4/30/2007

Chapter 68

“Don’t think I didn’t see that,” he said and nodded toward her hand. He dug into the bin and took out the bulb he found earlier and settled it on a branch. The ‘Dad’ in green glitter looked even better with the green backlight, he decided.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He reached around her and grabbed her hand before she could uncross the fingers. “You know that only works when you’re under ten, right?”

“Damn, why wasn’t I informed of this rule?”

He laughed and reached for another ornament. “Because I have a teenager and you don’t.”

“Damn, I hate when you’re right.”

“Better get used to it, I usually am.”

She balled up a taped corner of bubble wrap and chucked it at his head. “Get real.”

He blocked and hooked another ornament on the tree toward the center. “How about you decorate and I start a fire?”

“All right, only because a fire is very Christmasy.” She selected a glitter glued reindeer and carefully inched her way around the tree. He couldn’t decide if he liked watching her move or if it was just the bonus of the way her dress pants pulled across her ass when she reached for a high branch. “The only time my Dad ever insisted on a fire was the holidays. Even if it was too warm for it,” she said conversationally.

And because his staff was so good at their job, he had only to light the newspaper and kindling, letting the fire stoke and pop. He dropped to a crouch, stabbing at the fire with the iron poker and smiled when she found the tray of antique bells. Her head popped up and the smile there was breathtaking. He decided right then and there, that he’d do anything to make Christmas special if that was going to be his reward.

He stood hooked it back into the small case next to the fire. Reaching over he jangled one of the bells. “My Gram in Pennsylvania gave my parents these when they had me, then my parents passed them down when I had Stephanie.”

Her eyes misted and he took the bell, “Hey what’s this all about?”

“I’m sorry, I’m just being stupid.” She swiped her knuckle under her eye and caught the stray tears. “Christmas is about family and it just makes me miss mine sometimes.”

He ran his thumb over her silky brow and pushed her mussed hair back from her face. “I can be your family, if you’ll have me,” he said and tipped her head up.

She slipped her arms around his neck and he caught her close. His fingers gripped the soft sweater she wore, but it wasn’t enough. He needed skin, needed to touch her. Pushing it up, he found the bare skin along her back. His lips brushed her ear, “I love you, Tessa.”

She hugged him back harder, her arms firming around his shoulders. “You’re just bound and determined to see me cry tonight, aren’t you?”

He laughed and lifted her up until her toes dangled. “Only if you’re crying out my name in orgasm, babe.”

“Care to test that theory?” she sniffed and curled a leg around his waist.

He cupped her ass and lowered them both to the thick rug before the fire. He gentled his touch, needing to show her that he was a good bet. That she wasn’t making a mistake by giving him a chance.

Raising her sweater, he gently nipped her skin, laving a tongue over the small birthmark just under her ribs. He heard the soft moan and slowly moved higher, finding the scalloped edge of her bra, he followed the lavender lace to the center of her breasts and grinned when he saw the center snap. He flicked it open but didn’t push it aside right away. He let the cup drag across her breast, his cock swelled as the flushed pink of her nipple caught the firelight.

Taking it into his mouth he sucked gently, savoring the taste of her as she arched beneath him. He pressed the flat of his hand on her stomach and felt her quiver beneath him. His thumb slid under the button of her slacks, tracing her belly button as he scraped his teeth over her nipple.

He nosed apart her bra and continued his assault on the other breast until her fingers threaded into his hair, dragging him up to her mouth. “You’re killing me here,” she shuddered against his mouth.

“That’s the idea,” he said and pushed her sweater over her head. Her hair was as bright as the flames in the fireplace when she gasped through her first orgasm. The fact that he’d done so with only his mouth on her breast left him high. Not willing to lose the momentum he tugged her pants down and tucked his thumb beneath the line of her panties and pushed her over again.

His name was on her lips when he thrust his tongue inside of her. Pushing the matching lace panties down over her hips he opened her wide and lapped her up like cream. She writhed beneath him but he held on and slid two fingers inside of her, feeling her spasm around his hand, he couldn’t stop himself from freeing himself.

He dug for protection in his back pocket and then he was home. She wrapped herself around him until he wasn’t sure where she stopped and he started. He rolled with her as she rose above him, taking him deep into the fist of her heat. She rode him with firelight and the twinkle of Christmas surrounding her. Her thighs gripped him tight as she cried out and he followed, arching up to meet her.

