12/16/2008

Chapter 141




Jon swung his feet to the floor, hunching his shoulders against the soft, mewling moans that came from the other side of the bed. Digging his fingertips into the base of his skull he put his head between his knees, dragging in a deep breath.

He didn’t know what was worse, the fact that she never cried in the daytime or that all she did was cry in her sleep. It was a month to the day that she’d—they’d lost the baby. He’d broached the subject of a memorial—something, anything to get her to talk about the baby, but she just shut him down again.

‘I need to move on,’ she’d tell him over and over again. It wasn’t like she was cruel about it. She often said it with a sad kiss or a comforting hug. It was a double edged sword, really. The only times she did touch him willingly was when he asked about the baby. Part of him knew it was guilt, that she would feel the need to comfort him, but it killed him that she blocked out the thought of their little one at the same time.

Never a harsh word against him for bringing it up, of course, but always the same answer. He dug his thumb and his middle finger into his the corner of his eyes and pushed away the agony that sat there, night after night. He rolled in close, tugged her into his arms as she sobbed. She never remembered it the next morning, so he stopped mentioning it.

The first time it had happened, he’d wanted to talk about it the next morning, but she’d closed off so completely he’d wondered if he even knew the woman she was becoming. That night she’d called with some excuse to sleep at her own place.

He’d slept like shit, thinking about her alone—crying. Needing him. So, he kept these nightly rituals to himself. He was learning to be an accomplished liar in the last few weeks. Who knew that his game face for fans would come in so handily with the woman he loved?

Lying to her face when she asked if she’d cried in the night, lying to Richie that everything was okay—well, saying it. He knew his friend didn’t believe it.

Lying to himself that she was getting better. That she was coming back to him.

He buried his fingers into the silky strands at her nape, soothing her as he did every night. Finding that the hair thing was truly the only thing that would stop the tears. He found little comfort in the fact that what once made her shiver in anticipation was now what let her grieve—at least in sleep.

Stroking her until the nightmare eased, until the tears dried on his chest, until she sighed back into his arms and let herself finally sleep.

He just wished it wasn’t just in sleep that she curled into him so trustingly. When he woke again, the bed was cool and she was gone.

~

Tessa reached for the ledger for April’s mid-month tallies. Turning at the knock on the door, she smiled. “Hey, Nic.”

She stood inside the door, the binder that was never far from her, clutched to her chest, her thick dark hair curling around her face. “Hey babes. New shipment just came in and I need you to sign for it. It’s the first cardboard cutouts for the last Harry Potter.”

“Right,” Tessa jammed the binder back on the shelf and followed her out the door. “How’s the Mother’s Day table coming?”

Nic sighed. “All finished. We’re fine, Tessa. Nothing else needs to be rearranged, catalogued or dusted. We’re ahead of the curve.”

Tessa nodded. “Okay, good. I have a few more ideas for a late spring table to move some of the classics too.”

“Of course you do.”

Ignoring the sarcasm, she followed her into the warehouse area and smiled at her receiving staff. “Hi, Jason. I hear there’s a delivery I need to sign for?”

Jason hopped off his chair, a wide angle broom in hand as he cleared away the packing peanuts littering the floor. She frowned. She knew she’d been pushing her staff harder than usual, but the downtime in a bookstore was the perfect time to get things setup for the summer reading rush. Was she pushing them too hard?

He pointed to the Fed Ex delivery guy at the mouth of the receiving dock. She smiled and reached for the electronic clipboard. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

The deliveryman smiled back. “You know how they are about the Harry Potter stuff.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t get hijacked,” she teased.

“July 21st I think I might have to carry a weapon,” he laughed.

She laughed, and handed back the scribbled board with the dangling stylus. “I know you’re supposed to be kidding.”

He shook his head ruefully. “I wish I was. They’re nuts man.” He waved and climbed back in his truck.

She turned to Nic, watching the strain in her eyes as she pressed a hand to her midsection. “Hey, why don’t you go take a long lunch? It’s a slow day and Adam has called eight times checking on you. Go appease him.”

“The thought of food makes me wish I could hurl, but there’s nothing left right now.”

She laughed and rubbed Nic’s back. “I know. First trimester sucks for some,” she cleared her throat, “people. You just got the brunt of the morning sickness babes. Take your sleeve of Saltines and make him a happy camper.”

Nic looked up at her, brown eyes sad and teary as they so often were these days. Her hormones were way out of wack.

“C’mon Mama Bear, don’t start that action again. Cry in the car with that Baby Einstein CD you’re forcing that poor thing to listen to.”

“Tessa—“

She waved her off. “Go, Nic. I’ll be fine. I’ve got to go rearrange things to find room for this ridiculous cardboard cutout, right?”

Defeated, she nodded and headed out of receiving. Tessa closed her eyes, her own hand finding her flat stomach. Would she have been show—she bit the inside of her cheek and pushed that thought away. She was very thankful that her best friend had gotten pregnant so easily. They’d decided to try and a little over a month later Nic had gotten the happy news.

