“Tessa dear! It’s been ages since we’ve been able to talk!”
You mean when you left me to do the dirty work at the festival. “Simply ages,” she said with a social smile.
“I had to come in since I knew you would be able to take care of me.”
She looked over Carol’s shoulder and saw Nic rolling her eyes, sticking a finger into her mouth as if to gag. Biting back a laugh, she focused on the woman before her. “What can I do for you?”
“I have a housewarming party to go to in half an hour. I need a gift for this poor woman. She simply doesn’t know the first thing about elegant dining. I need a book that will help her, but not look like I’m being uncouth in telling her how.”
As if just walking and breathing you don’t make people feel like crap, right? She led her to the cookbooks area and found the entertaining bookshelves. “How about this?” she pulled an oversized book out and made sure it was in the forty and over dollar price tag. If Carol was going to torture her, she was going to pay for it, that was for sure.
Carol flipped through the pages and mmm-hmmed and uh-huhed her way through the book before shaking her head. “Something a little simpler, I think.” She closed the book, “I understand it of course, but she’s a little simple,” she said in a hushed tone. “She’s new money, dear.”
She thumbed her way across the shelf and caught Jon out of the corner of her eye. She pushed the swing of hair out of her way and smiled, a genuine and bright smile as he leaned against the end of the row. Carol was too busy jabbering away about what the new wife needed to learn to notice him, but she did.
God, did she notice him. Classic style mixed with the rockstar he was in a tight, black turtleneck and windblown hair. A gold watch flashed from his wrist as he tucked his hands in the pockets of his tight, dark washed jeans. His blue eyes sparkled as he smirked and nodded at the back of Carol’s head.
She crossed her eyes as Mrs. Rothchild poured over the books Tessa was holding in her arms. She babbled on and on about what young folks didn’t know about etiquette and good, formal entertaining. When she looked up at her, the older woman’s faded blue eyes sharpened. “Are you listening to me, child?”
Blinking away from Jon’s smile and the teasing fire in his eyes she focused on Carol’s face. “Absolutely, and while elegant and formal dining has it’s place so do the newer styles that Rachel Ray and Michael Chiarello have. They've really come up through the ranks. Elegance can be mixed with the informal and everyday.”
Carol blustered and fluttered as Tessa tugged Michael Chiarello’s book down. “Just look how amazing he can set a table and impress a group with a few well placed dishes and a simple elegance you’re looking for. I think this would be a wonderful book for her to start with and work her way up to the Martha Stewarts and etiquette training.”
“Well if you think…” she trailed off.
“And you’ll be the hit of the party. Everyone will want to look at this book and they’ll realize just how impressive your ideas can be when you fool them with a new way of looking at things.”
Carol looked up at her, “Why yes, I think you’re right. She’ll appreciate this. I’m glad I came in.”
Tessa smiled and laughed when Mrs. Rothchild turned and saw Jon at the end of the stacks and did a double take. “Good evening, Jon.”
“Evening, Mrs. Rothchild,” Jon said genially and tipped his head.
“Well it’s nice to see some of Carol’s boys kept their manners,” she sniffed and walked by. Tessa’s shoulders slumped as she twisted her watch. “I’m sorry, Jon.”
“We’ve got plenty of time, babe. Don’t worry.” He slid his hand along her back and flirted with the edge of her sweater finding the hem and smoothing his fingers beneath to find her skin.
She leaned into him, letting her fingers drift over the butter soft cashmere of his turtleneck. When they were thigh to thigh she sighed and let her cheek rest against his chest for just a second. Just a little bit of his warmth and his unique scent would revive her.
He rubbed his chin over her hair and rubbed her back. “Long day?”
“Carol just was the topper. I was good until then.”
“So, what do I need to do to build up your strength for shopping?”
She pulled back and looked up at him. The crinkled lines at his eyes as he smiled, the dent in his chin and the irreverent shock of blonde hair that had a mind of its own were enough to brighten up a long day. “Caffeine, food and you…either order works,” she said teasingly.
He laced his hands at her back and rolled his hips against her. “Me first then,” he said and dropped a quick kiss on her upturned lips. The first taste didn’t seem enough somehow. And what was supposed to be just a quick kiss lingered as the smile faded and only heat remained.
She groaned against his mouth and lost herself. It was so easy to do when he touched her. No matter what kind of day she had seeing him or even just talking to him could make it all fade away.
Distantly she heard the rustle of a bag as Carol came back down the main aisle with her purchase. She pulled away from him instinctively, still so used to hiding their status from the world.
Carol stopped and her blue eyes turned curious. “Have a good evening, Tessa.”
“You too, Mrs. Rothchild. Thanks for coming in.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she said and turned back one more time before she bustled through the door.
“Good thing we’re out,” she said waspishly. “Carol’s on her way to a,” she made air quotes, “New money housewarming. You and I have just become her new favorite story.”
He smiled and tugged her back into him. “Good, she’ll do the work for us.” He dipped his head down to resume kissing.
She avoided his oh so tempting mouth. “Hey! You know that this just doesn’t mean the rumor mill. This means hard core, everyone and their mother will know, professional phone tree kind of thing.”
“I suppose I should call my mom,” he said thoughtfully. “Just how strong are you feeling?”
“Suddenly I’m feeling very weak.” She had heard stories about the foreboding Carol Bongiovi. She was as protective as a Rottweiler and just as mean.
“My mom will definitely keep for another day,” he said with a laugh.
She detangled herself and headed toward the front. Nic was tallying the day’s totals with a report from the register and in the cashbox closing out. She glanced at the cart of reshelves and shook her head. “Definitely tomorrow for you,” she said and resolved to come in early the next day.
“You about done?” she called out to Nic.
“While you were busy making out in the cooking section,” she peeked her head out the door and grinned. “Great choice by the way, he certainly makes my blood simmer.”
She just arched a brow, “How would you know if we were-“ she cut herself off. It just didn’t seem right to label it as making out. “Doing what we were doing.”
“Far too quiet out there.” She rolled back into the small room. “Besides it’s what Adam and I do in the stacks. Don’t think you’re so special just because you’re locking lips with a rockstar. My husband’s probably a better kisser.”
“I doubt it,” she muttered.
“Why thank you,” he said and slid his hand around her from the back. He buried his nose into her hair and pushed it aside to get to her ear. “Care to test the theory, Nic?” Jon called out.
