in question, Claire's older cousin Chris, soon pulled up across the street in a black Ford Mustang and yelled out to them.
"Hey, CeeCee! Y'all here for the corn?"
Claire dropped Ian's hand and ran over to the edge of the driveway. She bent low in order to peer into the car and, sure enough, Chris was sitting in the driver's seat. He grinned widely and beckoned her over.
"The corn's just in the back there, CeeCee. Who's that guy over there?"
Chris's hazel-eyed gazed dropped behind Claire to where Ian was standing, a few feet away.
"Oh, that's Ian. You remember Ian, don't you, Chris-Chris?"
Christopher's eyes widened. "The little boy in the T-Rex footy pajamas? Damn, he sure as hell grew up, didn't he?"
Claire grinned and turned back to Ian. A handsome blush had blossomed over his nose and cheeks at hearing Chris's question. She had a clear picture of him as a four-year-old, green and blue footy pajamas, and a big, fat swollen nose from when he'd run into a bar in the jungle gym at the park. That was the first time she'd met him.
He'd just stepped off the plane from Seattle and had been sleeping the whole ride over. Mr. and Mrs. McAllister had offered to let the Johnsons, their best friends from back in college and old neighbors from years before, stay at their place until the renovations in their new house were done. Claire had found the intrusion quite unpleasant.
"Those are ugly jammies," she'd said, cranky and drowsy from being woken up.
Ian began to cry immediately.
"Say you didn't mean that, say it! Take it back!"
Claire stuck out her tongue.
"I did mean it, though."
Ian looked at her with teary eyes.
"Well… Well, you know what? You look gross in that princess thing. It's all pink and yellow… blech."
And that was about the time Claire had pushed him on the ground and run back to her room. They were forced to meet again, of course, the next day, and the day after that. It wasn't until about a week after the Johnsons had arrived that Claire finally started being civil to Ian. Their first meeting was also how their nicknames had developed, and they'd stuck together all those years.
"Yes, he did," Claire said, and turned back to Chris.
Chris's eyes glimmered as he asked, "So, you two finally hooked up? I saw yah holding hands."
Claire blushed, hoping beyond hope that Ian hadn't heard that last question. She risked a peek and found that, yes, he'd most definitely heard, if the way his ears had turned red was any indication.
"No, of course not, Chris-Chris. Stop jumping to conclusions," she said. "We've always just been friends. You know that."
"Oh, sure, darlin'. Well, either way, the corn's in the back. I've got to go on an ice run for your mom so be quick about it."
Claire nodded and, together with Ian, they grabbed the two boxes of corn-on-the-cob. There was another roll of thunder overhead as they walked back into the yard. Claire dearly wished that the endless rain would spare them that day. Her parents and the Johnsons had worked too hard on the barbecue and so many things had already gone wrong.
"Oh, shit," Ian mumbled.
Claire had just enough time to duck out of the way as a Frisbee came flying at her face when they entered the gate. Ian, not so lucky, was unfortunate enough to take a beating.
"Rex? Rex! Are you okay?"
Claire dropped the box of corn she'd been holding and kneeled down beside her groaning best friend.
"Ahh, that friggin' hurt," Ian complained.
He sat up, rubbing his left cheekbone where a nasty red blotch was starting to come up. Claire cracked a grin when she knew he was alright.
"You got your ass kicked by a Frisbee, sweetie."
Ian's head snapped down to look at her and his expression twisted into one of sarcastic annoyance.
"Mind helping me up, Princess? As if today could honestly get any worse."
But his words were taboo, for as he said them, the pair heard a loud crash and then a string of curses. Claire looked behind them and found her mother and Mr. Johnson on the ground in front of the deck stairs. Beside them lay a large, very much overturned, container of grilled chicken and a spilled jug of lemonade. Little Tommy was crying in his grandmother's arms.