~

They’d relocated to the couch, neither of them capable of much in the way of conversation. Jon curled around her, snuggling down in the suede couch. Their legs were tangled, his hair roughened calves felt super sensitive next to her smooth, the same went for his chest at her back and the strong arms that surrounded her.

He was so hard, where she was soft. She felt him fall away into sleep, the warmth of the room and the intensity of their lovemaking had taken its toll, but she couldn’t turn her brain off. She slid off the couch and snagged his denim shirt off the floor.

His offer of family had left her a little lost, the conflicting emotions of the secret and the lifetime had her so confused. He told her he wanted to spend his life with her at one turn and secreted her away at the other. At times she felt like the ‘other’ woman then an hour later she felt like the luckiest woman in the world.

She would wait for him, she knew that. In such a short space of time, she felt a connection that hadn’t been matched in all her thirty-six years. He made her want to take the time to build something and she hadn’t felt that way since her parents had died. She’d been shifting from job to job that suited her career, but had landed here.

Landed in his lap for all intents and purposes when you really thought about it. She’d settled roots for the first time in her life and wanted those roots to twine with his. She glanced over her shoulder and saw him sprawled out on the couch now that he was the only one on it. The suede was worn with use and the way he curled his arm beneath his head told her he’d spent some serious time on that couch.

She turned back to the tree, glancing at the sparse ornaments he’d placed then picked through the bins of ornaments and slowly, methodically decorated the tree. She pulled the obviously special ornaments out and placed them on the table, thinking maybe the kids would want to trim the tree as well.

She climbed the stepladder and hung the antique bells along the top of the tree where they wouldn’t be broken. The Christmas station had drifted into the instrumental version of carols and she hummed along in a low voice.

“There’s a half naked girl trimming my tree, how did that happen?”

Tessa gasped as he flicked a nail along the back of her knee and she nearly toppled the tree and the chair again.

“I’ve got ya,” he said, his voice scratchy with Jersey and sleep. A pair of low slung jeans was his only clothing. Pair that with strong arms and his amazingly defined chest and you had enough to distract her, but that near drawl echoed through her and zoomed in on her currently pantiless state.

“I gotta say you really look good in my shirts.”

She looped her arm around his neck. “You’re just saying that because I was flashing my butt at you.”

He laughed, “That you were. And it’s a truly fabulous butt,” he said using her word.

“Are you going to put me down?”

“Nope.”

“I have to finish-“

“The tree is perfect, Tessa. Richie and Ava are coming tomorrow and I’m sure they’d love to help me do the garland and sparkly stuff.”

Taking one last glance at the tree and the promise it said with far more eloquence than she could, she tightened her grip on his shoulder. “Well then, bedtime it is.”

“Of course I have had a bit of a nap,” he said and nuzzled along her neck. “I’m not in the least bit tired.”

She swung her feet playfully, “Then I should be rewarded for decorating while your lazy butt slept the hours away on the couch.”

”One reward, coming up!” he said and angled her into his bedroom. He lowered her feet to the floor and knelt before her, gently raking his nails up from her knees to the sensitive skin of her inner thighs.

His thumbs parted the tails of his well worn denim shirt and brushed over the soft hair at her center. Her head fell back at the almost touch, he flicked open the first button and let the backs of his knuckles graze her lips. He let the tip of his knuckle stroke inside of her before he moved higher to the next button. She could feel his warm breath on her slit and she slid her fingers into the hair at his nape.

Her own wetness made her shiver as his fingers trailed over her stomach and his thumbs traced her belly button before his tongue ficked inside. His knuckles dragged up the dip of her tummy as another button slid through its hole and he started to part the shirt. Another few buttons and he looked up at her, his nose nuzzling the curve of her breasts. He watched her as his hands followed around the curve of her ass and along the underside where her cheek met thigh.

She shivered and when he spread her thighs and touched her his name was on her lips. His touch continued to be gentle and teasing. He aroused every nerve ending without sliding inside of her. Instead his nose brushed along her stomach and he tasted her, the tiniest of flutters of his tongue drove her insane as he rubbed his fingertips along the plumped lips of her. He still held off from diving inside of her, instead coating his fingers with her own juices he spoke to her.