She knew Nic was going to be an amazing mom. Adam was a nervous wreck, but he was supportive, even through the chattering teeth. She turned back to Jason. “You okay to put that cardboard cutout together?”

“Yeah, I’ll just make Mike do it,” he ribbed the guy next to him.

“Man, I’m not getting cardboard cuts this time, that’s all you.”

Tessa grinned and let them hash it out. She headed out to the bookfloor, intent on moving some things at the front of the store. Harry Potter took precedence when it came to sales. She planned on having a midnight sale like some of the major bookstores, hoping she could catch some of the overflow since she was smaller and lesser known in the region.

Crouching, she tugged one of the hidden boxes aside to relocate at the cashwrap, her fingers wrapping around the base filled with sand. The stand lifted easily and she turned around. “Hey you,” she grinned over her shoulder at Jon lifting her weighted Fountain of Youth display with ease. His arm flexed at the weight, but he held it still. She frowned for a moment. When had his arms gotten so big?

“Where do you want it?”

She stood, hands on her hips. “I can do it, you know. You’re supposed to be taking it easy with that hand still.”

“I know, but make me feel useful, huh?”

Startled, she swung her gaze to him, but there was only an amused smirk on his face. She rolled her eyes and pointed up front. “C’mon up near the registers, He-Man.”

His low chuckle was his only response. When he set the altered birdbath down she laughed as he twined his arms around her. Settling her hands awkwardly on his shoulders, she brushed his cheek with a quick kiss and slipped away.

His hands dropped away, stuffing into his battered jeans. “I thought I’d drop in and see if I can steal you away for lunch.”

She adjusted the sand weighted stone-like fountain and tsked. “Sorry, I just sent Nichole out for a long lunch with Adam.”

“Of course you did,” he muttered.

She looked up at him, her fingers tugging playfully at his thermal shirt bunched at his elbow. “Literally, just five minutes ago. I didn’t know you were coming.” She brushed a quick kiss on his stubbly jaw and ducked under the desk to the cashbox. Stepping inside she hit a few keys for the noontime report and stuck her head out. “Why don’t I cook you dinner?”

He leaned onto the desktop, his fingers gripping over the edge to her side of the counter. “Why don’t we let Lottie cook and I open a bottle of wine so we can just have time for us?”

She let the door close again, fighting down the nerves blossoming in her belly. She didn’t know how to be with him anymore. She wanted to be able to spend an evening with him, but alone with him? He wanted to touch, he wanted to be close.

She tucked the report into the folder for the day and came out. His eyes expectant and a little wary, but focused on her. She nodded, her fingers brushing the stubbly cheek. “Okay.”

He trapped her hand there against his face with one of his own, pulling it higher until her whole hand cupped his cheek. “We need this, Tessa.” His eyes were so clear and so very sad. She knew it was her that kept them sad.

She was trying to get back to basics. Trying to feel comfortable in his arms again. And he’d been so very patient with her. She lifted onto her toes and pressed her lips to his, bringing her other hand to cradle his face. The counter between them made her strain to get closer, but it was also a safety net.

His hard, warm body made her ache to curl into it, but it also reminded her just how little she had to offer him. He gave her so much, and what did she have in return? He pulled away, ducking under the counter and pushing her into the cashbox.

“Jon!” He closed the door behind him, dragging her into him. Her hands fell away as his scent swirled around her in the closet of a room. She felt the first tingle of awareness as his thumb traced her jaw.

“Please,” he said against her mouth. “Give me something,” his forehead pressed into hers.

She closed her eyes, the pinpricks of tears burned. “I’m sorry,” she said, clutching the nubby material of his shirt. “I’m trying,” she let her fingertips find the soft hair swirling under the opened buttons to the chain that lay there against his neck. The dogtags he never took off.

Her fingertip coasted over the names of his kids, flipping through the polished white gold. A new word was etched there and her breath stopped. Simply, ‘baby’ with no other accompaniments.

She pulled away, twisting when he tried to hold her.

“Tessa!”

She slammed the door back against the bookshelves that held customer orders, the door vibrating with the force of it. Uncaring, she ran to the front door.

12/14/2008

Chapter 140



Jon stood out on the balcony off his bedroom. The clear, almost spring night was crisp with a light wind and a star filled sky. Exactly the kind of night he’d stand outside with Tessa. The easy way that she’d settle back against him, his hands around her waist, her back to his front—he missed it in ways he’d never have admitted to anyone. It had had been that way for countless nights, even on the super cold ones.

But he stood there alone today. He thumbed the crack in his cast where he’d banged it against a wall—again. At least the cast took the brunt of the impact this time. He hitched his sweatpants that were falling low on his hips. He’d lost weight again. Sometimes he wanted to be that guy that gained weight in stress, instead his metabolism worked overtime dragging him back to those days of his twenties when he was a scrawny piece of nothing.

He puffed out a stream of smoke. He was back to nearly a pack of cigarettes a day since she’d been in the hospital. Something to do, something to keep his hands occupied, something that he could control—if he was going to be honest. But what else was 3am for, if it wasn’t for honesty?