Nic rolled back out the door and wide brown eyes went a little shocky. “I um…Well, shit.” She rolled back in. “That’s dirty pool!” she shouted from the safety of her cashbox.
“Indeed,” he said into her ear. “I like playing dirty.”
She shivered and extricated herself before she got into trouble. “Unh uh, don’t tease the help Jon. Why don’t you go sit in the car so I can close up?”
“Can’t concentrate when I’m around?” he said with a knowing smirk.
She sneered at him. “You think you’re so cute. Just go!” Because he was right she swallowed a laugh when he snorted and turned to go.
“Move that pretty ass, we got money to spend,” he called out as he headed to front door.
Nic rolled back out and watched until he left. “Jesus, how do you leave the house? I’d have that strapped to my bed, twenty-four seven and never leave.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“If I didn’t have Adam, I would!” she said and scooted back inside.
“Yeah, well he’s too intense to have around you all the time. He’d suck you dry just like he does to me.”
Nic flipped around in her chair and scuttled back out. “She speaks! Tell me more,” she said and leaned against the half wall that cut off the store and the register into two separate sections.
“He’s taking me out for New Year’s.”
“That’s great! It’s about time you got to see how the other half lives. Where are you going?”
“To Elton John’s New York City bash.”
“Holy fuck,” Nic whispered.
“Yeah! Thank you! I’m freaking out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”
“Did you not hear me say I was freaking out?!”
“Why are you so weird? I don’t know another woman that freaks out so silently. Did he just spring this on you?”
“Yes! Yesterday! I don’t know what to wear, how to act, what to say. Christ,” she squeezed her eyes shut.
“What a shit! Only two days to get ready? Is he out of his mind?”
“Partially,” she said sarcastically. “He doesn’t think about things like this. His wife was made for it, she never looked like she enjoyed it, but she had things in her closet to wear. I don’t! Even my trendy little black dress would look like a rag next to the wardrobe of these people.”
“What are you going to do? And what did he mean, ‘spend money’?”
She sighed. “He’s taking me shopping tonight. We’re hitting the shops in the city.”
Nic’s head hit the wood balustrade and she moaned. “You get to shopping on Jon’s dime in the city? What the hell are you complaining about? You’ll find something absolutely magnificent and make every woman from here to Europe jealous as hell.”
“I don’t want him to-“
Nic cut her off. “If you say you don’t want him to buy you stuff I’m going to vault over his wall and strangle you. Let him!”
“I am. I don’t like it, but I am.”
“Well learn to like it. It’s kind of a perk of the job if you will.”
“He’s not a job! He’s-“
“He’s what?” Nic said gently.
“I don’t know what he is. I love him stupid.”
“Well, learn to love his credit card stupid for the night and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.” She rolled back into the room and finished counting up for the night.
Tessa let her head tip back. “Live in the moment.” She wasn’t sure she knew how to do that. All her life she’d been about goals and looking ahead, living in the now was just temporary. She didn’t do temporary very well.
Five minutes later she was out the door, the store locked up and opening the door to a Lincoln Towncar. She flipped her coat over Jon’s and followed instinct and curled next to him.
He lifted a Dunkin’ Donuts bag and cup for her. “As requested.”
She tore into the bag and lifted out a croissant with melted cheese and tomatoes. “Perfect. How did you know?”
”You just don’t seem the fake ham kind of girl. You seem to pretty much eat anything. I took a guess.”
She bit in and thumbed off a buttery crumb that stuck to her lips and popped it into her mouth. “Good guess.” She gestured the steaming cup in his hand, “What? No wine?”
Laughing, he took a sip. “Wine’s waiting at Maryanne’s place.”
“Who’s Maryanne?” she asked between bites.
“She’s a friend.”
She grinned, “Ex lover?” she teased.
He shifted in his seat. “A long time ago, and I do mean a long time ago. We’ve stayed friends through the years. She’s got this great place on Sixth. I figured we’d hit a few of the smaller places that stay open late.”
Not knowing what to think about an ex-lover she continued eating in silence. It wasn’t surprising that he’d had lovers. Especially when he’d been in and out of the City from his teen ages and up. Would she be beautiful? Artsy? Worldly?
She rolled up the bag and crossed a leg over his knee. His hand lingered along her thigh, rubbing absently. He made a few calls as she stared out the window, enjoying some much needed downtime.
She closed her eyes and listened to the cadence of his voice as it changed with each phone call. Cajoling for one, steely for another, affectionate for the last and each seemed to have subliminal sex woven through it all. His voice was naturally sexy. It was a tool for him to get what he wanted. He’d certainly gotten her. She dozed against him, with the buzz of his voice following her into dreams.
Well, at least for a few minutes. He smiled as a woman in her mid-forties did a double take, but just kept walking before she could recover. He made his way to the front of the store and waved at Nic. “Is she around?” he asked and tucked his sunglasses into the neck of his t-shirt.
Nic’s eyebrows shot up as she looked to the left then at the customer right in front of her. “Um,” her brows quickly lowered and she whispered. “You’re looking for Tessa right?”
“Yup, I wanted to take her out to lunch if she’s free,” he said in his regular speaking voice.
“Um, yeah.” She seemed a little flustered and he had to admit he enjoyed it a bit more than he should have. “She’s in the back I’ll just buzz her.”
He nabbed one of the magazines that were set along the checkout area and dropped into an overstuffed chair between the bookcases. He didn’t see a single word on the page; he was too busy looking around. She had already taken down the Christmas decorations and a Valentine’s Day table was set up along the main aisle.
She came up the front; her stride was long and no nonsense even for her slim little body. He loved watching her unaware. She was unconsciously graceful, and yet there was always a purpose to every move she made. He stood and waited for her to notice him, but she just jumped on a register to help thinking Nic was giving her a SOS.
Nic yanked her blouse before she could log in and pointed. She smiled at him and all the exhaustion from the endless meetings faded. She lifted a finger for him to wait and logged in to take care of the customers anyway. When the line was back under control she murmured something to Nic and headed his way. “What are you doing here?”
He reached for her hand and pulled her into him. He watched the surprise in her eyes just before he closed his mouth over hers. The kiss was soft and nearly chaste. Nearly. He couldn’t stop himself from sampling a little deeper than he should have.