“I love touching you,” he said and curled his fingers over the fullness of her ass, spreading her cheeks to let the cool air of his room hit her. She sucked in a breath, then moaned as his tongue cruised over the curve of her breast.

He let her cheeks go and spanned his hands along her waist. “This smooth stomach with the hint of muscle,” he said and grinned up at her when her abs tightened. “This little mark here,” he said and laved his tongue over the cluster of discolored marks that rode high on her stomach.

His thumbs slowly circled along her belly button as he rose off his knees. She could feel the power being held in check as his arms shook a little when he caught her closer to him. He nosed apart the shirt and caught her nipple, sucking it deep into his mouth and letting the knot of its center go with a soft pop. “And how sensitive your breasts are,” he said and gathered the other into his mouth. “So much so that I can make you come just by tasting you.”

Her head swam as she tried to stay upright. His words in the rumble of the semi-darkness left her weak and overwhelmed. Only a shaft of light from the hallway illuminated them, the curve of his mouth and the crazy smirk was her undoing. She sank against him and his mouth moved to her clavicle then over to her shoulder pushing his shirt off and onto the floor.

His teeth sunk into the soft flesh that met shoulder and neck until she cried out. His fingers encircled her wrist as he drew back and nosed along the pulse beating wildly there. His teeth grazed over the veins there then eased the nip with a flick of his tongue.

He continued along her arm and the tip of his tongue rasped at the bend of her inner elbow and up her arm back to her shoulder then repeated the endlessly erotic touch along her other arm, scraping his teeth over the palm of her hand instead of wrist this time. She felt the flood of her cum drip along her thighs but still he continued on.

He pushed her back onto the bed and she muttered, “Finally,” As she felt his weight on top of her. Her fingers fumbled for his jeans but he just laughed.

“I’m not done yet,” he said and rolled her onto her stomach.

“Oh God,” she said and twitched beneath him. “I don’t know if I can take much more,” she said on a whisper.

He pressed his straining cock against her ass. “You can,” he rumbled into her ear. “If I can, so can you.” And he disappeared.

His fingers molded over the muscle of her calves, tasted the skin behind her knees and his thumbs drew circles along her inner thigh opening her. “You’re so wet,” he said and licked the cream that had slid down her thigh, letting his tongue dart inside of her. “Mine,” he said and opened her to let his tongue swirl and taste her.

She gripped the sheets and screamed. There wasn’t enough friction to let her finish and she ground her hips into the duvet in frustration. His fingers massaged over her cheeks as he shushed her. “Easy, Tessa,” he said with that low voice that would haunt her forever.

His touch turned to kneading as he drove all the kinks out of her back that she hadn’t even been aware of. And the entire time, she could feel the hard length of him trapped inside his jeans.

She swiveled her hips beneath his hands and ground herself against the thigh he had between hers. “Please come inside me,” she whispered, hoping that a little turnabout would drive him to the place she was. The madness that was starting to creep into her brain could be shared.

He tucked his thigh higher, between hers and let her buzz against the rough denim. “You have to wait,” he said and pulled his leg back.

She growled in frustration and rose on her elbows. “There’s a time for seduction and then there’s a time to just fuck. I’m there. I need you.”

His eyes glittered but instead of opening his jeans he just continued to knead her back and shoulders. Her hips rose and fell in tandem to his strokes, wanting the release that was just out of reach. “Please,” she begged and pushed back on him. “I need you inside me.”

His hands slid around her waist and up to cup her breasts. Her arms shook to stay upright as he plucked at the tips again and again, his mouth still soft as water on her back. “Not yet,” he said and pushed his nose up into the silky fine hairs at her nape.

He trailed his tongue up and down her neck, down to her shoulder blades and over to each shoulder as he lightly grazed his cock against her ass. No where near the friction she needed, even with the steady pluck and roll of his thumb and fingers at her nipples.

Her body was on fire and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. She heaved and gasped, so close to orgasm she couldn’t even focus. All she could feel was Jon and his touch everywhere. Finally she heard the zip of his jeans as he shucked them and covered her from the back.

Her hand came around the back of his head and she found herself muttering incoherently, a litany of his name and to fuck her. In her brain she screamed. And when he finally slammed inside of her she went wild.