"No! God no, not the chicken," Mrs. McAllister scrambled around, with Tommy still in her arms, after recovering from the fall and began to pick up strewn pieces of food. "James, how did you miss me coming out of the house?"
"Sadie, I'm sorry, I was trying to let your husband know he was too close to the grill again. I'm sorry."
Claire shook her head sadly. Her father's grilled chicken was some of the best around, and now it was laying in the dirt for the worms to feast on. She turned back to Ian who was trying not to laugh.
"All of this is so ridiculous," he said. "I can't even imagine how the fireworks are going to go."
Well, by the time that it was dark enough for fireworks, Ian himself was sporting several burns from the grill and a couple of bruises from all the kids running around everywhere.
"At least we managed to get through the first part of the day without someone in the emergency room," Claire said.
They were getting ready to jump in the pool, already changed and waiting for the fireworks to get started. Ian looked up at her with a stricken expression on his face. He set down his towel and stood up straight.
"Don't jinx it, Princess. If someone did end up in the hospital it'd most likely be me or your dad."
He held up his bandaged hands and then gestured at his bruised cheekbone and the cut on his stomach from cousin Leila playing with the silverware.
"I'll put some burn cream on those burns tonight in the treehouse. Not to worry, darling. And besides, Rex, weren't you telling me not to be pessimistic just this morning?"
"I've learned my lesson. I think I'm done being blindly optimistic. It has bad consequences."
Ian grimaced as he lowered himself into the pool. Claire followed behind him, adjusting her one-piece, open-backed bathing suit as she did. Their fathers were setting up the fireworks with their older brothers, while their mothers and sisters were serving ice cream to the other guests.
Gwen, Claire's oldest sister, brought over a cone of vanilla with a cherry on top for Ian and a cone of plain chocolate for Claire. Happily, they accepted the ice cream with wet hands and devoured it quickly before any of the treats had an opportunity to leak in the pool. By the time they'd finished, the fireworks were ready to be set off (Mr. McAllister was standing off to the side tending to a rather nasty burn on his left arm).
Despite the disastrous nature of the day, Claire found the fireworks to be just as amazing as always. Hers and Ian's families had outdone themselves with rockets and sparklers and wheels and all sorts of different displays of light. Of course, as in the tradition of the rest of the day, one of the fireworks caught a tree on its way down and flames erupted soon enough.
It wasn't a problem however, as not five minutes later, the skies opened up and let down a torrent of rain. Claire giggled as the fire in the tree fizzled out and the adults began gathering up children and food to run back inside.
"I guess our sleepover's starting early," she told Ian, who was staring up at the sky.
He looked down again and grinned at her. Something seemed to catch his eye behind her and he yelled out, "Hey, Jamesy, you stayin' with us tonight?"
Claire turned around just in time to catch Jamie DeMarco running past them.
"I ate all the graham crackers and marshmallows and chocolate. I'll just see y'all tomorrow," she called back.
"Sure thing, cuz. See you tomorrow!"
Claire laughed at the smile on Ian's face and gasped as he tackled her in the shallow end of the pool. He wrapped his arms around her middle and threw her over his shoulder to carry out of the water.
"Rex! T-Rex, put me down!"
Ian simply laughed, opting to ignore her cries rather than heed them. He grabbed their towels and ran all the way back to the house with her slung over his shoulder. It was only when they were out of the rain, in the kitchen, that he set her back on her feet.
"There, now. You know I was just watching out for you. Lightning and water really don't mix," he said, wrapping a towel around her shoulders.
Claire rolled her eyes.
"Come on, come on. Let's get up to the treehouse before it gets any worse out there."
Ian nodded and the pair began to squeeze their way through the din in the kitchen. There were altogether too many people in the room and not nearly enough room for all of them. They'd just about reached the staircase, when Claire's brother, John, stopped them.
"Hey, you guys heading out to the treehouse?" he asked.
Claire nodded. Ian had stopped behind her and had his hands on her hips again. John's green eyes, which matched his sister's, dropped straight down to where Ian was holding her and raised an eyebrow.