When he heard her moan against his mouth a little, he backed off. “Hey, Babe,” he linked their hands together and tugged her to his side. “Think you can do without her for about an hour?” he called out to Nic. He knew she was watching them, and couldn’t seem to care.
“Uh, yeah sure. Have a nice lunch guys.”
They walked to the back of the store and she stopped at her office to get her coat. She was silent the entire way. When she came out, she leaned back on the door with her coat draped over her arm. “No one died right? Everything’s turning correctly on the Earth’s axis?”
“Except for global warming, I’m pretty sure everything is as it should be.”
“Because you just kissed me in public,” she said in a sort of stunned monotone.
Part of him cringed. He’d really been a shit making her hide their relationship. And the reasons, while sound at the time, were unfair to her. His kids were important, but he’d need to make sure Tessa knew she was equally so. “Why yes I did. I figured you were right to be a little upset about our first time in public being so public.”
“A little upset?” she stepped forward. “You may have limitless resources when it comes to parties, but I’m just a regular girl. And let me tell you, my party dresses are not fit for the country club let alone Elton John’s party circuit!”
“And that’s why we’re going shopping tonight, on me.”
“I can pay for my own dresses thank you very much.”
He slid his fingers down her arm from her elbow to wrist and laced their fingers. “Of course you can, but I sprung this on you last minute so I’m buying the dress and Sunday afternoon I have you booked with a spa in the city a few hours before the party.”
She narrowed her eyes and he hurried on. “I’m not trying to run you or take over; this is just one special night. Let me do this for you.” He pulled her closer kissing her softly. “Let me do a little wooing that I never got to do before.”
He could feel her relenting, easing into him in the tiny hallway where her office was. He slid his hand into her hair and kept the kiss slow and easy.
She pulled back but kept her eyes closed. “If I open my eyes and you’re smirking I’ll punch you.”
He kept his face bland, and tried desperately not to laugh. “So we have a deal.”
She opened one pretty green eye and scrunched her nose. “This better not be a habit there, buddy. I have no problem going to functions with you whether it’s a Habitat social thing or an Elton John party as long as you give me a head’s up that includes at least a week’s notice.”
“I know and I’m sorry, but it’s been a bit crazy lately. And I can’t promise that more of them won’t happen. My lifestyle doesn’t exactly include the type of people that use planners for every little thing.”
“Then I guess you get to buy me a few dresses for the just in case nights,” she said with a grin.
“Ahhh, there’s my girl. I like when you’re greedy.”
“Only when it comes to pretty clothes and shoes. I am a girl you know.”
He looked down at the sweater that emphasized her slim build with just a hint of cleavage. “Definitely a woman, not a girl,” he said and dropped his hand from her hip to the curve of her ass. “My woman,” he said with enough of a growl that her lips curved when he kissed her again.
“Are you really going to feed me?” she asked hopefully.
“Absolutely. I figured we’d attempt a second trip into Barnacle Bill’s.”
Her laugh was open and full and he enjoyed his first sigh of relief since he woke up that morning. They headed out of the store and both waved to Nichole. He reached behind him and found her hand, lacing their fingers once more.
“I appreciate the whole branding thing with the hand holding but you don’t have to.”
He turned back to her and shrugged. “I like to hold hands, got a problem with that?”
She bit her lower lip and he was pleased to see a sparkle in her spring colored eyes. He watched her tug on the full, pink lip and wanted to replace his teeth with hers. “Nuh-uh. We’re going to lunch, and you’re going to show me off.”
“You know me too well,” he said and led her to the car. He opened the door for her and made sure his body brushed hers as she got inside. When the sparkle turned to heat he let the smirk free.
The trip was quick, but filled with questions. He tried to alleviate her fears about the rich and the famous. It was hard to explain to someone that hadn’t experienced it before, but for the most part they were just the same as anyone else, give or take a few eccentrics. Elton could definitely fall in the eccentric category. He was at the point in his life where he said what he wanted and you either loved him or hated him.
Jon was definitely in the love category. He liked that with Elton it was what you see is what you get. He was a Prima Donna, he could be an absolute bitch, but if he was in your corner you were golden. He just hoped that Elton liked Tessa. He’d been great friends with Dorothea, so it would definitely be a test of sorts.
He pulled into the parking lot and circled the car to help her out. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with Jon?”
“Shut up, I open the car door for you all the time.”
She stepped around him and slid her hand into his. The tavern was doing a brisk business but they were seated immediately. They made quick work of ordering and she sipped at an iced tea as he cupped a mug of coffee between his hands. January was right around the corner and he hated the bone deep cold that came with living by the river.
It wasn’t unusual for him to eat at Barnacle Bill’s but it was for him to eat with a woman other than his daughter. There were a few twitters of conversation and a few people that stared. He was used to the attention but Tessa started to fidget.
She leaned forward. “How can you stand it?”
“Welcome to my life.”
She glanced to her left and smiled when a woman in her sixties waved. “Sweet mercy, Jon, that woman is in her sixties,” she whispered.
“I get them all. From five to one hundred and five. The older ones are the most fun actually. A little disconcerting when they still want you to sign their boob though.”
She choked a little on her slurp of tea. “You did that on purpose.”
He smiled, “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She just rolled her eyes. “When did you get in?”
“I came right from the helipad.”
Her fingers reached across the table. “Oh, you must be dead on your feet. You didn’t have to do this today.”
“I know I didn’t, but I wanted to see you and make sure you could still hit the stores tonight.”
“I don’t know many stores that will be open by the time the shop closes.”
“I figured we’d head into the city.”
“Tonight?” she said wide-eyed.
“Yeah, the best clothes are going to be on sixth so I’ll have my driver pick us up. It sucks to drive in the city if you have to park somewhere. It’s so much better when you can just get out of a Town Car right where you need to be.”
“Must be nice,” she murmured.
“It will be.”
She nibbled on her thumb and he could practically hear her brain working from across the table. “Stop thinking,” he said gently. He took her hand again, “What the heck do I have all this money for if I can’t do something nice for you.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
“Sure you will. I plan on spoiling you rotten.”
Her fingers twined around his. “I don’t need that stuff.”
“I know you don’t, but when it’s something as special as New Year’s and our first one at that, you can let me go a little crazy.”
