5/30/2007

Chapter 71

Tessa glanced left, then right and backed into the bathroom. Shimmying between people, she quickly locked herself in one of the stalls before a customer could see her nametag. They were finding her everywhere. For God’s sake she couldn’t breathe without a customer or an employee cornering her. Even Nic was second guessing herself on things she did everyday.

Christmas sucked the life out of you, and it was beginning to seriously look like the brain was part of the loss. Sweet George, she hadn’t sat down for the better part of four hours now and even the commode was looking good. She couldn’t quite make herself sit down on it though, she wasn’t sure she could be tired enough to sit on a public toilet.

Instead she pressed her forehead to the cool metal of the door and closed her eyes. Storytime would start in less than an hour and she needed to change into the princess gown and somehow transform her haggard self into a bright eyed woman who hadn’t just worked all day on limited sleep.

Taking three deep breaths she reluctantly left the stall and washed her hands, splashed water on her make-up free face and winced. It was going to take a trowel to fix the bags under her eyes. Pushing through the door Nic grabbed her arm and hauled her into the hallway.

”Did you know how many cameras were going to be with the news crew?”

Tessa pulled her arm back. “What the hell, Nic?” She sighed and followed her to the end of the small corridor. Two huge cameras were set up on tripods and a glossy female reporter was touching up her makeup. Squinting, she noticed two different logos on the cameras.

“Did I say yes to two different stations?”

“Didn’t one call a few weeks ago to set it up after you started Storytime Sundays?”

She fell back against the wall and put her hands in front of her face. “Can you just kill me?”

“What? This is great! Free publicity, Tess.”

A hysterical laugh started to bubble free before she could stop it. “Oh yeah, free publicity and Jon and Richie are coming with the kids.”

“Oh shit!”

“Yeah, no kiddin’,” she dug into her pocket for her cell. Hitting the speed dial for Jon she clamped an arm over her churning stomach. “C’mon answer.”

“Hey, you know the drill-“ came his short message via voice mail.

“Shit,” she muttered. “Jon, it’s Tessa give me a call as soon as you can.” She shoved her cell back into her pocket and let her head thunk back against the wall. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. It’s a known fact that Jon doesn’t let his kids get filmed, and the local reporters should know this by now. So I’m going to set up a little spot for them to sit away from the cameras and we should be fine.”

“What about the reporters outside?”

“God willing, one won’t make it through the door, but people are starting to arrive already and it will be easier to sneak in.”

“I’ll keep watch, you go get ready. Jon’s a big boy and knows how to deal with reporters.”

“You’re right.”

“Of course I am, now go and beautify. I hate to say it, but you need some help for once sweetie.”

“As if I don’t already know this?”

“Well, you know…just in case you didn’t look in the mirror when you snuck off to hide in the bathroom.”

“I wasn-“

“Oh honey, don’t lie to me,” Nic said and crossed her arms under her chest.

Tessa stopped, it just wasn’t worth the effort to lie. “That’s just eerie that you know that.”

“Nichole knows all, now shoo.”

She just closed her mouth and hurried for her office. Her pocket buzzed as she closed herself in her office, locking the door. She quickly opened the cell when she saw the number. “Hey,” she said a little breathlessly.

“Hey yourself,” he said with a smile in his voice. “Did you leave me a message?”

“Yeah, I think maybe you and the kids should skip tonight.”

“A little late for that darlin’, I’m at your backdoor.”

She cursed long and low.

“Hey, hey what’s this?”

“I’ll be right there,” she said and shut her phone. “Dammit,” she muttered to herself and finally managed to make it to the store-room door after helping three customers and two employees.

Distantly she realized she could make her way through the store-room which was a new thing all together. She unlocked the back door and slipped outside. Any thoughts of being tired and grouchy eased at the line up of spit polished boys from age two to forty-seven.

