tagRomanceA Touch of Grace

A Touch of Grace

byLoneGirl©

In loving memory of Grace. Gone too soon, but not forgotten.

~~~~~~~

"That's terrible."

"Yeah." Claire nodded, taking a sip of her whisky. She'd already downed three more before that, trying to forget that she was single again. Had been for the last week or so, when she'd packed her stuff and left, no clue where to find a place to stay at two in the night, until her brother had come and taken her to his place.

"I can't believe it," Pauline shook her head, her eyes still wide.

"I can," she said to her sister-in-law. "We were having problems for a while."

"There are problems in every relationship. Doesn't mean a person can just go ahead and..." She plonked the glass back down on the table, her brow scrunching in anger. "How could he do this to you?"

Claire lifted her glass to her mouth, tipped her head back, and necked the last of the drink. "He could." She tried to form words around the lump in her throat. "He's always around these gorgeous models, taking photos of them with their clothes off. Gotta be better than what he's got at home."

"Don't be stupid. You're more gorgeous than any of those underwear models." A hand patted hers. "He was a fool to not see what he had."

"Thanks." She rolled her eyes. She'd held off telling anyone why she'd left her boyfriend so abruptly, wanted to get her head wrapped around the idea before she tried to put it into words. So she'd sat at her brother's house, staring at the TV and not talking to anyone, until Pauline had dragged her to the pub. She'd probably regret having so many drinks but at least Pauline was distracting company.

"Come to think of it." Claire laughed hoarsely, the alcohol finally starting to work. "I'm close to thirty and single again after three years. I feel like I'm destined to die alone."

"No. You've got us." Pauline clumsily wrapped her in a hug, seeming more drunk than Claire was. "And you're only 27. You'll find someone better."

"You said that the last time I had a breakup," she snorted.

"Brad was definitely better than Flynn."

"Yeah. And he cheated on me." She closed her eyes, trying to shake the thought out of her head. It seemed to have made permanent place in her memory since she found her boyfriend of three years sixty-nining on their couch with a blonde bimbo. No matter how hard she shook her head, the image refused to leave her.

"Bastard." Pauline made a half-growl, leaving the stool. "I felt like running over Flynn after what he did to you. I could run over Brad too, if you like."

Claire grimaced. She needn't have reminded her of what Flynn had done. Called her to dinner one night and explained that he had wife and kids back home. That too, after more than six months of being with her, during which she'd fallen for him.

"Thanks." she laughed. "But if you get nicked for randomly murdering my exes, I'm not to be blamed."

Pauline laughed as well, giving her another hug. Then she was walking away.

"Where are you going?" Claire asked, looking behind her at the crowded bar.

"I'm going to get us something stronger."

"You don't ha—"

"We're getting shitfaced." She assured her. "I'm going to get you tanked and we're going to bitch about everything that we hate about men, and believe me, I have a list."

She winked, disappearing into the crowd, leaving Claire laughing to herself, staring at the empty glass. That was probably the first time she was laughing in a week. Brad had called her almost incessantly for the first three days since she left, sent her several text messages trying to explain it was nothing. That he loved her and wanted her back. Seriously? After she caught him red-handed in the act? She didn't know who the girl was, but she was sure it was someone from work and that it had been going on for a while. All those excuses about being late at work or stuck in traffic were lies, now she saw it.

Claire wasn't sure she could believe in that thing called love ever again. Two breakups in four years was a big deal. All she knew was that she'd loved both of them with her all, and they'd gone and cheated on her. Both of them.

She felt like a fool. For choosing jerks and wasting her youth on them.

"Right." Pauline plonked back down with a raft of shots sloshing precariously between her hands. "These are for you." She pushed five over her way. "These are mine." She looked at her excitedly, "Ready?"

*

The ringing phone rudely woke Claire up from her Saturday morning snooze. She groaned, hid her face in the pillow, felt her head splitting from a monstrous headache. The phone continued ringing in the meanwhile, like drilling a nail into her head. She dug her toes in the bed, felt tears forming in her eyes.

They had returned from their girls' night out past midnight. The shots had turned into more shots, as they bitched about everything wrong with men. Then they'd stumbled out of the pub, managed to hail a passing taxi since Pauline had very generously turned down her husband's offer of coming to pick them up, and then giggled like drugged pigs all the way.