The waitress came by with their platters and they broke apart. Digging into the food they both plowed through half a burger and fries before they slowed down. She was still quiet and he knew she was trying to take it all in. They were able to just be a normal couple for most of their time together and this would be the first test of their relationship. He knew she was secure in their relationship at this point so he didn’t have any worries about that. What he did wonder about was how she would deal with the social aspect of his life.
Dot had hated it. She avoided it at all costs and hadn’t been good about hiding it when the paparazzi hit. He couldn’t say it was his favorite thing to deal with either, but it was just one of those things that he dealt with. Some days were better than others, but he knew what was expected of him and the best way to get them out of his way.
“So, I’ll tell you this much…you better dance with me at least once.”
He laughed, “Deal.”
The rest of the week blew by in a whirl of retail days and cozy nights. She and Jon had fallen into a routine of alternating houses every few days and each of them started leaving clothes and toiletries behind at the other’s house.
They were wrapped together on his bed watching TV, with his head in her lap. She was idly playing with his hair with her nose buried in a book. All the shows she watched were repeats during the holidays and Jon was hogging the remote to channel surf through sports programs. If he wasn’t watching a game he was listening to some guy drone on about it on
“What are you doing for New Year’s,” he asked absently as he switched the channel yet again.
“Hmm?” she slowly drew out of the JD Robb book she’d been dying to read all week. One good thing about running a bookstore was the advanced shipping she got to snag from.
“Get your pretty nose out of the book, darlin’.” He said and pulled down on the top of it.
She blinked at him as the grisly murder scene that the lead character was working slowly faded, she grinned and blushed. “Sorry about that,” she grabbed her bookmark and set the book on the bedside table she’d taken over in his bedroom. “You have my undivided attention.”
“As it should be,” he replied with a smirk.
She tugged his hair until he lifted his head and he made an exaggerated kissy face at her. She bit his lower lip, “Smart ass.”
He pouted comically. “Hey, that’s no way to treat these lips.” His hand came up and tangled in her hair and brought her down for a slow and rather thorough kiss that had nothing to do with sports or a murder mystery. He pulled back and settled himself back into her lap with an even more devilish smirk, “Much better.”
When her brain started working again she dumped him off her lap. “Pretty low there, buddy.”
“I can kiss lower,” he said with a sneaky grin and rolled onto his stomach.
Her heart pounded as he crawled her way. He was wearing a ratty old Giants T-shirt and a pair of boxers with his hair tousled from her fingers. He couldn’t have looked more sexy and tempting if he had a legion of makeup and wardrobe people. “You get back,” she said with a laugh as she backed off the bed. “You asked me a question, let’s not get distracted here.”
He hopped off the bed and reached for her. “I’ll remember my question later.”
He dragged her in and rubbed his two days growth of beard along the side of her neck just where it would have the best effect. She shivered and let a groan free. “You don’t play fair,” she moaned as he flicked his tongue along the sensitive skin just behind her ear.
“Nope.” His voice was gravely with a touch of sex as he tugged on her earlobe and pushed her nightshirt aside to get to her neck. He nibbled his way across the muscle that connected to her shoulder and she gave up. No way could she hold out when he was going for all the good spots.
She pulled at his t-shirt until she could get it over his head as he slid the last button free letting her shirt puddle to the floor on top of the faded blue cotton. “You better remember the question if it’s important,” she muttered right before his mouth stole the last of her brain cells.
He certainly didn’t remember the question later and neither did she when they both landed in a sweaty heap in the center of the bed. He curled around her back and situated them as they always slept and pressed a tired kiss to the back of her neck.
She smoothed her hand over his hair roughened forearm as he gathered her into the curve of his body and slept. When she woke the next morning it was Jon that had disappeared early for once.
Tessa rolled onto her back and since he wasn’t there to see her, she indulged in a luxurious stretch and cuddled into his side of the bed. She grabbed for his pillow and found a scribbled note that explained his early departure. His ties to Philly would probably take him from her bed a lot more once the practices started. Today was just a meeting. She set the note on the table and buried her nose into the sateen pillowcase.
She drew in the spicy male shampoo he used and sighed. It wasn’t often that she got time to herself in the morning. Just to lay there without the distraction of his warm body was nice for a change. They were starting to flow into the relaxing phase of things, instead of the intense and near manic beginning they shared.
She didn’t worry about the ifs and whys of every little thing. She just loved being with him. In fact, she wasn’t quite sure how she’d deal with life without him once his job took him away from her. She’d grown far too used to his warm presence behind her at night. Even when they rolled apart in sleep, they were always touching in some way, even if it was just twined legs or a careless brush of fingers. She’d always been the type to want her space, but everything seemed different with him.
She figured that one of these days she’d just look at him as the guy that hogged the covers and snored, when he was her…what?
The sweet, soft thoughts turned a little panicky as she bounded out of bed. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, girl,” she said to the empty room. It was too easy to think of forever when things were going this well. Before she could think about it too hard, she stepped into the shower and got ready for the day.
She pulled into her own driveway and stared at her front door twelve hours later. Just the thought of getting up again and walking even as far as her door was enough to give serious thought to sleeping in her car. It had been one of the longest days in history. Everyone and their brother had been out to do their shopping. Evidently the Thursday before a holiday was the perfect day to go shopping.
Well, she wanted to take a long weekend dammit. She wanted a Friday, Saturday and Sunday off for once. She opened the door and swung a foot out, hovering over the pavement before she finally set it down. Her entire foot throbbed. She was fairly certain she’d only sat down for an hour in the entire day. And it hadn’t been all at once, that was for sure.
She grabbed her laptop, purse and grocery bag of Lean Cuisine dinners and hobbled her way up the drive. With arms full she heard the distant buzzing ring of her cell. She hip checked the front door open and punched in her security code then crouched to drop everything and shut the door with a sigh.
Her entire body rebelled at the thought of standing again, so she just let herself collapse and started digging in her purse. Fumbling with the phone when she saw his name on her display she muttered, “crap,” and finally got it open. “Hello!”
“Hey babe,” he said with a voice that equaled hers in weariness.
She tucked her phone in the crook of her ear and shoulder and unzipped her boot. “You sound like your day was just as shitty as mine.”
“If I didn’t have to be here for a meeting in the morning I’d be crawling my way up your driveway and begging for mercy.”
She tugged one boot off and felt her foot immediately swell two sizes at least. “Oh, does that mean you aren’t coming in tonight?” She dropped her hand to the other boot, suddenly too tired to even look at the zipper. She knew she sounded pathetic, but was too tired to stop herself.