“Thanks for letting us come in the back, Tessa,” Richie said and bussed her cheek. “I’d like you to meet my daughter, Ava. Honey this is Miss Donovan.”

Tessa put out her hand for a shake. “As much as I’ll give your Dad points for manners you can call me Tessa.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said in a shy voice and hugged herself to Richie’s side. “Are you really going to read about the Mouse King?”

She grinned. “You know the Nutcracker? Oh yeah, it’s my favorite story. My Dad used to read it to me every Christmas.”

“Is he going to be here tonight to read it?” she asked.

A sad little pang hit her chest. “No, I wish he was. I took over reading it when my Dad died years ago. So now I read it to kids just like he did.”

“I’m sorry about your Dad, that’s not cool at all.”

Tessa pushed Ava’s slim ponytail over her shoulder and patted her. “No, not at all but reading it for you guys and the rest of the kids inside is just the way he’d like it.” She crouched down and smiled at Romeo. “Hey guy, ready for another story?”

He smiled and his dark blue eyes twinkled. “Santa!”

She glanced up at Jon. He just laughed. “Don’t ask.”

“Gotcha,” she said and stood. “Hiya Jake.”

“Hi Pirate Lady. Where’s your sword?”

“You certainly have a good memory.” When he just continued to look at her with those intense blue eyes that were so very Jon she shook her head in near amazement. “I had to give the sword back to my friend.”

“Your friend is a pirate?”

“No, but he plays one at school.”

Jake’s eyes widened. “He goes to Pirate school?” He looked up at Jon. “Can I go to Pirate school, Dad?”

Jon’s lips quirked into a lopsided grin, “Only if I get to go too, Jake.”

Stephanie stepped forward, “Don’t mind my brothers, they’re still fixated on the pirates. They talk about it non-stop.” She held out her hand and shook hers firmly. Another pair of Jon’s eyes hit her square with interest, wariness and a touch of suspicion. “I’m Steph.”

Jesse just grunted, “Hey.”

“That’s my other brother,” she tugged out an earbud from under his hat. “He’s rude, but sometimes we call him Jesse.”

Jesse just sneered and tucked the earpiece back into his hear. Jon rolled his eyes and smiled at her. “He’s entering phase one of teenage hell.”

Tessa smiled, “You’ve got yourself a lovely family, Jon.”

Romeo monkeyed his way up Jon’s arm and without thought he slung him onto his hip. “Good thing, because the store won’t let me return them after thirty days.”

“Lame, Dad,” Stef said and folded her arms.

Pieces of Jon filtered through in each of his children from Jake’s look, to Romeo’s energy to Jesse’s sullen moodiness that could be so much a part of Jon. But it was his daughter that looked so much like his ex that it was disconcerting. Only the intense blue of her eyes and the shape of her nose gave her away as Jon’s.

Suddenly she didn’t want them inside. To see the way Jon would close up with the cameras everywhere around his kids was just too much on top of the stress of the day.

“Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Sure,” he walked with her until they were by the door. “What’s up?”

“The reporters are swarming out front and there are two local channels inside to catch part of my reading.”

“Is that what has you so worked up?”

“I’m not worked up.”

His voice lowered, “Babe, I don’t think you’ve ever hung up on me before. And you’re so pale.” His hand reached as if to touch her, but dropped back to his side. He sighed. “I deal with reporters every day and so do my kids to an extent. If it’s local news they already know I’ll give them a sound bite if they leave my kids alone. It’s a win-win for them.”

“I’m sure it will be fine then. I just know you hate them around your kids. And I wanted…” she swallowed and started again. “I just wanted the storytime to be perfect this year and it’s just turning into a circus.”

“C’mon let’s get everyone settled and inside, Okay?”

Tessa nodded and opened the door. Richie corralled the kids and the all filed through the store room. “I set up a small section in the back for you guys.”

“You didn’t have to do anything special, Tessa.”

