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.”
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.”