“I’m sorry, Tessa.”
“I know, it’s okay.”
The weariness turned to amusement. “I do believe you’re pouting.”
“No I’m not.”
His laugh was low and sexy. “Oh yeah you are.” He paused as she grunted a little. “What are you doing over there?”
”Trying to get my stupid boots off,” she said and wrestled with the other zipper.
“Sounds like you need some help.”
“Believe me if you could see me right now you’d just end up laughing too hard to help me.” She looked around at the laptop case on its side, her purse half strewn across the hardwood floor and her favorite calf skin, eight hundred dollar boots in a heap. And there she was, sitting in the middle of it all with her legs wide open with her corduroy skirt hiked up to her butt and not an ounce of ladylike professionalism to be found.
She sagged forward and bit her lip against the need to just have a good cry. All she could focus on was that she had to sleep without him tonight. She blamed the exhaustion when she blurted out, “I just can’t sleep without you these days.”
“If I just didn’t send my pilot to a hotel I’d come home right now,” he said with absolute seriousness.
She covered a sniffle with a snort and finally got the zipper over her swollen ankle and kicked off the boot. “Shut up.”
Suddenly feeling very selfish and very stupid she sat up and dabbed at the corner of each eye where a few frustrated tears had started to form. “As much as I’d love for you to bring your perfectly delicious self home right now that would just be silly.”
She could hear the serious tone blend with the obvious exhaustion. “I would though. I’m not going to make the same mistakes, Tessa. I’ll do anything to keep you happy.”
Knowing there was something else going on that her too tired brain was not catching up with she stopped kneading her thumb over the arch of her stocking clad foot. “What’s goin’ on, Jon?”
“Babe, I’m just feeling sorry for myself. As much as I’d love for you to indulge my every want and need, I do have to get used to sleeping without you. You’ll be touring soon and you’ll have to do overnights in Philly when the Soul season starts. What else has you so quick to do the impossible?”
“I made too many excuses not to be home before, Tessa. I won’t make those mistakes again.”
“I’m not Dot,” she said quietly.
“Of course you’re not,” he snapped then huffed out a breath. “This is coming out wrong over the phone.”
”Maybe we’re both too tired for this conversation, darlin’.”
“No, I need to say this.”
“Okay,” she said quietly. She could feel the frustration coming off him in waves even through the phone. He hadn’t said much after his conversation with Dorothea. She respected his need to process things before he talked to her. She and Jon were very much the same when it came to working things out in their heads.
“I’ve been thinking a lot today during the downtimes between the zillion fucking meetings I had today.”
She smiled and folded her legs under herself to try and stand up. “Thinking…got it.”
“I’m being serious here,” he said sternly but ruined it by chuckling. “I’m trying to pour my heart out here and you’re giving me shit.”
She cleared her throat and tried desperately not to giggle. “Right, serious talk, got it.”
“Oh hell,” he laughed and she could hear him settling into a chair or his bed. “I want to move things along.”
“And the warp speed we’ve been moving at is too slow?” She stood and bit back a moan as her feet pulsed in time with her heartbeat. Hobbling yet again she made it to her kitchen and dumped the frozen dinners inside.
“You think you’re funny.”
She jammed the plastic bag in the kitchen drawer and slowly made her way to the couch. “I know I’m funny, there’s a difference.”
“I want to take you out Sunday night.”
Her mouth dropped open. “In public?” she squeaked. She had to have heard him wrong.
“It’s a party, actually.”
“A New Year’s Eve party?”
“That’d be the one.”
“With people,” she said dimly. She was pretty sure she sounded a bit simple, but she wanted to make sure she was hearing him correctly.
“Famous people even,” he said with a snort.
“Let me back up a bit here. Sunday? As in two days from now?” The figurative light bulb went off in her head. “Would this be the question you were going to ask me last night?”
“As a matter of fact…”
“Dammit, Jon! Who’s party?”
“It’s no big deal. It’s at Elton’s place in the City.”
Her jaw dropped. “Elton John?”
“Yeah, he has a shin dig every year. It’s one of those things where you start at one house and end up at three or four more by the time the night is over.”
“Right,” he said patiently.
“Elton John, the famous Diva. That Elton, right?”
“You are a horrible man!”
He laughed and she could hear him switch ears. “Why am I horrible?”
“You couldn’t start out with dinner or something? You want me to go out with you for the first time to a friggin’ spectacle at Elton John’s house?”
“It’s not a spectacle it-“
“Jon, you seem to forget that I’m a fan. I used to love when you went to these society things because there were tons of pictures of you. Do you know why there’s tons of pictures of you?”
“There’s tons of photographers?” He asked with way too much humor in his voice.
“There’s tons of photographers!!” She agreed with a voice just shy of hysteria.
“Guess you should get a hot dress. We could go shopping tomorrow after you close.”
“Oh my God. What is wrong with you!? How in the hell am I going to find a dress and…” her mind whirled with the things she’d need to do. Manicure, pedicure to be sure and her hair? She hadn’t gotten it cut since way before Thanksgiving.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of--” the line went silent for a second. “Hey, babe I gotta go. I’ve been waiting for this call all day.”
“Love you,” he said quickly and was gone.
Thank God she was already sitting on something soft because she would have hurt herself if she’d still been in the kitchen. “Elton John?” she said out loud, still horrified. She turned her head into one of the throw pillows and screamed.
Jon watched as Steph ran up the stairs to Dot’s house. She’d given him her customary hug and kiss when he dropped her off and perhaps he’d held on a little too long. Thankfully his daughter must have been feeling generous because she didn’t even try to squirm away.
Dorothea slipped out onto the portico wearing a jacket with her cigarettes in hand. “We need to talk.”
He had a feeling he’d be bumming one of her cigarettes. He nodded and fell into step with her as she circled the house. They walked in companionable silence for the first time in weeks. Dorothea had asked for a bit of property with the house she requested, but not as extensive as the Navasink house.
“Is Christine inside?” he asked conversationally.
“Would I leave our kids alone if she wasn’t?” she asked coolly and with just enough emphasis on the word, our, to make Jon inwardly sigh.
“Well, Steph watches them sometimes. I just wanted to make sure we had time to talk,” he said patiently. He would keep this conversation civil if it killed him.