“I know.” She led them up front and Jon signaled to Richie and the kids followed him to the stage area where Tessa would be reading.

“I’ll be right there, guys. I just want to talk to Tessa for a minute.”

Steph followed Richie but her eyes were suspicious again and locked onto Tessa. She tried to smile, but it just felt so fake. How could anyone not see how stupid she was for Jon? She probably looked like a moony eyed teen around him.

Jon opened her office door and pushed her inside. “Jon, someone will see!” she whispered furiously when he shut the door.

“No one even knows I’m here yet.”

“Darlin’ someone spread it the minute you hit my floor from the back door.”

“I’m not worried about me right now.”

“Well you should be. I’ve been stewing and planning and trying to figure out a way to keep the press out of our relationship until you’re rea-“

He leaned in and captured her lips with his. His thumb coasted over her cheek and his fingers slipped into her hair before settling at the base of her skull with a penetrating deep tissue rub.

“Oh God,” she muttered and let her forehead fall onto his chest.

“Babe, you gotta stop worrying about me.” He pressed his nose into her hair and took a deep breath. “God, you smell good.”

“You gotta be kidding me,” she said and lifted her head. “I smell like I need an hour long shower.”

“You still have that girl hair smell that makes every man crazy.”

“Yeah well you’re certainly crazy.”
He dragged her closer and she took a deep breath in, filling her lungs with soap and man and fabric softener from his red button down. “I’ve got a strategy for tonight at least.”

She slid her arms around his shoulders and just let herself lean on him. Just for a minute and she’d be okay to let him go. Maybe another minute or two. God, she was just so tired. The promise land was only a few hours away. She could escape to Nichole’s house and get away from New Jersey and the reporters for a day.

Even away from Jon. Because she couldn’t think when he was around. She moaned a little as his fingertips found the edge of her t-shirt and started to lift it.

“Oh no, you’re not distracting me with that. I have a book to read.”

He pulled away and grinned. “You can’t blame a guy for trying can you?”

She just rolled her eyed and opened the door, no touches and no kisses at the door as she walked him out. “Go, I’ll find you.”

She dropped into her seat and stared at her make-up case. She had some serious work to do, and very little time to do it in.

5/24/2007

Chapter 70

Jon snapped his cell shut and shoved it in his jeans, then pressed his forehead into the doorjamb, lifted and let it bang back down. He knew that life wasn’t simple, knew that his life in particular would never be simple, but for God’s sake it was Christmas.

Didn’t reporters have families? Was it really necessary to stalk him even in his own home town? And Tessa was bearing the brunt of it. No simpering, no crying, no real complaints, just a bone deep tired in her voice that he knew all too well.

“You know the lights are pretty all on their own, you don’t need a concussion to make them blink.”

Jon couldn’t stop the snort of laughter. He swiveled his head, still letting the doorway support him, and sighed. Richie stood with legs apart, arms crossed over his barrel chest and the singularly most absurd Christmas shirt on. He was in the same boat as Jon, trying to make Christmas just as special for Ava. “Just put me out of my misery. I’ll wake up next Christmas and all this shit will be worked out.”

“Nah, next year Jake will be old enough to want the gadgets like the other kids.”

He closed his eyes, “I wish I was talking about presents.”

“That pretty little thing you’re seeing?”

“Yeah, Tessa.” He turned and propped his shoulder on the jamb. “The reporters found her. They caught me going out of her shop the other night.”

“So, it’s Christmas, even we go shopping.”

“No bag.”

Richie’s eyebrow quirked. “Not like you to be so careless, man.”

“Not like me to follow a female around like a dog in heat either.”

Richie’s head tipped back and his belly laugh boomed through the room. “True, that. At least you picked a nice chick this time. Don’t get me wrong, Dot had her moments, but I was beginning to think you got off of the bitch factor.”

Before Jon could reply Romeo came running out of the room and straight for him. Jon crouched low before he could take him out at the knees. “Hey bud, what’s up?”