Peter had been asleep by then, but not long after Claire settled down between the covers, almost unconscious from all that alcohol, she heard the bed thumping in the other room.

She hadn't known her brother was that loud. Or that his wife was so inventive when it came to the swearing. Not that she'd ever wanted to hear them going at it like rabbits. She'd tried to cover the sound with a pillow over her ear, reminding herself to start looking for a place. It was nice, staying with her brother after a while and having someone to look after her through this bad time, but as grateful as she was to Peter and Pauline for being kind enough to let her stay as long as she wanted to, she still had to find her own place. She had to move on, and she also couldn't put up with noisy coitus for too long. Not when she wasn't getting any.

The phone started ringing again.

Claire flailed her arm awkwardly without opening her eyes, making contact with the table on the third attempt. Phone in hand, she rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision. Her head was throbbing, like about to burst apart.

"Claire?" The kind female voice on the other end spoke affectionately. "Did I wake you up?"

"Umm... Hi Melanie..." She struggled to sit up, her head and stomach both complaining now. Sunlight trickled in through the gap in the curtains, shining directly on her face. She closed her eyes again, clumsily flopping back into bed. "I'm just..."

Hungover. Really hungover. Although Claire guessed from the smile in her voice she already knew that.

"Late night?" she asked. Claire felt embarrassment creeping on to her skin. She moved auburn hair out of her face, her mouth contorting in an inaudible groan. Melanie was the last person she wanted to hear her hungover.

"I'm fine." She managed to drag herself into a sitting position, leaned against the pillows. "Just..." She wondered how to explain, even though there was none required. "I was out last night, so..."

Melanie laughed now, making Claire's skin break into goosebumps. "I'm afraid, Claire, but you have to come and meet me today," she said. "Can you do that, please?"

"What for?" she asked, really hoping it was something that could be postponed. She didn't think she could be decent that day.

"About a new kid," she explained. "I'll tell you everything when you come and see me."

"Can't we do it some other day, please?"

"The child joins next Saturday. I want to talk to you before that. Look I know you had a late night but--"

"Okay, okay... I'll be there, Mel." Claire pinched the middle of her forehead, as if that would make the pain go away. "Make it noon, yeah?"

"Sure. Take your time." She smiled again, sounding relieved. "Meet me in my office, okay?"

"Okay." Claire rolled over and flopped down on her belly when the call ended, phone dangling from her hand.

It wasn't until ten that she managed to appear in the kitchen, after a shower and an aspirin. Peter was sitting at the kitchen island, reading the paper and drinking his coffee. Claire realised he'd leave late that day. He smiled when he saw her enter.

"Good night, then?" he chuckled, as she pulled a stool and planted herself on it. She hung her head until her forehead was touching the counter top, hoping the cold marble could do something to alleviate the unease in her system.

"Here. This will help."

She lifted her head to find Peter pushing a cup of tea towards her. She didn't know if it would help, but it looked tempting for sure. She took a sip, realised it was ginger tea.

"Thanks." She held the cup between her palms, looking around her. "Where's your wife?"

"Asleep." Peter chuckled again, going back to his stool. "Whatever you girls drank last night."

"Shots. Probably vodka." She covered her face with her hands, shook her head. "I don't remember."

"Good for you. At least you went out of the house. I was thinking you'd want to get married to the TV."

"I'll pay the bill, don't worry."

"That isn't what I mean." He moved closer, touched her arm lightly. "You look miserable all the time. It makes me sad to see you like this."

"Anyone would be miserable if they found their boyfriend cheating." Pauline entered, tying the belts of her night robe. Claire winced inwardly at those words, a shot of anguish stabbing her heart. A moment later, she felt Peter's arm around her.

"Brad was cheating on you?" His voice was thick with surprise. "God, that's...that's awful." The arm around her squeezed. "Why didn't you tell us? I thought you had a fight or something..."

"Pete, no girl likes to announce to the world that her boyfriend cheated on her." Pauline poured herself a cup of tea, then popped an aspirin. "Can't you see she's still so raw?"