She took a deep breath, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” The walked in silence until they reached the back of the property along the small fairy garden that Steph had helped put together. There was a small bench that seated two easily and a pretty view of a small pond that was currently alive with Koi enjoying the unseasonably warm temperatures. He settled on one end of the cool wrought iron and wood, forcing himself to leave his hands open and relaxed on his pant legs as he waited for the talk he’d been dreading.
She sat on the opposite end and lit a cigarette then offered the pack. Deciding that it was definitely a nicotine type conversation he took one and leaned into her lighter. The familiar scent of her musky perfume mixed with cigarettes wafted over him before he sat back. “Thanks,” he murmured and took a deep drag letting his lungs and brain fill with the heady flash of nicotine.
“I don’t like this, Jon.”
Holding in the smoke for another second he let it out slowly. “We’ve never been the type to fight over stupid shit, Dot.”
“I don’t think it’s stupid,” she said defensively.
“Not my relationship, but the issue of trust. That’s stupid. You’ve always been able to trust me, no matter what has happened over the years.”
“You never lied to me before. Even if it was something I didn’t want to know about you still never lied to
“And I didn’t lie to you about Tessa. As soon as Steph found out about her I told you the next day. As for the rest, I did bring the kids into the shop for Storytime, but that wasn’t their first visit to the shop.” He held up his hand when he heard her start to interrupt him. “No, just listen first. I took Romeo and Jake in before I even met Tessa. They saw a display for this big pirate window she had done when we were in the park. She’s pretty clever about the whole marketing thing,” he said absently.
Her eyes darted to his and he saw a flicker of pain before she slipped back underneath the mask he was so used to. “You still brought them there for Christmas without discussing it with me,” she reminded him rigidly.
“Yes, I did, but it wasn’t just for me. And it certainly wasn’t to introduce my kids to my girlfriend.” He felt her stiffen at the word, but forced himself to go on. “If you could see Tessa in action when she performed for the kids you would know why I wanted them to share in it. She’s got this amazing way of drawing the audience in. Even Romeo sat still for her reading.”
“I get it, she’s amazing,” she said dryly.
He sighed. “I also didn’t let on that we were anything other than acquaintances. We even sat separate from most of the general public.”
“And the interview?”
“I’ll own up to that one. I pissed off a reporter and she finally found a way to get back at me in her own little way.”
“Another girlfriend?” she said with a sadness he wasn’t used to.
“No, Dorothea. Even as a divorced guy I’m not the type to juggle like that. I’m just not built that way. When you asked me to leave, I’ll admit I was angry and made a few bad moves. Unfortunately Charlotte Burke was one of them. We dated a few times, but she was pretty obvious about what she wanted from me within a few dates and I wasn’t interested in a society showpiece. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy about how things ended.”
“You can be an asshole, Jon.”
“Yeah, well it’s better to be an ass than end up with a barracuda that was looking for a quick rise up the social ladder. When I didn’t want to help her get to the important parties and meet the important people she decided I was fair game for the gossip spin on a slow night.”
“There was a kernel of truth to it though, wasn’t there?”
Uncomfortable he lifted his booted foot onto his knee and snubbed out his butt on the sole. How much did you discuss with your ex when it came to being in love with a new woman? Especially when it was a woman like Tessa, who made him feel so much more than he realized he was capable of outside of the love of a father and his children. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Just tell me the truth, I can take it.”
“I’ve told you the truth. I love her. I knew it almost right away.”
She pulled her coat in tighter across her chest and hugged herself. “How can you say that? You’ve only known her for a few weeks.”
He moved his hand over to her knee and squeezed. “I knew the first time I saw you, didn’t I? Sometimes you just know.”
“And you don’t think you should try a different game plan? It didn’t work for us,” she said stubbornly.
“Ahhh, Dot, but it did work. It worked for a very long time.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t make it to forever. That’s what you promised that day.” There was a sadness in her voice now. Her brown eyes were weary when she finally looked at him.
They’d never really dealt with why she’d asked for a divorce before. It had been done quietly with little fuss on either side. Part of it had been relief, and part of it had left him raw for a long time. He’d wondered how things had fallen apart even why they had, but he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to know all of it. Failure was something he didn’t deal with very well. “I try to keep my promises, but in this case I don’t think either of us did,” he said quietly.
“It just got so hard. I couldn’t do it anymore, Jon. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself be interested in all the things that you got involved in. My life was here with the kids and the Dojo. It was just easier to let you do your own thing, and enjoy our time when you did come home.” She paused and stubbed her finished cigarette out on the stone walkway. She hunched her shoulders in and tried to turn away from him. “More and more I just felt like you were never really ‘here’ even when you did manage to come home.”
The drop of a tear on his hand felt like a splash of fire. His gut churned and burned as he gathered her into his arms. It was a rare thing for Dorothea to cry, and when it happened, it ripped him to shreds. She resisted a bit, but finally let herself lean on him. He couldn’t deny anything that she’d said. It was true that over the years he’d started looking for new projects to fill the empty parts of him. The fact that she hadn’t seemed interested in anything he did had started to get to him.
Going home was for seeing his kids and trying to bridge the ever widening chasm that had become their relationship. Had it been that he simply hadn’t tried anymore as well? It had been easier to leave things as status quo and to ignore the elephant in the room. He wished he felt the passion he once did, now all he felt was the loss.
The woman that had been his best friend and his lover since he’d been a teen wasn’t that woman anymore. And while some of it had been her fault, he’d known going into the relationship that she wasn’t cut out for his crazy life. He’d made the vow to himself that he would make it work and in the end most of it had truly been his fault. He’d stopped making it work.
They’d always have a bond with their kids and he’d always love her, but he wasn’t in love with her anymore. He was moving on, but she wasn’t quite ready. He wished he didn’t have to hurt her yet again, but if it meant losing Tessa by waiting, then he’d have to add one more hurt to his list.
She eased away from him and wiped away the few stray tears she’d allowed to fall. “So what happens now?”
He cupped her face in his hands and pressed a kiss to her lips. There was no heat in the press of lips, more like a final goodbye when it came right down to it. “I’m sorry I hurt you so much, and if I could rewind the years-“
She stopped him and pressed her hand over his. “No regrets. We had a lot of fun and we made four great kids. I wouldn’t change a thing, even when it still meant losing you.” She pulled away. “We’ll take things a day at a time, but for now I’d appreciate it if you didn’t include Tessa in your activities with the kids yet. I need some time to get used to this and figure out how we should tell them.”