He sucked in great gulps of air and his wide dark blue eyes shimmered with tears. “Santa! No Santa!”

“What?” Jon bit back a laugh. “It’s not time for Santa yet, he’ll be here in the morning.”

“No! No Santa!” he said and buried his nose into Jon’s shoulder.

He scooped him up and stood, Romeo clutched at the overgrown hair brushing his collar and tugged, crawling closer into his arms. Jon winced and freed his hair. “Hey, it’s okay. Of course there’s a Santa.” He rubbed his back. “I’ll kick Jesse’s butt if he said something,” he muttered to Richie.

Richie just shrugged.

“I think its spaghetti time, what do you think?”

Romeo hiccupped and snuffled into Jon’s shirt, “yeah.”

“Okay good, I’m hungry too.” He and Richie gathered up the kids and got them set up at the table. The older kids had spaghetti and the younger set had penne instead. Twenty minutes into the meal, both Jake and Romeo were wearing most of their sauce and talk of Santa had been momentarily forgotten.

He managed to shovel in a few bites between helping cut up meatballs and pasta in edible sizes. “What do you guys think about going to Chapters for a Christmas storytime?”

“Do we get to go home after?” Jake asked.

He frowned, “No, buddy you guys are staying here tonight. We’ll do regular Christmas at your Mom’s house tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Jake said and shoved another noodle in his mouth. He chewed then looked back at Jon. “Is the Pirate lady going to be there?”

Jon had a brief flash of that first night with Tessa and cleared his throat. “Yes, Miss Donovan will be there. I think she’s doing the reading actually.”

“She’s pretty,” Jake said matter-of-factly.

Richie shot Jon a look and he swallowed a laugh. “Yes, she’s very pretty. Would you like to go and hear a Christmas story?”

“Is it about Santa?” Jake asked.

Jon frowned again. He wasn’t sure what the fixation was with Santa. Now it was both his boys asking about him. “I’m not sure what the story is actually. Would it be okay if it wasn’t about Santa? You know that’s not what Christmas is all about, right?”

Jake’s bottom lip quivered a bit before he bit down on it. “Yes, I know.” He looked down at his plate then back up at him. “I guess it would be all right.”

He looked over at his two older kids. “Any objections?”

Steph shrugged, “Not exactly my scene, Dad.”

“I don’t want to leave you guys home, so if you really don’t want to go we can skip it.”

Steph sat back in her chair and just looked at him. Her eyes, nearly a mirror to his own, were so serious and her gaze far too knowing. “Since when were you into books?” she asked.

“It’s not so much the books, but the storytelling. Miss Donovan’s been doing it for years and I really enjoyed her Sunday Storytime a few weeks ago. Maybe it could be a new tradition. At least until the boys are too old to enjoy it.”

Jesse shrank down in his chair. “It’s gonna be stupid.”

Jon sighed. “It’s fine, it was just a thought. We can watch a few videos and play some games or something.” He stood and started clearing plates. Maybe wanting to see Tessa wasn’t such a good idea. Wanting to make time with her and his family had to have a balance. Starting new traditions would have to wait until next year.

“Hey guys, c’mon it’s something to do. Do you really want to watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer again?” Richie said. His voice rose in excitement. “This chick really knows how to get a crowd going from what your dad said.” He pointed at Jake. “Even you said it was awesome! She had pirate gear on and even a sword last time!”

Jon opened his mouth to stop Richie from talking it up. He appreciated the gesture, but he didn’t want to make them go. Didn’t want to force the issue when having them there was more than enough to make his Christmas complete.

“Does she change voices for each person in the story?” Ava asked with a trace of uncertainty.

“I’m not sure baby,” Richie said and turned to Jon in question.

“Uh,” Jon swallowed. “She had a really cool actress do the last story and she had a couple different voices.”
Jake shook his head. “Yeah, she was really cool. She even had this low, deep voice. But I don’t know if the same girl will do all the books.”

