Chapter 72

Jon nodded and smiled his way over to the reading area, snagging a copy of the Nutcracker on his way by. He was surprised by the number of kids that were actually there, but it was a testament to Tessa’s talent with both the children and adults that they came in even on Christmas Eve.

She’d enmeshed herself in the community in a short time. Even with the push back by a few of the matriarchs in the area she still managed to find her niche, perhaps even more than he had himself.

He waved to Richie settled in the corner on a beanbag chair that matched his undeniably green Christmas tree shirt. Ava was quietly reading the nutcracker to herself while Romeo had found the most obnoxious book with buttons and flashing lights, but he was sitting beside Ava following suit.

Jake was on Richie’s lap talking non-stop. Richie had that glazed look that meant he didn’t understand a word he was talking about or even the subject matter, but he nodded encouragingly. Jesse was playing one of his handheld games and his daughter was busy texting as always.

“Jon, do you have a minute?”

Biting back a sigh he turned to the barracuda otherwise known as Charlotte Burke from News 7. Glossy dark hair was artfully arranged around her heart shaped face. Her China blue eyes belied a sharp and often vicious nature. And because he knew firsthand how vindictive she could be he tried to keep on her good side. “Always for you, Char, but how about after the reading? I want to sit with my family.”

“Are you sure we can’t get a shot of your family…”

“You know the deal, you want a sound byte and I’m happy to oblige just leave my family out of it.”

”Well since you’re the family man about town sans the wife I just thought,” she trailed off.

“Just because I’m divorced now doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind about my kids and cameras. They don’t want or need the hassle.”

”Yes, but –“

Tired and unsure if he could deal with her tonight, he went for the jugular. “I thought you got off the gossip rounds, Char. In fact, isn’t this kind of thing beneath you?”

Her pretty face hardened. It had taken a long time for her to get off the local sweet stories and into the real news. “I drew the short straw for Christmas Eve. You’re the hot news tonight, Jon.”

“Must be a boring night,” he said and made his way back to his family. He settled on the floor and Romeo climbed into his lap, his head rested against Jon’s chest in a rare show of cuddling. He glanced up at Jake to find him still happy to talk Uncle Mookie’s ear off about the Pirate Girl book from last time they’d been at Chapters.

The lights lowered in their half of the store. The registers still rang and the public still shopped but there was a hush when Tessa walked through the circle of children and adults. Her dress was lush and angelic at the same time. The bodice hugged her and then flared out around her hips as she settled onto her knees in the middle of the circle.

The Christmas tree was set up behind her with various ornaments that seemed to echo the book’s cover. She’d pulled her copper colored hair up, pushing back the wispy frame of bangs with a glittering headband.

Her eyes shimmered with some sort of iridescent powder that sparkled on her cheeks and shoulders as well. Where once there was a tired face now it glowed with wonder and excitement for the children. Eyes that had been bleak with fatigue and worry now sparkled as she leaned forward to give her opening explanations.

She hugged the book to her chest, the edges worn with reading and love. “One of the most beautiful parts of Christmas in my house was my Dad sitting near the fireplace with this book. He would read it to me and my sister as if he was acting out the most amazing play. I’m no where near as good as my Dad, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.”

She opened the book and the drawings of Maurice Sendak jumped from the page even with the age of the book. It was a perfect visual aid, but it was her voice and her obvious love for the story that made it come alive. He winced at the length of the book; knowing that his youngest would start to squirm any second, but as the story progressed, the small murmurs vanished and everyone got lost inside Clara and the Mouse King’s world.

As she leaned forward to pull the children even further into the story, her eyes met his and the love and laughter and passion there left him with a sweet ache he couldn’t shake. Romeo slid into the crook of his arm and wrapped his little hand around his bicep and used it as a pillow.

And Jake sat forward enthralled with it all. When she took a special moment to emphasize the Mouse King’s voice, with a deep baritone right in Jake’s face until he laughed, he loved her all the more.

She turned back to the sea of faces and made you want to live Clara’s life, love the Nutcracker just like she did with each turn of the page. Even Char stopped to really watch and nudged her camera guy to roll tape.

