When Cameron passed back through the reception area after seeing off the visiting specialists the next day, Claire had already left her desk for lunch. He hummed to himself as he waited for lift, he’d not had a moment alone with her yet today but he felt things were definitely heading in the right direction.
Since yesterday morning she had not attempted to continue in her pretence of indifference, and even though she blushed rosily every time he smiled at her, she had accepted his teasing in good humour during yesterday’s baseball game and seemed to have gotten over her awkwardness with him after that. But as the afternoon meeting was still under way when he’d sent her home at five there’d been no more opportunity to speak with her again.
This morning when he’d come in after the gym, Tyrone had been at his usual post by Claire’s desk, and Cameron had stopped to chat with them both for several minutes, enjoying the easy camaraderie which had returned between the three of them. It was such a relief not to have to endure Claire’s coldness any longer, but to feel instead the heartening warmth of her friendship and humour.
But there’s still something holding her back, he mused as the lift carried him upstairs, but how do I find out what it is? He was fairly certain she would find an excuse to say no if he tried asking her out again formally, yet he was confident that if he could just have some uninterrupted time alone with her he would be able to resolve whatever hesitation she still had.
He knew from the Muxlow’s that outside of work Claire had very little free time and being aware of her situation at home made him feel that at this stage it would probably be counter-productive to call in on her there. Maybe he could get her to agree to having lunch alone with him tomorrow - at least it would be a start.
He could hear the happy babble of voices from the dining room as the lift doors opened and as he entered he was pleased to see Claire just ahead in the queue for the servery. Her back was towards him as she talked to Tony and, taking full advantage of being able to watch her without her being aware of him, Cameron thought again how incredibly attractive she was.
She was wearing velvet chocolate-brown pants which seemed to be perfectly tailored to her long legs, and a deep green chenille jumper that grazed the top of her trousers. As she bent down to catch something that Tony was saying, her trousers stretched taut and her jumper moved slightly to reveal the merest glimpse of smooth white skin at her waist.
The sensation of sheer physical attraction made Cameron wince and he forced himself to pull his eyes away from her, looking up just in time to see Skinner move quickly in behind her and sweep her into his lap. Claire shrieked with surprise and then laughter as he imprisoned her with one arm and tickled her waist with the other, making a half-hearted attempt to free herself from his grasp.
An incredible feeling of anger surged through Cameron and he heard his own voice raised before he even realised what he was doing.
“Get your hands off my - ” my girlfriend, was in his mind but he managed to catch himself just in time and amended quickly “my employee! I don’t pay Claire to flirt with you guys!”
He somehow achieved a much lighter tone than he felt and was relieved to see that no-one had taken his outburst seriously. Claire disentangled herself from Skinner’s arms and stood up, laughing and making a great show of straightening herself out with offended dignity.
“No, you certainly don’t pay me enough to!” she agreed, glaring in mock reproach at Skinner, “If I have to work with men like this, I want danger money!”
“Well, sweetheart,” Skinner shot back, while everyone laughed, “You shouldn’t dress so provocatively if you don’t want that kind of attention.”
“Ha!” she retorted, spreading her arms and displaying the way her clothes covered her from neck to wrist to ankle, “This can hardly be called provocative!”
Despite himself, Cameron managed to smile when Skinner caught his eye and winked. He knew Claire well enough to know that far from aiming for it, she had no idea of the effect she had on males, and he supposed he would also have to accept that he wasn’t the only male there aware of it either.
She turned to him and inclined her head in theatrical gratitude, “Thank you for coming to my rescue, Doctor - if you can keep your patients under control, I’m going to get some lunch now.”
He followed behind as they collected their meals and took a place at a nearby table with Skinner, Tony, Tyrone and a couple of other staff who had been just ahead in the queue. Skinner’s prank was soon forgotten by everyone else, but Cameron was so distracted by the unfamiliar and powerful feeling of possessiveness of Claire that he found it difficult to make conversation.
It was hardly unusual for men like Skinner who were struggling to accept such a severe disability to flirt so openly with the female staff and he understood their need for reassurance that they were still accepted as masculine and attractive. He was honestly pleased with the tactful way Claire had handled the situation - neither taking it too seriously nor treating Skinner as anything less than a whole man - and he knew it shouldn’t bother him, but it did.
In his present state of mind it was difficult to even look across at her chatting with the other men at their table, and he wondered if the continuing uncertainty over their relationship was at the root of what he belatedly recognised as pure and simple jealousy.
Cameron was thankful for the relief of pure physical exertion during the gruelling session on the basketball court following lunch, the tension finally draining from his body and leaving his mind clear to think.
He couldn’t keep going on like this indefinitely and remembering Justin’s warning against leaving Claire to set the agenda, he decided that for both of their sakes he would have to keep pushing her towards some kind of commitment. He was confident that whatever she was wary of could not be stronger than their need to be together and by the time he was back in his office that afternoon Cameron was feeling buoyant with renewed determination.
Claire came into the room just moments later and half closing the door behind her, walked quickly up to him, her face a picture of concern.
“I’m glad you’re here already, I wanted to talk to you. Did I do the wrong thing at lunch time with Skinner?” she blurted out in a rush, “ I just didn’t want to risk offending him, so I just played along . . . but I’m worried now that maybe I shouldn’t have . . .”