His hands slid under her and pulled at her nipples then down to the sopping wet clit in between her thighs as he pummeled inside of her. She arched back against him the orgasm so intense she couldn’t fight her way out of it before another took her over.

His teeth scraped down her shoulder and around to her mouth. His tongue hot and deep in her mouth as she tasted herself and him and the heady blend of them both. He turned her head to meet his kiss and deepened it with each thrust of his cock inside of her. She tore away from him and arched against his thrusts.

Her fingers slid low on her belly to touch herself, the could feel the slick slide of him inside of herself as she pressed on the knot of nerves that still couldn’t be soothed. She pushed against him until she could get on her knees and the slap of his balls against her lips only intensified the screams she couldn’t stop.

His hands gripped her hips as he slammed inside of her again and again. She fisted around him, coming so hard that the world blackened and the last coherent thing she heard was his shout of release.

4/14/2007

Chapter 67

With an exasperated growl Tessa pushed the tangled string of lights off her lap.

“Can’t find the bulb that’s not working?”

“No, they work,” she said darkly. “They just won’t untangle.”

“Well, you’re the one that bought the eight foot tree that needed fifteen bazillion lights,” he said and wound his nice, neat string around his elbow and shoulder with a smirk.

Sneering at him she pushed her mess his way. “Then if you’re so good at it, then you do it.”

“I did four strands of 250, you can manage one.”

She frowned down at the green twine of colored lights even more hopelessly tangled at her feet. “I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”

He leaned over and brushed his lips over hers gently, opening her mouth with a clever tongue and a technique she didn’t want to think about in too great length. “Nope,” he said and stood dropping the lights with his other neatly coiled strands.

She huffed and stood. “Hey, where’s the Christmas music you promised me?”

He looked away from the tree, “Ah that would be the beauty of digital cable. There’s a Christmas station in the music channels.”

She went over to the coffee table to see four remotes. “God, you’re such a guy,” she said and gestured to the array of electronic gadgets.

“I’m all man, baby.”

Snorting, she picked up the remote that said Comcast thinking that was her best shot. Hitting all power she was pleased to see the TV blip on. It was on a local news channel.

“Looks like even rock stars still have to do their own shopping. While filming the Christmas Cookie Bake-off next door to Chapters Bookstore we caught Jon Bon Jovi coming out. Funny, he wasn’t carrying a bag. Maybe the newly single Bon Jovi was there to see the beautiful proprietor, Tessa Donovan instead, hmm? A little Christmas romance in the air? There’s been rumors that he’s been in the shop quite a bit lately.”

The on location reporter smiled and the in studio anchor-woman replied, “I didn’t know Jon was such an avid reader.”

“One never knows,” said the bright eyed reporter tucking a strand of blond hair behind her ear. “You just never know what you’re going to find in the little shops in Red Bank.”

“Thanks for the scoop, Lisa.” The anchor-woman turned to a different camera. “It’s time for sports with-“

Jon took the remote from her without a word and flipped to the music channels and settled on the Christmas channel.

Shit! Tessa swallowed thickly. “Jon-“

“Welcome to my life, Tessa. I’m just surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

She frowned up at him. “But doesn’t this mean you have to…” she trailed off. Hell, she didn’t know what it meant. They weren’t exactly being secretive, but they certainly weren’t letting people know they were dating…or whatever it was they were doing.

“Rumors fly about me whenever I’m next to a woman. I could give Hillary Clinton a hug and someone would think we’re sleeping together.”

Tessa just arched a brow at him. “C’mon Jon. What are your kids going to say?”

“Well, my kids don’t watch the news for one thing, no matter how much I try to get them to be informed and for the other, they just don’t pay attention to me in the media. In fact they’re the first to turn it off.”

“But what about your ex-wife?”

“She stopped giving a shit about my personal life a long time ago,” he muttered.

She frowned and turned him toward her. “Hey,” she said when he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Is this going to be a problem?”

His blue eyes were still distant when they met hers. “Of course not,” he said and put that fake smile on his face that she hated. “C’mon the tree’s not going to decorate itself.”

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer shot gaily out of the speakers of his state of the art television as she followed him back to the tree. He’d put the tree back into the base and even done the tightening again without complaint. They worked in silence, the Christmas music she’d wanted to help them feel festive now just felt false.

“Well, I’m not tall enough for this bad boy, I’m going to go grab the step stool from the kitchen.”