"So this is why you got her drunk last night?" Peter crossed his arms against his chest. "You wanted to know the truth."

"Exactly." She sat on the stool next to Claire's, then yawned. "If I wasn't so plastered last night, I would've told you about it. I knew something bad must've happened." She sipped her tea, held up the cup to feel the vapour on her face. "Can you imagine the person you spent three years of your life with cheating on you with a lingerie model? I would've beaten the shit out of him."

Of course she would. Pauline was a robust woman, something of a control freak. She was outspoken, blunt, and never hesitated to speak her mind. Considering that she had actually beaten up a snatcher once, it wouldn't be too surprising if she did the same with her sister-in-law's ex.

"I never expected this from Brad," Peter shook his head, his hand coming up to tousle Claire's hair. "You sure you'll be okay? Do you want to go and spend a few days with mom and dad?"

"Please." She groaned, taking a long gulp of the tea. "That will not make me feel better."

"It'll distract you at least."

"I'm distracted enough, thank you very much. I don't want mom to constantly remind me how I still don't have a proper career, or how making wall hangings will never get me through life." She pushed the tea cup away, as tears filled her eyes. "She'll probably think Brad cheated on me because I'm not ambitious enough."

"Claire, you're great. Trust me." Pauline said, giving her hand a squeeze. "You do what makes you happy, not what others want you to. Isn't that the hallmark of an independent woman?"

"Independent." A dry laugh escaped her. "And I don't even have a place to live."

"This is your place too." Peter hugged her again, stroking her back. "Stay as long as you want. We like having you around."

Claire closed her eyes to make the tears go away. Peter was the ideal older brother, always looking out for her, caring about her. Despite being the associate director of a leading pharmaceutical company, he devoted considerable time to his home, making sure everything and everyone was okay.

"Yes. Had it not been for you being here, you would've starved yourself to death by now." The stool screeched as Pauline rose and made her way towards her. Suddenly she had her brother and his wife on either side, smothering her with affection. More like sympathy. "Staying alone after three years sucks. Really." She took over from Peter, pulling Claire into a hug. "Stay here, please. Give yourself time. You'll be okay."

"I hope so." Claire swiped the rim of her eyes with a finger, found it slick with tears. She looked into her brother's blue eyes, saw his concerned stare. "I'll be okay," She nodded at him, leaving the stool. "Just..." She shrugged, not finding the words. "I'm going out. Don't be worried if I'm late."

She turned and headed upstairs, pressing her hand to her mouth to stop a sob.

*

"Tell me I don't have to meet any parent today," Claire pleaded, sinking into the comfortable, cushioned chair. She'd reached Blooming Buds five minutes past noon, her head still throbbing, her stomach still in knots. She'd had a couple of croissants and some bacon for breakfast, then proceeded to throw up most of it. Although she'd pulled on a pretty dress and a silk scarf, she knew she still looked horrible.

"You don't. Relax." Melanie leaned forward in her chair, smiling. "I haven't seen you hungover in a while."

"That's because I haven't got drunk in a while," she explained. "I'm sorry I'm like this today... I'm just...." she hesitated, wondering if she should be telling her that she was going through a breakup.

"Are you okay, Claire?" She asked, her smile giving way to concern. "You weren't here last Saturday, and I didn't hear from you the entire week. Is everything alright?"

Claire kept her gaze low, swallowing to make the lump in her throat disappear. Did she look that miserable? She did probably.

"I'm okay." She forced a smile, tried to forget how bad she felt. "What did you want to talk about?"

"Oh. Right." She kept her entwined fingers on the desk, looking at her. "There's a new child joining the toddler program next week. She's a little different from the others."

Claire wanted to laugh at that. Every child there was different. That's what made them special. Blooming Buds was an institute for specially-abled children, where she volunteered every weekend, singing, playing, reading stories with several little humans who were different from other children. She wondered what could be more different with this child.

"She isn't visually challenged then?" she asked, since she mostly worked with the blind kids. Melanie shook her head.

"She isn't mentally disabled either." She pushed some papers towards her. "Grace has a rare heart condition. She's only six and she's undergone three major surgeries so far. She's frail and fragile."

Claire took a look at the papers. Grace Fielding. Six. Dark curly hair. Quiet brown eyes. A trail of freckles down the neck. She looked really pale and small, quite understandably.