“I can’t hide her any longer, Dot. If she’s willing to be tossed to the wolves, I’ll be taking her to a few New Year’s parties.”
She swallowed hard, but nodded. “I understand.”
He noticed that she didn’t say she was happy for him, but he was willing to take what he could get for now. He stood up and tugged her arm until she hooked it in his. They walked up the hill to the front door. “Now, tell me I have free access to my kids so I can breathe again.”
She gave that half smile that used to drive him wild and nodded. “As long as the original agreement stands,” she said without anger.
“And if the kids have any questions?”
“We’ll revisit the subject in a few weeks.”
“It’s all I can ask.”
She gave a non-committal, “Mmmm-hmm,” and opened the door. “Do you want to come inside and see our kids?”
“I’d like that,” he said with a smile and followed her inside. “And what’s this thing about a guy and Stephanie?”
She threw a smile over her shoulder. “I was wondering if she’d try her new found wiles on you.”
“You knew about this and didn’t tell me?” He asked and shrugged off his jacket.
“Some things just need to be experienced,” she said without remorse.
“Yeah, well, I can do without that kind of experience,” he mumbled. He moved into the living room and waved to Christine who was on the floor with Romeo, Jake and a few thousand pounds of legos, transformers and various other toys.
“Daddy!” Romeo crashed through a variable fortress of legos much to his brother’s dismay and wound himself around his knee.
With practiced ease he hooked his little monkey on his hip. “But we’re still not doing the dating thing right?”
“Jury’s still out,” she said with a non-committal air.
“I vote for the death penalty.”
She snorted, “I bet your daughter would have an argument.”
“Appeal all she likes, I meet him first then we’ll see.”
Dot just shook her head and followed Chris into the kitchen. Jon dropped to the floor Indian style. “Legos I understand,” he said and started to help Jake rebuild his stronghold.
Jon snapped his phone shut and jammed it in the pocket of his leather bomber jacket. Swinging his legs out from the low slung sports car he thanked the icy wind for its sudden and timely arrival.
Going in to visit his kids with a semi was definitely not the way to make a good impression, especially with it was a very pissed off ex-wife involved. The little conversation with Tessa had gone a long way in relaxing him, though. The ten minute drive had left his gut in oily knots. Picturing her sweet face with a naughty glint in her eyes had him smiling as he approached the house.
The door opened wide just as he hit the steps. Dorothea stood at the door, her face cold and remote.
“Daddy! Daddy!” he heard Jake’s voice a split second before he pushed Dot aside to get to him. A disjointed Transformer was clutched in his hand as he started climbing up his arm.
He hauled him up onto his hip. “Hey buddy, how you doin’?”
He pushed a red, white and blue toy in his face that seemed to be halfway between robot and truck. “Me and Optimus Prime have been towing Bumblebee and Jazz into the hideout. We have to hide from Megatron.”
Jon laughed and nodded. Pirates had recently been replaced by Transformers as soon as the commercials had started for the movie coming out over the summer. “Is Bumblebee safe?”
“Jake get in the house you don’t have a jacket on,” Dot called out.
He hopped down. “I gotta go save Bumblebee before Megatron gets him!” He made sounds that Jon imagined were supposed to signify transforming as he started to click and shift the pieces on the toy as he ran back into the house.
She waited until the pounding feet headed to the back of the house. “What are you doing here?”
“Steph called looking for me. She wanted to go out to breakfast.”
“She didn’t say anything to me.” Her voice and her face were both emotionless as she stared at him. To be more accurate it felt like she was staring right through him.
“Does she have to ask for permission to go out with her father?”
“Now she does.”
Swallowing back the need to shake her, he took a step up. “Does it really have to be this way? I promised that I’d keep my kids separate from Tessa.”
“For now. How will I know when you decide to change your mind?”
“We’ll discuss it-“
“What? Like we discussed it last time? Because my daughter knows about your little girlfriend,” the sneer made it glaringly obvious that she was using the word loosely, “and we sure as hell didn’t discuss it.”
“I’m not going to lie to my daughter’s face. I had no choice but to explain what she’d overheard.”
“Well maybe if you didn’t discuss every little detail of our lives with Richie then it wouldn’t have posed a problem.”
“Dammit, Dot what do you want from me? Blood? I would give it if I could. I wish she hadn’t overheard it yet. I wish it could have been conveniently done in a family meeting with all of us, but it wasn’t and you need to get over it.” Wanting to snatch back the words as soon as he said them he bit back a growl.
“Get over it? This is what I mean, Jon. If it doesn’t suit you then hey, it must be my problem.”
“Look, I’m sorry-“
“Screw your sorries, Jon. This isn’t about us. This is about the kids and what’s best for them. Stability and showing that we are a team is all that matters right now, even if I’m not feeling any team spirit at all.”
Right then it certainly felt like it was about them. Reaching out to touch her, he curled his fingers into his palm when she flinched. Christ, he couldn’t even touch her at this point? “We will always be a team when it comes to our kids, even when we don’t agree. It’s not like we’ve agreed on every little thing we’ve done over the years.”
Her face went blank and closed off. “I’ll get Stephanie, you wait here.”
Feeling the slap that she intended it to be, Jon stood on the portico. Locked out of his children’s home like a stranger? What was it going to take to show Dorothea that his life with Tessa wasn’t a bad thing? That he could be trusted not to take things any faster than she wanted.
He stalked back to the car and leaned against the back quarter panel, trying to cool down. He didn’t need Steph to see him this worked up. She’d know something was wrong right away.
The door opened again and Steph came out alone. Her smile was almost non-existent, but the relief he could see on her face fisted into his gut like a punch. He wanted to make whatever was bothering her go away. He wanted to drag her in for a hug and press a kiss to her forehead like he used to do when she was little. Daddy kisses would always make everything alright.
She wore her new coat and scarf that he’d found in
Her arms rose to his shoulders and she laid her cheek against his chest. “Oh, Daddy.”
“I know, sweetheart. It’s okay.” He didn’t know what was wrong yet, but he’d do everything in his power to make it okay.