She watched his walk away and took her frustration out on her string of lights, managing to wrap the little bulbs even closer together for her trouble. He came back in and set the battered black and white stool next to the tree then sighed and folded himself Indian style next to her, taking the lights from her.

He didn’t look up at her as he slowly, methodically untangled the strand. “Dorothea found out about you today, before the reporter.”

Her gut clenched and knotted. “How?”

He peeked through the now curling strands of hair at his forehead. “I accidentally told her.”

Tessa drew her arms in and folded them tight against her body. She’d gotten a bad feeling earlier in the day and had just pushed it away as new relationship jitters. “Accidentally?”

“She wasn’t one hundred percent on board with me doing the Christmas thing with my kids on Sunday night.”

Without thought, she dropped her hand on his forearm. The sleeve of his soft blue, denim shirt had fallen low and she toyed with the cuff. “Why not?”

“She just thinks there’s too much change this year and I think it’s the perfect time to start a new tradition.”

Smoothing the cuff along his elbow she nodded. “I’m with you.”

“Dot’s always been the one to do the planning and the arranging of family functions. She’d just tell me where and when and we’d be good to go. She’s leery of me wanting to do stuff on my own.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “It’s just never been my way. I’m gonna sound like a jerk no matter how I spin this one, but I’ve always had people do stuff for me, Tessa. She’s got a right to be a little weirded out when I said I wanted to do something just me and the kids.”

“Okay, so you made your argument and must have won.”

“Not without her friggin’ radar going off. She knows me too well, even with all the distance that has come between us, she knows me.”

Tessa swallowed back a kick of jealousy. His ex would always know him better than she did and she would always be there, the one before her. “Of course she does,” she said, hoping her voice was even.

“She guessed and I wasn’t prepared.”

The bubble of annoyance that piggy-backed the jealousy left her mouth dry. She rubbed his arm and stood up, lifting her wine glass from the coffee table, taking a deep drink. “Well, you haven’t told anyone but Richie about me.” She lifted the bottle he’d brought in and refilled her glass, forcing herself to turn back to him.

She’d gotten so used to being able to read his eyes, she didn’t know what to do now that she couldn’t. She took another swallow and felt the wine buzz in her head. It didn’t stop the dryness, or the lump in her throat. “I’ll be right back.” She went into the kitchen and took a bottled water from the fridge and drank more than half of it.

She felt him behind her and hated herself for being so stupid about this thing between them. This thing that could be there for the rest of their relationship. He crowded in on her and pressed his cheek against her hair, wrapping his arms around her waist. “Tessa,” he said on a sigh.

Her stomach clenched at his touch, then eased as she relaxed back against him, letting her hands fall on his strong forearms. “Its fine, we’ll be fine.”

“Right after the holidays I’m going to figure out a way to make all of this work for us.”

She closed her eyes for a moment before turning into his arms. His blue eyes were clear again, the distance that had been there was gone and determination had replaced it. The green monster loosened its grasp on her better sense and she smiled up at him. “Oh yeah?”

“Absolutely. I’m not letting you go.”

“Well, I like the sound of that,” she said just before his lips came down on hers. Falling into the physical part of their relationship was so easy. Her body seemed to know just what to do, how to meet each touch and let him take her away. When he pulled back his eyes were still clear, if a little heated at the edges.

“Okay, if we keep doing that we’re going to have a naked tree and a naked you.”

She laughed, “Well if we trim the tree first you can still have a naked me, how’s that sound?”

“Sounds like incentive to me.” He walked them backwards out the door and back to the tree. He handed her a strand of lights. “Okay, bottom up or top down?” he said and took the end.

“Which way did your Dad do it?”

“He liked to start at the top,” he said and waggled his brows before he stepped on the stool.

“Then top it is,” she said. She circled the tree giving him ample slack as they worked their way around the tree. He frowned when she wrapped around the tree branches every few inches.

“Don’t you just have to let them lay on the branches?”

“Makes them stay put and the tree look fuller.”

“Don’t you mean more work?” he groused.

She just laughed and grabbed the next set of lights. “You like my tree right?”

“Glad I don’t pay your electric bill.”

She snorted, “Shut up you probably have someone that takes care of that stuff for you.”

He shrugged, “Maybe.”