"Aren't you getting a little old for these sleepovers, CeeCee?" John said. "I mean, you're almost seventeen… And—And he's almost eighteen."
Claire rolled her eyes. "That's what I said. But this goofball thinks we're fine."
Ian's hands left her hips and traveled up to her shoulders.
"Don't blame me, Princess. Tradition is tradition, and if today was any indication, tradition must be kept with."
"Watch, we're going to fall right out of that tree tonight. Things have been bad all day," Claire answered.
John still looked skeptical.
"Well, if you're hell-bent on 'keeping up with tradition,' just be safe, okay? I have enough nieces and nephews as it is, without you two adding to the bunch… especially so early. Maybe in like, ten years when you're happily married it'll be okay, but definitely not right now."
"John Benjamin McAllister! We are just friends, thank you very much. There will be no funny business up in that treehouse tonight, I can assure you of that."
John nodded, as if Claire's outburst was enough reassurance for him, and allowed them to carry on up to her room.
"Ugh, I don't think I can handle much more of my family's teasing," Claire said to Ian.
Ian nodded and shut her bedroom door behind him. He shook out his wet hair, spilling water all over the carpet, and then flopped down on her bed.
"Go change and do whatever you have to do," he said. "I'll get the snacks and stuff from my mom."
Claire nodded and rushed into the bathroom, too cold from the house's air conditioning to argue with him. She quickly changed, pulling on her pajamas and then washed out her hair a little, before returning to her bedroom where Ian was laying on her bed.
"Ready to go? The rain any worse?" she asked as she pulled a hairbrush through her hair.
Ian looked up at her. "Claire Bear, darling, if I may?"
"You will, even if I say no, so go ahead. What is it?"
He sat up at peered over at her by the vanity. She was wearing barely-there shorts and a tank top.
"Are you going out to the treehouse or to a sorority sleepover? You'll freeze to death, Princess," Ian explained.
Claire rolled her eyes, watching him from the mirror, and found him staring at the back of her legs.
Ian's cheeks tinged with pink as he replied, "Oh, nothing, nothing. I was just admiring your beautiful legs."
Claire's cheeks colored too and she felt, for a moment, like throwing her hairbrush at him. Instead, she smiled sweetly and answered in kind.
"Thanks. If I'd known I'd be ogled at by my best friend, I would have worn those plaid jammies that my grandmother got me last year."
Ian cringed. "Definitely would have been a bad idea. Those pajamas are so big I'm always scared you'll get eaten up by them. Then where would I be?"
Claire set down her hairbrush and approached him. She stopped in front of where he was sitting on the bed and, taking his face between her hands, she said, "Lost. Utterly and completely lost. That's where you'd be. Now, let's get going."
"Finally, thank God."
The pair made their way downstairs after grabbing their sleeping bags and snacks and did their best to sneak past all the people still crowded in the kitchen and family room. Really, the guests couldn't be blamed. It was only nine o'clock or so and their party had been cut short by the rain. At least a substantial amount of fireworks had been set off, so the night hadn't been a complete loss. Claire figured everyone would stick around for another couple of hours, and she was more than happy to be getting out of the house.
Ian grabbed Claire's hand when they reached the sliding glass doors of the kitchen that led out to the pool.
"Ready? Let's sprint it," he said, looking down at her.
Claire nodded and they made a break for the oak tree near the back of the yard. The thing was hard to miss, tall and strong on its own, and the family had decorated it with lights and streamers for the party. Now, of course, all their hard work was sopping wet and torn up, but the lights were still working and the treehouse still looked to be holding up. That was all that mattered, Claire thought. As long as they could still camp out, all was well. Even if it was raining.
When they reached the foot of the tree, Ian hoisted her up on the ladder and helped her through the main hole on the ground of the treehouse. It wasn't very high up, and even the ladder only had three rungs, so Ian followed easily soon after. They yanked open the door of the main room and staggered in, landing in a heap on the floor.