Ava sat up straighter. “What’s the book?”

Jon went to the junk drawer in the hall where he’d dropped the sheet that Nic had given him his first visit into the store. Rummaging around, he found the sheet. He came back in. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the Nutcracker.”

“Oh, Dad!! Me and Mom saw that last year in New York!! It was really cool.” Ava said and then sobered. “I mean, it would be cool for the kids.”

Richie smiled and brushed a hand over her lopsided ponytail. “Think the boys would like it?”

“The Mouse King is pretty scary. They may not be up for it,” she said solemnly.

“I’m not scared,” Jake said and put his fork down. “Dad, I’m not scared.”

Jon dropped his hand on his shoulder. “Of course you aren’t, it’s just a mouse, right?”

Jake nodded. “Yeah, let’s go!”

Jesse and Steph rolled their eyes but nodded. “It’s better than playing Monopoly with Richie. He sucks,” Jesse said and picked up his plate.

“Hey! I’m a guitarist not a mogul. That’s your Dad’s thing.”

Jon walked by and pinged Richie’s ear. “I’m not a mogul you shit.” He picked up Ava’s dish and what was left of Romeo’s bowl. “C’mon guys let’s load the dishwasher and get you cleaned up.”

5/06/2007

Chapter 69

Jon gathered the woman in his arms just a little closer. He’d slept a bit but it had been restless. Each time he woke he found himself searching for Tessa instead of rolling over and letting himself slip back under.

Even now he didn’t want to let her go. Beyond the physical there was also the connection and the laughter, both of which had been lacking in his life.

So much of the last five years had been about touring and his new ventures with the Soul and now Project Home. If he kept himself busy enough then the mess at home wouldn’t matter. If he was away, then his world wouldn’t crumble…it had always been waiting for him before.

But that hadn’t worked. His world had fallen apart; he just hadn’t been there to see it go. He tucked Tessa back against him and curled around her, sliding his leg between hers as they often slept. He couldn’t even explain the irrational fear that kept him from telling his family.

He’d been worried about telling the kids he was seeing someone new, even though that word wasn’t quite right. What did he call her? Girlfriend? Friend? Especially since he’d already told Jake that she wasn’t his girlfriend and the kid had a steel trap memory. He’d royally fucked up there and that was so unlike him. He thought things through from every angle, but with Tessa there was a new angle almost every day.

Of course he also thought that Dorothea would be his be-all-end-all when it came to relationships. Being forty-four years old and divorced had been easy. Lonely at times perhaps, but he was used to being alone. Now he was forty-four and dating again, but throw in love and he couldn’t seem to wrap his mind around it. Everything with Dot had been comforting and calm. The only time they’d been crazy was through their teen and early twenties. She’d been the one to ground him, the one to make him sit and think things through.

Tessa made him think, but not about himself for the first time in too many years to name. From questioning something as simple as getting a Christmas tree for his children, to as complicated as starting over again. He needed to take everyone into consideration, not just himself.

He willed the sleep to come, but could only stare out at the deep dark of night as it slowly brightened into day.

She stirred against him, her inner clock unerring as always. Her nails scraped along the hairs of his forearm and he sighed at the normalcy and the sweetness of her. The way she touched him just out of sleep amazed him. It was almost as if she wasn’t really positive he’d be there. He burrowed his chin into that sensitive spot between her neck and shoulder. “Morning,” he said.

She stretched a little and groaned when his hand smoothed over her tummy and pulled her flush against the erection that never seemed to ease around her. When he nudged the head of his cock against her entrance she opened for him with a sigh. Taking him into her as she always did, with strength and softness.

The pace was slow and unhurried, their bodies fluid with the slow climb to release. He reached around to find her slick for him already or still, it just didn’t seem to matter. They started their morning with a soft, slow ride.