“Uh huh,” she said and plugged in one strand to the other. Elvis came out of the speakers and she laughed as his lip automatically curled and he sang along. He exaggerated the words with an extra dose of pelvis and she couldn’t stop laughing when he hopped off the chair and grabbed her.

His arm snaked around her waist and tugged her close as he swiveled his hips, pressing the flat of his hand along her lower back until there wasn’t a breath between them. He took them in an easy circle, his voice low and clear as he sang to her.

She laughed when the song ended and she was bent back in a dip, but the laugh turned into a groan when he took advantage of her neck. And when the nuzzle turned into a tug at her earlobe she curled her arms around his shoulders until he let her up. “You are a dangerous man,” she said her heart thundering in her ears.

“C’mon everyone loves Elvis.”

“I hate to be predictable, but I love him too.”

“Good, we’d have to have words if you didn’t love Elvis. That and my Dad will corner you and explain the joy of the music, followed directly by my Mother who will make you watch each movie.”

“Good to know that if I run into trouble with your mother, I can confuse her with my favorite Elvis movies. She’ll have to like me then.”

The laughter died down at the mention of parents. “I do want you to meet my family, Tessa. My brothers, my parents, my kids the whole big mess of Italians will love you, I’m sure of it.”

She slipped away from him and lifted the strand of lights that had fallen away from the middle of the tree. “Next Christmas,” she said brightly and moved around the back of the tree.

When she came out the other side Jon grabbed her hand. “More like Easter.”

“Let’s get through Christmas and New Year’s first, huh? This tree is never going to decorate itself. Help me finish the lights and we’ll do the ornaments.”

He sighed and took the lights from her and finished the rest of the tree with another two sets before he plugged it into the wall. “It’s a miracle! They all work!” she said happily and bumped her hip into his. “See, I knew you could be domesticated.”

“Oh, was this a test?”

“Absolutely! I had to make sure you could at least decorate a tree or all bets were off.”

He lifted an ornament and hung it. “Okay, I’m done. This is the girl part.” He dropped into his leather chair.

“Oh I don’t think so, buddy.”

“I know how it works, I put it on the tree and you move it anyway, so why do it in the first place?”

She tugged his arm, but he stayed in the chair. “C’mon it’s your tree,” she said with a trace of a pout.

He stood again, “Are you going to leave them where I put them?”

It pained her, but she nodded. “Of course,” she said solemnly and slid her hand behind her back, crossing her fingers.




Song: Blue Christmas

Chapter 66

“Ouch! That’s my finger! Wait a second! I’m not ready!” Tessa said from outside.

Jon grunted as he stopped. Sweet fuck, how had his Dad done this every year? “Ready?”

“Okay, ready!”

He yanked to the left to get the bottom of the tree past the doorway. “Could you have gotten a bigger tree, Tessa?”

She pushed at the branches that had poked through the burlap and lifted the top of the tree off the ground. “Yes,” she said then cursed. “But I didn’t want to have it air lifted.”

Jon turned and got a good hold on the trunk wincing when the sawed off edge swiped across his jeans leaving a rip and sticky sap. Giving one good yank the tree made it the rest of the way into the tiled foyer.

“Oh my God,” she said and leaned against the doorjamb. “It’s only a little bigger than my tree.”

“Obviously you were looking at a different tree than the one that ended up on your car.” He dropped the base of the tree and groaned manfully, he hoped.

“It’s only two feet longer than mine,” she said and angled the last of the branches in so she could close the door.

“Two feet? Christ woman, how the fuck big is this thing?”

“Eight feet.”

“Well no wonder it’s a bitch. When I was a kid we got the Charlie Brown tree for the corner that was slightly fucked and barely taller than my Dad.”

“You’ve got a tree stand, right?”

Jon peeked over a branch from his crouched position. “Tree stand,” he said and wiped his arm over his sweaty forehead. Shit, it was more work getting the damn tree in his house than running five miles. “Um, yeah,” he felt the vertebrae of his back pop as he stood up. “It’s in the basement, I think. Let me check with Lotti.”

“Lotti?”

He nodded. “She’s been my housekeeper since,” he trailed off. “Oh, since Jesse was a toddler at least. She knows where everything is. C’mon lets get a slice and a drink then we’ll set this bad boy up.”