"Oh, my gosh. Why don't I ever listen to you?" Claire whined.
She rubbed at her arms and legs in an effort to get warm. Her clothes were dripping wet, as was her hair, and she shivered from the wind that snuck in through the cracks in the treehouse.
Ian sighed, shaking his head, and opened up his duffel bag.
"You're just lucky you have me to look after you," he muttered.
As he sifted through all the food in the bag, Claire stood up to look around the treehouse a little bit. Even though it was tradition for her and Ian to spend the night after the Fourth of July barbecue up here, they never touched the treehouse otherwise. Of course, their younger siblings and various family members used it all the time; that's why it was there—for the kids. But Ian and Claire didn't spare the wooden structure a second glance until all the barbecue planning began.
The treehouse had been around for as long as Claire could remember, having been built by her father and Mr. Johnson when their oldest children were young, and it was just a part of the family now, like an extension of their homes. The structure itself was well-built but simple, with one big room and a few windows here and there. But Claire found that it was much more enjoyable for its simplicity and probably wouldn't have been as inviting had it been built more complexly.
Claire broke out of her daydream and looked over at Ian. He was holding out a folded white button-down.
"Were you planning to hit up a club in the middle of the night or something? This isn't exactly sleepover clothing, Rex."
Ian pushed a few strands of brown hair out of his eyes and grinned cheekily.
"Alright, alright. You caught me. I just wanted to see you wearing my shirt, that's all."
Claire blushed. She knew he was joking, but the comment still sounded weird for some reason. As she thought more about it, she realized that all of his flirty jokes were making her feel strange. It had been happening the entire day.
"Princess? Are you going to change or what?"
Claire looked down at his questioning expression and nodded, accepting the shirt.
Just as he had done earlier in her room, Ian turned around to allow Claire to change in peace. The wind was howling and almost drowned out his next words.
"Ah, so your mom packed us a secret stash of lemon meringue tart."
Claire giggled as she pulled off her soaked tank top. Her shorts came next. Ian's shirt probably wasn't going to make much of a difference, but it would be longer on her than her shorts had been.
"She would keep a secret stash. I can't believe we didn't get to have any of Mrs. Martin's mac and cheese. That's always my favorite," she replied.
Ian made a sound of agreement and began shuffling around. Claire figured he was getting out of his wet clothes as well. She buttoned up the long dress shirt that he'd given her, then sat down to wait until he was finished.
Uncontrollably, when Claire took a seat on the wooden floor, her green eyes traveled over to Ian. He still had his back to her, gentleman as he was, and he was working on getting his shirt off around the cut on his stomach. Admittedly, the cut wasn't bad—it had been from a butter knife, after all—but Ian claimed it still "hurt like a mother effer."
Claire bit her lip, her eyes drawn invariably up to his tanned back. He was a soccer player at school, which meant his body had been acclimated to massive amounts of conditioning and exercise. She could see that in the muscles in his back as he twisted around. Her gaze dropped lower to the soccer shorts he was wearing and even lower to his flip-flop clad feet. She was checking him out, she knew, but the rain outside was making her feel funny and she couldn't help where her eyes strayed.
"Babe, could you help me out here?"
Claire snapped out of her daze and stood up quickly to help him.
"What's going on? Want me to pull it off?"
"If you could," Ian said, his voice muffled.
Claire did as she was told, gingerly peeling away his t-shirt and he sighed in relief when it was finally off.
"Oh, God. That feels so much better," he breathed.
Claire stared at his chest for a moment, only looking away when she felt her cheeks becoming warm. She set his t-shirt down on the floor.
"That cut looks bad, Rex," she murmured, even though they both knew it didn't. They'd bandaged it earlier, but hadn't treated the cut yet.
Ian looked down as though seeing the gash for the first time. He shrugged.