Her name was both a whisper and a prayer as he shuddered through the oddly draining orgasm. He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he must have and he frowned when he found the bed cold beside him.

He rolled over and winced. His will may have been to go all night long, but his body wasn’t entirely happy with him for the follow through. He blinked away sleep and swore when the clock came into focus. “Shit,” he struggled out of the covers and stumbled into the bathroom.

Richie and his daughter were going to be there at 12:30 and Ava didn’t need to see him looking like warmed over shit. He stopped rushing when he noticed the taped note on his mirror.




Jon-

Have a lovely day with your family today and say Hi to Richie for me okay? Work will be non-stop but I’ll try to call you if I can.

I’ve had a tradition at all the stores I’ve worked for. There will be a special Christmas Eve reading tonight. Bring the kids if you like, but don’t feel you have to. I know you want time with them.

I’m sure we’ll talk, but if something happens and we don’t…I’ll be heading to Nichole’s parents for Christmas Eve and Day, but I hope to see you sometime tomorrow night if you can manage it.




Love,

Me





He tapped the Soul stationary against his lips and folded it in half. She was getting a little too good at sneaking out of bed in the morning. He closed himself into the shower and scrubbed down.

Making Christmas work was going to be a trick that was for sure. Part of him wanted to start a new tradition with her and the kids at the same time. What could be better than the age-old tradition of storytelling? It was something truly near and dear to his heart. He’d talk to Richie and see what he thought.

Ten minutes later he had a cleanly shaven face and a towel at his hips. He brushed his teeth and quickly blew his hair dry. Donning a heavy weight green turtleneck sweater he stepped into jeans and shoes and flew down the stairs.

Lotti met him at the bottom. “Would you like some coffee, Mr. Jon?”

He followed her into the kitchen and nodded when she turned back to him. “Do we have everything ready for tonight?” he asked and headed into his office, grabbing an envelope from his desk.

Lotti nodded when he came back into the room. “I’ve got a pot of sauce on simmer for you and Mr. Richie and the children. There are enough sausage and meatballs for everyone. Mr. Richie called and told me he would take care of the rest.”

She handed him a mug and he fell into a chair. Jon laughed. Richie did love the domesticity of the holidays. And he wasn’t a bad cook, either. He stood and grabbed a To-Go mug and dumped his coffee, refilling it to the top.

Jon put down his mug and turned to Lotti. He put his hands on her shoulders. “You make sure you have a good time with your kids and the grandkids okay?” He grabbed the envelope off the counter and simply raised an eyebrow when she started shaking her head. “C’mon are we really going to argue about this every year?”

She sighed. “You’re much too generous.”

“All I did was bump your tickets to first class.” He knew she wouldn’t open the envelope in front of him. She didn’t need to know that he’d also added in a bonus. Loyalty was far more important to him than even her superior skills as a house keeper. She went above and beyond for all the weekends the kids came to stay and dealt with his pain in the ass as well.

“Merry Christmas, Lotti.”

She hugged him, pulling away with a few tears in her eyes. “You know I love working here,” she said and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “You give those kids a big hug and kiss for me.

“I will, you enjoy your vacation. Make sure those kids wait on you for the two weeks, okay?”

She just laughed, but they both knew she’d be the caretaker whether at his house or her kids. He grabbed his mug and headed out the door glancing at his watch. By the time he picked up the kids and got back to the house Richie would be there, even with airport traffic.



~




Tessa glared out the window at The Insider crew that refused to leave. She’d have thought that the gossip shows would have better things to do on Christmas Eve than to stand guard over her store. Wasn’t there a charity benefit with famous people at it? Hell, even the Red Bank Choir had to be more interesting than waiting to see if Jon might come into Chapters.

“Stop shooting daggers out the window, the customers are starting to get nervous,” Nic said in a stage whisper.