And when he felt his son’s body go slack in his arms he transferred him to his shoulder and let her words relax the last of the day’s insults and the tension. As she closed the book and sat back on her heels the room roared its collective applause and he laughed as her cheeks pinked.

He knew all about going to another place when performing and that’s just what she had done. She raised her arms, knowing that everyone would want to leave now.

“Thank you everyone for staying through the Nutcracker, I know it’s a bit long. Have a wonderful Christmas and I hope to see you soon.”

Quite a few people brought the book up to the checkout to purchase and Jon groaned when Char pounced. The other TV station had Tessa wrapped up in an interview.

She tucked her mic around her back. “Seriously, Jon I’m not sure how stupid you think I am.”

Richie reached for Romeo and shifted him seamlessly to his shoulder. Jon murmured his thanks and stood, begging his creaking body to cooperate here, in front of this woman. It had been a long day, but letting his suddenly bubbling temper loose on her would be a mistake.

“I don’t think you’re stupid, Char.”

“And don’t placate me. If you’re not in love with that woman at least you are getting naked.”

Jon’s face blanked. “You can see what you want to see, Charlotte. If you want an interview it will be about me, Christmas, or the store not about whether or not I have a love life and with whom.”

“You can’t hide it forever, Jon. It only makes you look sneaky and stu-“ she cut herself off.

He wondered if she thought about her career for the first time since she’d opened her mouth. Or…he wondered if some of the venom was because he’d never felt that way about Charlotte. He’d been attracted to her for a moment before he’d gotten to know the true woman beneath the fa├žade. And he’d also felt the sting of her tongue when his interest had waned. Biting back a sigh he pulled her to the side and motioned for the cameraman to follow.

“Enough of the platitudes huh, Char? I’ve got two tired boys that need to get home and into bed before Santa arrives.”

She tugged on her suit jacket and flipped half her hair over her shoulder and arranged the rest to show off her pretty face and best side. “Did you enjoy the special storytime?”

“Miss Donovan has done an amazing job with her shop and she really outdid herself with the Christmas story. It’s nice to see a really cool shop doing so well in our area.”

“Heading out of town for the holidays?”

“Nope, you know me…I’m the homebody. All I want to do is spend time with my family and get some rest before my crazy life starts again.”

Her China blue eyes sharpened, “No special someone to bring in the New Year with, Jon?”

“The only thing I’m interested in right now is making sure my family has the best Christmas ever and that includes a bedtime that’s right about now,” he laughed. Knowing he wasn’t doing a good job of avoiding the question he smiled winningly. He looked into the camera, “Merry Christmas, Red Bank.”

Turning away from Char he gathered coats and books and followed the processional of customers to the cash register and bought a copy of the Nutcracker and a few other things on his way up.

Tessa went over to Richie and the kids and said her goodbye’s and shuffled them back through the storeroom again. Jon got caught by a few fans and signed autographs and took a couple pictures, but managed to escape only five minutes after his family.

He slipped into the storeroom to find Tessa waving to his kids as they piled into the car. She turned and saw him, her face instantly curving into a welcoming smile. All he wanted to do was drag her with him and share his family and show them what a wonderful woman he’d fallen in love with.

But knowing in his head it was too soon for that. It wouldn’t be fair to his children to be confused like that made his guts churn. He’d never been one for the slow course of action. And everything about Tessa made him want to rush, to snatch her up before she could get away.

She met him halfway, conscious of the fact that his kids could see him through the open garage door he caught her hand while they were hidden between her empty carts littering the room. “Merry Christmas, babe.”

She looked up at him, her eyes a little tired but still shining bright from her coup. “Will I see you at all?”

“Christmas night if you’ll have me.”

Her smile widened. “Oh I’ll have you,” her voice lowered. “About four or five different ways when I’m done with you.”

Wanting to kiss her, he forced himself to stand upright. Not to lean in and take her into his arms. Not to kiss her until those cute lips were all swollen for him and her green eyes were soft. No, he couldn’t have any of that tonight.

Their fingers slowly unclasped and he went outside to meet his kids.

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