"Eh, it just stings a bit now. I think I overreacted earlier."
Claire cracked a grin. It was true. He had overreacted. But she decided to baby him.
"No, no. It looked terrible before. Let's get the sheets and sleeping bags out and then I'll treat your battle scars," she said.
"Ha. Ha. Aren't you just darling?"
Despite Ian's subsequent protests about being treated, they managed to set up the bed sheets on the ground and then laid out their sleeping bags.
"Okay, now then, I have burn cream for your fingers and antiseptic lotion for your cut. I've got some painkillers for that nasty bruise on your cheek, too, if you want it."
Claire held up a bottle of Tylenol but Ian shook his head.
"I don't want any of that stuff. I'll be fine," he said.
Claire gave him a look that told him he should probably stop arguing. Ian shut his mouth and slumped forward, silent.
"Thanks. Now lay back. I'll get your stomach first."
He scooted over to his sleeping bag and laid down so that Claire could have better access to his stomach. She twisted open the tube of antiseptic cream.
"This is going to be a little cold," she said.
Ian nodded and waited for her to start applying it. His eyes trailed over her, but Claire pretended she didn't see him staring.
"I was right. You do look sexier in that shirt than Mandy Alvarez," he said.
Claire, in the process of squeezing some lotion onto her finger, stopped and looked up at him. Ian's silver eyes were sparkling in mischief, yet she couldn't help the tint of pink that swept over her cheeks. She ducked her head and continued what she'd been doing.
Ian hissed when, after pulling up the bandage, her fingers finally made contact with his skin. Claire had warned him the cream would be cold, but he definitely hadn't expected the feeling of iciness that grew outward from her hand.
"Fuck," he muttered, and grabbed her hand. "I'm going to catch pneumonia."
Claire pulled her hand out of his, uncomfortable with the notion that that small action had caused butterflies to erupt in her stomach. She squeezed more cream out of the tube and kept applying it.
When she was done, Ian sat up quickly, almost colliding with her bowed head.
"Relax, Rex. What's the hurry?"
"I'm freezing my ass off; I need to get into this sleeping bag."
Claire stopped him with a hand on his arm. He hissed again and glanced down at where she was holding him. Having sat up so quickly, they were much closer now than they'd been before, and he could feel her breath on his chest.
"Let me do your fingers first," she said quietly.
"Princess, I'm fine. See?"
Ian wiggled his fingers to prove it. He winced when she grabbed his hand, however, and she smiled, triumphant.
"It'll just take a minute. And you still have to get out of those wet shorts, don't you?"
Ian looked down. Sure enough, his damp soccer shorts were still hanging off of his hips. That was probably half the reason he was so cold. So, again without thinking, he stood up and stripped off his shorts.
Claire blushed for what seemed the millionth time that night. This was the most interesting sleepover they'd ever had. She was wearing his shirt, and Ian had stripped down to his boxers. Curse the rain, she thought, but her fluttering stomach seemed to disagree.
Ian sat back down and obediently held out his hands. Claire replaced the cap on the antibiotic cream.
"Why don't you just use that on my fingers, too?" Ian asked. He bit his lip, thinking. Ah, what the hell, he figured, though Claire didn't seem to realize the internal struggle he was going through. "Actually, Princess, I change my mind. I don't want to put anything on my fingers. I won't be able to sleep for half the night and I won't be able to touch anything. You can do it tomorrow, I promise."
He pulled his hands back and Claire began to protest.
"But why? You were so good about your stomach. It'll make me feel better—"
Ian cut her off.
"Oh, come on, Claire Bear. It's cold and muggy and I'm completely exhausted. I just want to chill out for a while. It feels like we ran a marathon today. And besides, are you avoiding the idea of cuddling up with me? Is that why you keep prolonging all of this?"
He grinned a little, embarrassed, when his best friend's cheeks tinted a deep red.