She instantly put a smile on her face, hoping that they wouldn’t look too close. She’d been tempted to call Jon about it, but was determined to deal with it on her own. She’d just have to get used to the press crawling around. In fact, she shouldn’t be surprised that they were camping out in the first place.

It had been on the news for God’s sake.

And she was a Jovi fan, so she knew all about the media wildfire when even a small mention was made about Jon and a woman. She just never thought she’d be the woman. She slid the books in the bag and smiled at her customer. “Have a nice holiday.”

The next customer came up and she automatically smiled. “Did you find everything today?”

The woman’s genial smile brightened in wattage. “Actually I did. I love the store! To be honest,” she lowered her voice, “I only came in here because I heard that Jon Bon Jovi comes in here.”

Fighting not to roll her eyes, Tessa kept the smile pasted on her face. “Mr. Bon Jovi has been very kind to us here. His kids enjoyed one of our Sunday Storytimes.” She’d settled on the half truth. It was how she’d met the man.

Her eyes glittered and sharpened. “Really?”

Tessa nodded. “Would you like to sign up for one of our Chapters Frequent Buyer cards? It’s free and when you spend one hundred dollars you get fifteen percent off your next purchase.”

The woman nodded, but the glimmer hadn’t died even with her schpiel which usually got rid of even the most annoying customers. “Absolutely,” she leaned forward, “Tell me, is he really as delicious in person?”

If she was a stupid person she would have said, oh yeah that and more. Because there really wasn’t any way to easily describe how he took over a room. Even with the awe quotient gone, Jon was an intense man. And his eyes packed a punch that even the most jaded woman couldn’t deny. “He’s a lovely man, and very polite.”

The glimmer turned to a gleam and Tessa swallowed back a flood of distaste as her brown eyes sharpened. “So is it true then, you are sleeping with him?”

Her stomach jumped, but she was sure her face stayed bland. “Exactly what part of, “he’s a lovely man,” made you come up with me sleeping with him?”

“Because we all know that’s woman talk for it’s none of your business. And seriously I’m spending eighty bucks in your store. The least you could do is give me some scoop.”

“I don’t need your business that badly,” she said smartly and pushed the books aside.

The woman’s genial smile faded to the polished bitch she probably was. “Of course you don’t, darlin’. You’ve bagged yourself a millionaire. At least for this month.” She looked her up and down. “You’re pretty enough, but do you really think a man like him will be satisfied with an older woman like you? Especially when there’s a pool of younger, hungrier woman who’d love to snag him?”

She nearly rose to the bait, the anger burned the back of her throat like acid. “That will be eighty-five dollars and sixty-three cents, unless you’d like me to void the transaction.”

The woman eyed the books on the counter, then Tessa again. Her smile cool and professional, “Well it is Christmas,” she handed over her credit card. “Saves me a trip to Borders.”

Tessa swiped the card and bagged the books, her smile as fake as Jon’s during a bad interview. “Have a lovely holiday.”

“Oh you too, honey. I’m sure you’ll get at least a lovely bauble out of the deal. I hear he only buys the best.”

She drew her hands beneath the counter forced her fingers to unclench.

“Breathe,” Nic said gently. “Just breathe.”

Her jaw ached as she unclenched and hoped she didn’t look like a manic doll on pain killers when the next customer came up. “Hi, did you find everything you needed?”

The distracted woman just nodded and started digging into her purse. Tessa fell back into the rhythm of ringing and small talk as the hours flew by. Luckily she wasn’t cornered by another reporter through the rest of the morning hours.

Escaping back to the floor when her two cashiers came in, she spent the rest of the afternoon re-shelving and helping customers, letting Nichole run the front where she was best. She escaped to her office around three and simply put her head down on her desk. Her stomach told her she needed food, but the thought of fighting the retail world had her cringing. She hadn’t felt right raiding Jon’s fridge before she left that morning.

As it was she was wearing her clothes from the night before, borrowing only a button down shirt from his closet before she left. Trailing her fingertips over the absurdly fine silk of the red shirt she imagined it looked far better on her man.