“No, you did well - I’ve got no complaints at all.”
She stared at him, unconvinced, her warm brown eyes clouded with questions.
“Are you okay about it?” he asked, trying to put her at ease.
“Absolutely. I mean, only because it was a patient. I’ve always realised that’s just part of the job in a place like this - unless you thought that I should’ve handled it differently. You do know that if I were anywhere else and a man did something like that to me, I wouldn’t react like that, don’t you?”
He knew she was looking for reassurance, but part of him was as well.
“Wouldn't you? Would you have played along if it had been me instead of Skinner?”
“No!” she snorted, “I’d tell you off and probably slap you across the face!”
He laughed, “Really?”
“Maybe. . . Just be warned!” she retorted, almost beginning to unwind, but then frowning at him with uncertainty again, “Look Cameron, I’m being serious, you seemed cranky at me all through lunch, I was sure you thought I had acted wrongly.”
“Nope - just insanely jealous that another man had his arms around you.”
Claire shook her head impatiently, no suspicion that he wasn’t just joking, “Can you just be sensible for a minute, please! Are you sure that what I did was okay?”
He nodded and she continued, “But what about what Skinner said about the way I was dressed? He was only kidding, wasn’t he? This couldn’t possibly be provocative, could it?”
She lifted out her arms as she looked down at her clothes, but her expression was so serious that Cameron couldn’t resist the temptation offered and nodded.
“Definitely. Especially this little bit here,” he grinned, and ran his finger lightly along her waistline as her jumper lifted just slightly.
“Cameron!” she squealed, jumping involuntarily at his touch, bringing her arms down quickly and defensively crossing them over her stomach.
“So you really are ticklish? I didn’t even know that before today,” he teased, advancing towards her with a wicked grin.
“Cameron! Don’t you dare!” she warned, unsure of his intentions but beginning to back away.
With a chuckle he caught her in his arms just before she moved out of reach, and she gasped as he dug his fingertips lightly into the sides of her ribcage. He had only intended to give her a quick, lighthearted tickle, but as she doubled over in helpless laughter he drew her onto his knees, no longer teasing as he slipped his arms gently around her.
Despite her slenderness, everything about her was so soft, her hair and her clothes - even the fabric of her jumper irresistibly silky. Cameron had only begun it as a joke, but once he had her in his arms, the desire to be close to her had become overwhelming.
He pressed his face against the nape of her neck, revelling in the gentle fragrance and warmth of her soft skin. Her whole body was tense as he held her close against his thudding chest, but she made no attempt to move away until she heard Chris’s footsteps just outside and leapt to her feet, spinning around to face him.
“Great! And what am I going to do now?” she demanded, completely flustered, her face a brilliant red and her breathing more uneven than his own, “I’ll have to hide under the desk until I can stop blushing!”
Cameron looked on in disbelief as with one deft movement she swung her arm across his desk, sweeping his filing tray to the floor and then diving down after it just seconds before Chris walked in.
“Claire not up here yet?” he asked, completely unaware of what had just been happening.
“Yes, she’s hiding under my desk,” Cameron couldn’t resist answering.
There was a loud bonk from under the table as Claire hit her head as she retorted, “I am not hiding! I knocked the filing tray over and I’m just picking it up.”
“You know what women are like when they get flustered, their coordination goes out the window!” Cameron said, grinning.
Chris laughed loudly, “Have you been harassing her again, mate?”
“At every opportunity.”
“Keep up the good work, then.”
There was another bonk as Claire emerged, tray in hand. “Great, now there are two of you picking on me!” she complained, rubbing her head as she stood up, “Since I’m obviously not going to get any support from you Chris, I’m going to find Lynette, and I’m not coming back in here until I do!”
Cameron was well aware she was avoiding meeting his eyes, but apart from that she looked no less calm and collected than what could be easily attributed to just climbing out from under his desk. She thumped the tray down on the table, and left the room - but in the event met Lynette in the hallway and returned with her only moments later, taking her seat behind the computer as though nothing had happened.
Her handling of the whole situation had amused Cameron intensely, and he kept finding himself smiling as he thought of it throughout the meeting. When it was finally over, and Lynette and Chris had both left Claire to finish up her minutes he started towards her.
“Stop right there!” she demanded, looking up quickly and holding up her hand in warning. “You went way past the line back then, Cameron Alexander.”
“Did I?” he asked, “And I thought it had been you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You told me that you’d slap my face if I tried anything like that,” he explained innocently, “and when you didn’t I thought you must have been encouraging me.”
She stared at him in confusion for some moments, before shaking her head in exasperation, “Oh no, you did not! You should be thankful I didn’t slap your face - a bright red handprint might have been hard to explain when Chris walked in.”
“Mmm, it might have been me hiding under the desk then.”
A snort of laughter escaped her, spoiling her aloof pose.
“Well, consider yourself lucky - next time I definitely will slap your face!” Claire retorted, leaping to her feet and escaping to the door, just as he came close, “And you can print your minutes out yourself!” she called out, pulling the door shut behind her, the sound of her footsteps retreating rapidly down the corridor.
© R Brown 2005