Claire paused. He wanted to cuddle up with her? That was different. They'd always been more physically comfortable with each other than they were with other people, but his comments all day had been overtly flirtatious and suggestive. She wondered what had caused the sudden change.
Her green eyes traveled up to meet his and she found his expression had changed to one of sober determination.
"You think I don't see the way you've been looking at me all day, Claire? The way you've been looking at me for weeks now?" he said.
Claire blushed. He'd known all along? Was that why he'd been making those comments? Or was he just toying with her? She decided to play it safe.
"What are you talking about, Rex? I've been looking at you the same way I always look at you. Nothing's changed," she said.
He brought an arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him. Claire's heart started beating faster, like it did when she was running. She put up her hands in an attempt to stop him, but he grabbed them with his free one.
"Claire Bear, why run now? After everything that Christopher and John said?"
Ian released her hands when he was sure she wouldn't put them up again and brought her closer, so that she was almost sitting in his lap.
"Claire, how long have you known me?" he murmured.
Their faces were only inches apart and his eyes had strayed down to her lips, unable to move anymore. He watched them as she bit down on the bottom one, and kept watching as she answered his question.
"T-Thirteen years," she whispered.
Ian tightened his arm around her waist and this time she willingly crawled into his lap. Ian leaned against the wall of the treehouse.
"Have I ever made you uncomfortable or hurt you or anything like that?" he asked.
Claire looked down at her hands. Of course he hadn't. He'd always been there to save her from the bullies and make her smile. He'd been her first kiss in seventh grade when she'd been afraid to kiss Mikey Lions, her boyfriend. And he'd been the one to mend her broken heart when Mikey'd broken up with her. Ian had always done his best to make her happy and he'd taken better care of her than even all of her brothers. Of course he'd never hurt her. He'd never so much as insulted her—the first time didn't count—and he'd been the one thing in her changing life that she could depend on to always be there.
"You know why that is, Princess?" Ian whispered.
She shook her head.
"It's because I love you. I love you more than anyone else I've ever met, and I don't think those feelings are just friendly anymore. If you're scared, I'm probably more scared. And I'm nervous as hell, so don't think I can handle this any better than you can," he continued.
Claire's pumping heart skipped a beat.
"There's an us?" Claire asked.
"There's always been an us, Princess. It just means something different now." Ian looked at her, not faltering in the slightest, and asked, "If you'll have me, that is. I want to be more than just your best friend, Claire. I want to keep all those perverted high school boys as far away from you as possible, and I want a legitimate excuse to punch them in the face. I want to go to college with you and wake up to you every morning. But I can't do any of that unless you let me."
Claire smiled. So she wasn't going crazy. He felt the same way, and was just as confused about the fluttering feeling as she was. Ian had never been just another brother to her, he'd been there for her in ways that her brothers never could.
"I am scared, Rex."
"I know, but maybe this will change your mind," he said.
Ian brought one of his hands up to her cheek and leaned forward to kiss her. Claire gasped. It had been so long since he'd kissed her, and she realized how much he'd grown, romantically, since then.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, allowing him to lay her down on the sleeping bag. He settled himself beside her, never breaking their kiss.
"Claire, will you be my girlfriend? Please?" Ian whispered into her ear a few moments later.
"Good, because I would have annoyed you until you said yes, anyway," he murmured.
Claire laughed and tugged him over her until he was straddling her waist.
"John and Chris are going to have a field day with this," she said.
He leaned down for another kiss.
"I'll have to thank them in the morning," Ian answered.
Claire nodded and allowed him to open up the sleeping bag. She broke away from his kisses a few moments later when breathing became a problem.
"You know, in some masochistic way, this disastrous Fourth of July was the best yet," she said.
Ian trailed a few kisses down her neck and across her collarbone, murmuring a sound of agreement.
"I still want some of that mac and cheese though," she continued.
"Claire Bear?" Ian said, and leaned back to look down at her. "I'm trying to make out with my girlfriend. Do you mind?"