Sitting back in her chair she clasped her hands over her growling stomach. Her man. It felt weird to say it, even in her own head. In less than a month she’d gone from a single woman with thoughts only on her career and building her business to being in love with a man as intense and consuming as Jon.

Her intercom buzzed, “Hey Tess, Channel 7 is on the phone for you. They want to know if they can come in and cover the Christmas Eve reading you’re doing tonight.”

Tessa’s fingers tightened over her stomach. She picked up the phone. “Seriously?”

”Yeah, they think it’s cool that you’re doing it on Christmas Eve.”

“Slow news day,” she muttered. “Sure, I’ll talk to them. What line?”

“Two.”

“Okay, thanks Nic.” She picked up the line, “This is Tessa Donovan, how can I help you?”

She listened as the PR rep quickly and efficiently went through his spin on the Christmas Eve read and how it would both support the local area businesses and show how wonderful it was to keep the age-old communication of storytelling alive.

The fact that he didn’t mention Jon or his being there sold her on the first try. And hell, free publicity didn’t hurt either. She thanked him and prayed that she didn’t look too wilted by the end of the night.

With a sigh she picked up the phone once more and dialed Jon’s cell.

“Hey,” Jon said after the second ring.

“Hey yourself.”

“Hey Jake, why don’t you help Uncle Mookie with the tinsel.” Jon said away from the phone, “Sorry about that.”

“That’s okay. I take it the kids have arrived safely.”

She heard the happiness in his voice as he sighed. “Yeah, I picked them up around noontime and we’ve been decorating ever since. They love the tree.”

Her heart did a nice slow roll at the pleasure in his voice and the simple gratitude that was there without it being said. “I’m glad we left it a little un-decorated for them.”

His voice lowered and she heard him walk into another room. “I think I would have enjoyed using the tinsel in other ways.”

Her heartbeat tripled and she swallowed back a groan. “I’m not quite sure who you’d be hanging it on you or me.”

He laughed, his voice low and intimate, “Oh definitely on you. I like things to sparkle on my woman.”

Where laughter should have been, all she could hear was the reporter’s voice in her head. “I’m sure you’ll get at least a lovely bauble out of the deal. I hear he only buys the best.” And she tried to shut it out, but it was too late.

“What’s wrong, Tessa?”

Shit! She’d taken too long to answer. Shit! “Nothing, it’s just been really crazy here.”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

She sighed. He really needed to know anyway, especially if he decided to come out to the reading that night. “I’ve had a few…well, reporters camping outside.”

“Oh hell, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault-“

”Of course it is, if I hadn’t come in there then you would have only had to deal with the regular Christmas bullshit.”

Her stomach plummeted. “If you hadn’t come in, we’d never have met. I wouldn’t trade that for fifteen news vans taking up half my parking lot.”

He didn’t answer right away and she inwardly cringed. “Look, Jon-”

“I love you, Tessa. We will figure this out, I promise.”

Every time he said the words, her heart nearly tripped out of her chest. She couldn’t decide if she was stupid or just lucky to have him in her life. “I was mostly calling to warn you in case you were thinking of coming in for the reading tonight.”

“I’ll be there, even if I have to fight a fleet of reporters in with my kids.”

“Why don’t we skip the fleet and have you guys come in the back door?”

“Your plan is better.”

She finally felt a genuine laugh bubble up. “It’s a good thing I love you.”

His voice leveled. “It’s more than I deserve.”

“Yeah, well that’s best left alone right now. You’ve got a house full of kids including that tall handsome one that I should leave you for.”

“Don’t say that too loud, Richie would probably take you up on the offer.”

“Then you better keep in line, mister.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Ahem, that’s Miss thank you very much!”

He just laughed and they hung up. With another big sigh she rose out of her chair and slid back out into the craziness that was Christmas Eve in retail hell.

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