"So why an institute for special children?" she asked, her eyes leaving the papers.

"Because she isn't active or healthy like normal children. She's shy, takes time to talk to strangers, and could be difficult to engage." Melanie leaned back in the chair, her face thoughtful. "She's older than the age limit of the program but we still took her in. Other toddler programs have turned her down because she's...." She sighed. "Different."

"I haven't worked with kids like that in a while..." Claire shook her head. "I mostly work with—"

"Claire, the little girl needs you," Melanie put her hand on hers. "We have to make her comfortable with other kids, get her ready for school. She needs a lot of work."

"You think I'm the one?"

"I wouldn't have called you to meet otherwise." She smiled, patted her hand. "You might be the youngest staff member here, but you've also been a longtime volunteer with us. You're an asset. You have a way with kids. And this child really needs you. I know you can do it."

That was typical of Melanie. As the special needs coordinator, she had seen Claire since the last five years, handling several challenging kids and getting them ready for the world. It was natural for her to put her trust in her.

"Can I have some time to think?" Claire sighed, giving back the papers. Given her mental condition, she didn't know if she was even capable of handling a new child. She also didn't want to make any decision when she was still hungover.

"Sure." Melanie smiled. "And another thing: Grace doesn't have a mother. So...you have to be careful when talking to her."

"Oh." She felt a pang of sadness inside her. "Did she die or leave?"

"I don't have details. But her dad's her sole parent." Melanie left her chair and came up to her. "She's the first child here who's got a single parent. I see the other children here, and how difficult it is for both parents to cope with their child's condition. I can only imagine how hard it must be for someone to handle all this alone."

She put her hands on Claire's shoulders. "Grace is going to be with us until she joins school," she explained. "It will not be easy, but you have handled more challenging children."

She had. Only she wasn't going through an ugly breakup then.

"Just give me some time." she rubbed her temples with her fingertips, felt the nerves throb against her fingers. She was pretty sure by now it wasn't vodka that they drank last night. "I'll let you know by tomorrow."

"That's okay." The honey-blonde, middle-aged woman returned to her chair. "Did you drive here?"

She nodded. "You don't look good to me, Claire," Melanie said. "Should you be driving?"

"Can't help it." She rolled the chair backwards, grabbed her bag with both hands. "I'm not fit company today. I should...just go home and..." She scratched her hair, trying to remember any pending order that she had. She couldn't. "I'm going," she rose, forcing a smile. "I'll see you next Saturday, okay?"

Melanie nodded with a smile. Claire raised a hand in greeting. "I'll call you," she said, turning to leave the room.

The sun seemed brighter than usual today as it shone on Claire's face while she made the short walk to the parking. She rummaged in her bag for her shades, put them on when she found them after a full minute. She hadn't asked Pauline what they were drinking when she brought the shots. They were green. That's all she remembered.

Apparently, the aspirin she'd taken wasn't doing much to relieve her.

She managed to drive out of the parking, rolled down the window to feel the breeze on her face. Saturday traffic wasn't heavy, but it still made her want to yell at the vehicles in front of her every time she had to stop at a red light. It was probably the hangover, because there was no hurry to reach home. She'd be going to an empty house anyway. Pauline had said lunch would be in the fridge and that she should remember to heat it before eating. Claire didn't think she could push food down her throat, not when her mouth still felt like sandpaper.

She reached for a gulp of water, almost immediately realising it was a mistake when she felt her stomach churn. Less than a minute later, she was throwing up by the side of the road, wishing she'd die already.

"You okay, ma'am?"

The gentle male voice came from behind her. She turned her head, wiping drool from the corner of her mouth. Embarrassment burned into her when she saw a tall, sandy-haired man standing there, looking eager to help. She turned her face away as another bout of vomit escaped her in high velocity. She crouched by the roadside, trying to hold her hair in place while she puked.

"Of course you aren't okay," the man answered his own question. Claire looked up again, a little confident of not throwing up anymore. Wiping her mouth with the back of her palm, she turned around, too embarrassed to even thank him for stopping. She wished he hadn't.

"I'm fine." Her vocal chords barely seemed to work. "I...I should go."

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