He opened the door for her and she ducked inside the low slung sports car. Rapping his knuckles against the hood of the car he banked the irritation with Dot. He climbed in and revved the engine until she laughed and shot out of the driveway.
“So, where would you like to go?”
“Can we just go to the house? I’ll cook us something.”
“Sure, Sweetheart.” Jon pulled out into traffic and headed toward the Navasink. He tried to draw her out with small talk, but she seemed so distracted that he finally just gave up and put on her favorite radio station until they pulled into the driveway.
He followed her inside, watched her putter around the kitchen, gathering the fixings for an omelet. It seemed like she needed something to do with her hands as she mixed the eggs and milk with some spices just like her Gram had taught her.
He started some coffee, letting her relax with the simple task. He knew what it was like to have excess energy strangling him. His daughter could be so like him in some ways.
When she settled two plates on the table he sat next to her. She picked at her food, pushing it around the plate and sneaking glances at him. He bit his tongue, wanting to be patient for his daughter. Knowing that she needed to talk to him about something, and that something had her in knots.
“Dad,” she said softly.
“Yeah, Steph,” he said as he carefully set his fork down. He’d plowed through the omelet, not realizing how hungry he was. Normal things like eating had been delegated to his time with Tessa and she’d disappeared on him today without their morning ritual.
“Can I come live with you?”
Of all the things he figured his daughter was going to talk to him about today that was not one of them. He frowned and pushed his plate away. “Can I ask why?”
She pushed her plate aside and crossed her arms over her chest. “I can’t take it in that house anymore, Dad. Mom’s been so bitch-“
Steph frowned and pressed her lips together then started again. “Sorry, she’s been just so touchy. Everything I do is wrong, she yells at me for everything. She won’t even let me go out with my friends.”
Knowing he was going to be walking a very dangerous and touchy line he chose his words carefully. “Why do you think she’s acting like this?”
“I don’t know! Ever since I told her about what we talked about she’s been so mean. I mean, not like Mom normal bad mood that she’ll snap out of…but really bit-” she stopped and cleared her throat at his warning glare, “Touchy. I just don’t understand any of it.”
“Your mom and I are having a little bit of a,” he paused, unsure exactly how much he should share with his teen aged daughter. “Disagreement about how we’re going to handle telling you guys about Tessa.”
“I don’t know her well enough yet, Dad, but she seems pretty cool. If she makes you happy…” she trailed off.
The tightness in his chest eased as confusion and loyalty seemed to swim in her eyes. He’d been so worried about not hurting his kids, that he was doing a bang up job of doing just the opposite. “I’d like you to get to know, Tessa but for now we’ll respect your mom’s feelings about waiting on that.”
“Sometimes you just know,” she said with a wistfulness that may as well have been a twirling spotlight over her head.
“So what exactly seems to be mom’s issue with you lately?”
The sweet, soft look on her face immediately got lost under a dark cloud. “I told you.”
Somehow he didn’t think he’d heard the whole story. “Just which friends does she not want you to go out with, Steph?”
She crossed her arms, “My regular gang.”
Instinct made him push. “Does your regular gang include a guy?”
“So what if it does,” she said defensively.
Ahhh. Jon found himself on shaky ground. He understood that she could be upset about his breakup with Dot, but this was starting to sound more like she wanted to get her own way. That perhaps Dad would be the lenient one and not pay attention to the type of friends she was hanging out with.
And it also seemed that there wasn’t total disclosure over what was going on with his little girl. “Do you have a boyfriend, Steph?” he asked quietly.
“What? No! I-“ Her blue eyes were startled and almost panicky.
She knew that she was too young for a boyfriend. He could see her mind spinning, trying to catch up with what she’d absently said. He wondered if Dorothea knew and just hadn’t felt that was important enough to talk to him about or if all the crap going on between them was causing a few blind spots for both of them.
He hated that he was edging toward the former idea. He’d dealt with the fact that he felt out of the loop a lot of the time because of who he was and what he was, but this much? “Steph,” he took a breath hoping he would say the right thing. “I would hope that you would be honest enough with me on this kind of thing.”
“Dad, you gotta understand,” she said pleadingly. “Mom’s being insane about this. We’re just friends.”
“We talked about the boyfriend thing. You’re still way too young.”
“But he’s not-”
“C’mon, Steph how dumb do you think your old man is? I’ve been the horny teenager already and while it was awhile ago, I remember what it was like.”
“But it’s not like that.”
Jon just sat back in his chair. “Do you want me to ask your mom about it?”
“You don’t understand at all!” She stood and went for the back door, twisting the handle with more force than necessary and left the it wide open.
Taking a moment to drop his forehead to the table and let it bang twice, he stood and followed her. She was halfway across the estate and heading to the river by the time he caught up. “Hey, come back inside you don’t even have a jacket on.”
“I’m not cold,” she said stubbornly as she slipped her fingers inside the sleeves of her sweater. She stared out at the water, her face stony with the definition of teen defiance.
He stood before her and dropped his hands on her shoulders. When she wouldn’t look at him, he squeezed. “Running away from a conversation is not the way we do things, you know that.”
“Why? You do.”
Taking the punch he kept his mouth shut. Is that what she thought of him? Trying to keep the peace between the two households was frustrating for him, but was he just taking the easy way out by falling in with Dot’s wishes? “Running from a conversation and compromise are two totally different things. And the fact that you’re trying to manipulate me by only giving me half the story is pretty low, Steph.”
Her blue eyes went bright with tears. “I’m not!”
He thumbed away a tear. “You know you are. I may be out of the loop sometimes, sweetheart but I’m not stupid. Hell, don’t you think I did the same thing to my parents when I wanted something?”
“But she won’t let me see him at all…well, except for school.” She sniffed and wiped the tears with her sleeve. “Dad, is this what it feels like for you with Tessa?”
Shit. He let his head tip back as he struggled with what to say. It was similar in a way, and if he said it wasn’t it wouldn’t be fair to her. “Ahh, Steph you really are too much like me sometimes.”
He dragged her in for a hug and she curled into him. Her slim, almost a woman body so fragile and trusting as she sniffed against his shirt. His heart broke a little as he realized that his little girl was growing up. “We’ll talk to your mom. We’ll figure out something, I promise.”
She nodded into his chest, but didn’t say anything. They both looked out on the free-flowing river as Jon just added another worry to his list. How on earth was he going to deal with a daughter that wanted to date?