“I like that plan,” she said and stepped her way around the branches. She met him at the sink but they both gave up on the sticky sap that gripped knuckle and palm and scrubbed off what they could.

Jon grabbed two glasses and the bottle of wine he’d let breathe for the last hour. Pouring the rich red into a glass for her, then himself he flipped open the pizza box. “One or two?”

“Two, I totally forgot to eat today.” She took the wine glass he offered and sipped. “Oh, that’s good.”

He frowned and dropped two pieces of pizza on her plate and another double for him. “Why didn’t you say something, I would have brought something to you.”

Laughing she folded herself into a chair at the kitchen table. “What you gonna take care of me now?”

He slid a plate in front of her and leaned down, “Evidently you need me to,” and kissed her. Her flavor was rich with the full bodied wine and he went back for a second sip before he sat down next to her. “Well, eat. Lotti will show her face eventually, she’s probably doing a load of laundry before she leaves for the night.”

Taking a bite, she pointed at him with the folded slice, “Must be nice.”

“I let Dot take most of the staff with her but I couldn’t give up Lotti. She’s full time, then there’s a gardener a few times a week, and a crew that comes in for the big clean once a month.”

She swallowed and took a sip of wine. “Well, it is a big house.”

“Yeah, it’s a little too much house for me, but I’ll keep it until the kids are older. I just started paperwork on an apartment in Soho. I have to bid for that one though.” He laughed when her eyebrow winged up. “What?”

She shook her head. “You say it like you just bought a new shirt.”

“Well, between my trips into Philly and the city it seemed easier to have a place there instead of fighting my way into a hotel each night.”

She picked at her crust and dipped it in the sauce and grease of her remaining slice before popping it in her mouth. “I guess.”

“From a business standpoint it’s a good investment and it’s easier to host parties there than here.”

Her green eyes met his with a little frown line arrowing between her brows. It looked as if she was going to say something, but thought better of it and took another bite of her pizza.

“What? I can see your brain working from here.”

A tidy little woman with a short halo of dark hair came into the kitchen and cut off the conversation. “Hello, Mr. Jon. I’ve finished everything for tonight,” she nodded at Tessa. “If there isn’t anything else, I think I’ll retire for the night.”

“Hey Lotti, this is Tessa.”

”Hello Miss Tessa.” Jon watched as Carlotta, or more affectionately dubbed, Lotti, took quick stock of Tessa. Her shrewd brown eyes cleared quickly and there was genuine warmth in her demeanor.

“Nice to meet you, Lotti,” she said and smiled warmly.

“Just one thing, Tessa brought me a Christmas tree. Any idea where the tree stand is?”

Lotti’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Oh, that’s wonderful. I’ve missed having a tree this year. I believe it’s in the basement. I’ll go down and get it,” she said and turned away.

“No, that’s okay I’ll go down and take care of it, you’ve been working all day. Tessa and I will go down and get the decorations to go with it. They’re all together?”

”Yes, in the corner there are green storage units labeled and stacked.”

“Great, thanks Lotti. Have a good night and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Very well, Mr. Jon,” she nodded toward Tessa. “If you need anything just ask.”

“We’ll be fine, though I’m not sure how good the foyer and living room will be by morning.”

“We have a very fine vacuum to take care of that,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. “Good night.”

“Does she live here?” Tessa asked with a faint blush.

“She’s got a set of rooms off the back.”

“That night we?” she said and the blush spread down her neck. “When I got the whipped cream?”

“Yeah, her room is right off the kitchen a few yards away.”

“I was…but, there was-“ she broke off and swallowed her crust with the help of a gulp of wine.

Jon laughed, “We were very much alone that night. She was visiting her grandchildren in Phoenix.”

She threw her remaining crust at him and he snagged it, popping it in his mouth. “Hey now, we don’t waste pizza in this house.”

She stood and flicked his shoulder on the way by. He snagged her by the waist and hauled her onto his lap. “You did not just flick me did you?”

With easy affection she looped her arm around his neck and nodded solemnly. “I do believe I did. Just what are you going to do about it?”

He nipped her chin and tugged her down for a kiss. Letting their tongues swirl together he breathed her in. The scent of pine lingered from their fight to the finish at the door and the elusive scent that would always be her teased the edges. Letting himself drift on the taste of her he sighed his way out of the kiss. “C’mon we’ve got some work to do, Miss Christmas.”

Twenty minutes later Jon pushed the last bin of decorations into the kitchen and winced as he stretched his back. “Tell me again, why I’m dragging every bin of ornaments out of my basement?”

“Because this is the first year that you’re doing Christmas alone with your kids and I’m going to find all the homemade things that will make it special for them.”

Jon eased his way onto the dark green plastic, careful to make sure it would take his weight and stretched his legs when it did. “You know they totally won’t notice anything but the presents underneath the tree, right?”

“You’d be surprised by what kids notice.”

Sighing he stood and bent with his legs straight to stretch out the kinks from the stairs and bulky bins he’d maneuvered up the stairs. Pressing his palms flat on the floor for a three count he stood and caught her eye. “What?”

“You’re pretty bendy there, sir.”

He crouched down to her level and caught her lips in a quick kiss. “I can show you just how flexible I am if you’re game.”

She pushed a tray of ornaments into him. “Why don’t we start by you showing me how you reach the high branches?”

He frowned down at the tangle of ornaments packed in bubble wrap. His frown faded when he spotted the crudely glittered ball that Stephanie had made him and lifted it out carefully. “Steph made this in Kindergarten,” he said and watched the light hit the glued on sparkles and mismatched letters to form Dad.

She took the ornament carefully and tucked it back in the tray. “We’ll make sure it has a great spot on the tree, now won’t we?”

Gruffly he backed away from her and lifted the bin without complaint. It was eerie how on target Tessa could be with the little family things, especially when she had no family to speak of. Eerier still that she was giving so selflessly of herself. He wasn’t used to people wanting to do for him. All his life whenever people were nice, it was to get something from him, even family.

When the last bin was moved into the living room he and Tessa wrestled the tree into the living room and somehow managed to get it into the stand. Jon landed himself on his back under the tree screwing in eight inch long screws into the pine as she twisted the tree in for a straighter fit.

“Can I let go?”

Jon twisted the last screw in and dropped his head to the carpet. “Is it straight?”

He watched her backup, her pretty pink toes digging deep into his carpeting as she studied the tree. “Twist it to the left.”

Jon couldn’t help the smirk. “Like this?”

“A little to the right, now.”

The smirk widened and he peeked over his chest but couldn’t see her face. “Better?”

“Nope, more left now.”

His head dropped back on the floor as he shifted the tree. “Now?”

She dropped onto his thighs and he jumped and the tree shifted then toppled. She shrieked and he found himself on top of her away from the tree. “Damn, those thigh muscles are nothing short of amazing,” he said just before he started laughing.

She smacked his arm and he rolled off of her. “What? That was fucking hilarious!”

But instead of the angry Tessa he was certain he’d find she was curled in a fetal ball, a laugh choking her. “Oh my God! I was teasing you with the tree and then it fell over.” She said and gasped.

He crawled over to her and pushed his fingers into her sides to keep the laughter going. “So the tree was straight?”

“Yes!” she yelped and tried to roll away.

“And you left me on my back,” he grunted when her knee hit him in the thigh as she jerked in convulsions. “For no good reason,” he finished.

“Yes,” she said on a wheeze.

He held her down and couldn’t help but laugh back at her when the tickling only left her gasping for air, the laughter more shriek than anything else. He let her roll away and flopped onto his back. “You’re going under the tree this time.”

Her laughter settled into giggles as she crawled to him and settled back onto his thighs a safe distance from the downed tree. “We fucked up.”

He looked up at her and snorted. “Nooo—You fucked up.”

She leaned down and a flurry of pine needles came out of her hair and pinged him in the face. She brushed them away, “Sorry about that.”

“About the pine needles or the tree?” he challenged.

She scooted higher on his thighs, “The pine needles,” she said and pinned his hands playfully as she loomed over him.

Using his stomach muscles he toppled her and smacked her on the ass before she landed on the floor.

“Hey!” she said and sat up.

He dragged her off the floor. “We gotta fix the tree.”

“I wasn’t worried about the tree,” she groused and stood next to him.

“You said we had to do the tree first.”

“You suck.”

“Maybe I will later,” he said and flicked his fingertip down the slope of her nose.

“Maybe you lost your chance to-”

He just looked over his shoulder and she shut up.

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