In his head he knew that Tessa was just trying to get back to normal, to push away the pain. He’d done the same when his divorce had become final. But that was a different sort of pain. The failure was there, as was with Tessa, but the pain was only a memory. It was an ache for what had been. This? This wasn’t something he could even assimilate.

He’d been a lucky man for more years than he could remember. The golden horseshoe up his proverbial ass, but this—the loss so sharp and all encompassing. He’d been aching for the day she’d wake up, so he had someone to share it with. The only other person that could really understand him right now and she was pulling away.

He flicked his butt away and closed the French doors, climbing back into his empty bed. He stuffed his good hand under his head and stared at the ceiling, waiting out the hours he’d have to wait before he saw her again. The fear that had been clawing its way through his gut was in hibernation.

For now.

~

Tessa smoothed her hand over the soft pants and oversized shirt Nic had brought her. Checkout was at eleven, but she’d been dressed since dawn. The drawstring of the pants rubbed against her stitches, each tugging reminder of why she’d been cut into. She’d just have to wear a dress for the next few days.

Visits from her employees at the store had killed the better part of her early morning, and a stilted call from her sister left her hollow. The years had made them strangers in every way. And the cry in the background had left a pulsing ache behind her eyes. She had a niece. A little one that she’d never even known about. Strangers. That’s all they were now. She really didn’t have anyone besides Nic and—she closed her eyes.

She looked up, the doorway filled with him. His impossibly blue eyes shuttered with hurt, but a trace of defiance was there too. Her Jon. As long as he wanted half of a woman, well…then she had Jon as well. She stood, meeting him halfway. Battered boots, jeans and her favorite shirt pulled across his chest. She fingered the blue button against the navy corduroy, finding a hint of heat and chest hair, just like the first time she’d seen the shirt. The first night she’d been with him.

She looked up at him, the same sandy bangs, overlong and brushing his brow, but the eyes were different now. Pain and love mixed there. Both were her weight to bear. She lifted a hand to his cheek, to the near beard he was sporting, dotted with grey and the dark brown of his natural coloring.

She rubbed her thumb over the now hidden dent of his chin, up to his lower lip chapped raw from biting it like he did when he was worried and the chaffing wind. For a man that took grooming so seriously sometimes she wondered how he forgot chapstick. Acting on instinct she lifted onto her toes, brushing her lips over his.

As she lifted, his buckle brushed against her stitches and she drew back. He caught her around the waist, drawing her against him once more. The kiss held no heat, but the connection that was such a part of them sparked. She felt the quick prick of tears at her eyes and pulled away, slipping from his arms. “No cavalry? Just you?”

His good hand was now a fist as his eyes went flat. “I’m hoping I’m enough.”

She turned back to him, swallowing down the lump in her throat. “Of course you are,” she looked away from him. Her chest tightening with emotions she couldn’t handle. The question would be, was she enough?

She tucked her notebook and purse into the overnight bag Nic had provided. “I’m just waiting on the doctor’s discharge papers and we can go home.”

“My home? Or your home?”

Her fingers stilled over the zipper. His voice was rough with uncertainty and brimming emotions. She ached for the quiet comfort of her little cottage house, but his mansion had also become home. She’d dropped her touches everywhere in the master suite and living room they used for quiet time. It had become theirs as much as anything could have.

She turned, seeing just what her absence had done to him and twisted her fingers into his. “Ours. I may not find that huge palace of a home completely mine, but our wing of the house is just what I need.”

The relief in his eyes was evident and she knew she’d made the right choice. Her home was with him for as long as he would have her.

Janet bustled in with paperwork and the doctor. “Hiya baby girl, you really ready to leave me?”

She smiled at the ever moving nurse. “I’m soo ready to get out of this hospital, but you were the very best part.”

Dr. Esser stepped forward. “I checked you earlier this morning, but I just wanted to give you some literature about the coming weeks. What you can expect as your body heals, the hormones that will probably make you a little crazy for awhile.” The doctor pressed a packet of booklets into her hands, meeting her eyes. “Grief counseling,” Tessa shook her head, “if you need it,” Dr. Esser finished.

Tessa shoved the bundle into the front pocket of her bag without looking. “Thank you.”

The doctor sighed, handing over the forms. “Just sign these and we’ll have Janet wheel you out.”

“I can walk,” she said and lifted her chin.

The doctor raised a placating hand. “I know you can, but—“

“Hospital policy!” Janet chirped and tugged a wheelchair from the hallway, into the room. “I get to give you one more taste of Nurse Janet before you go home and ruin all my hard work.”

The warmth in Janet’s voice was enough to have her sit down in the chair. She looked up at Jon, who already had her bag. “Ready to blow this joint?”

His mouth quirked in that endearing smirk she loved so much. “You bet.”

The trip down to the car was without incident. She listened to Janet’s happy voice bubble over the entire way down, hugging her as Jon waited for her. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“He loves you like crazy. You don’t get that but once or twice in your life. Don’t waste it.”

She nodded, pulling away as the outside world waited for her…finally. Janet’s words resonated deep as she waited for Jon to pull his car up. Before she could really think too hard about it, a decidedly soccer mom car pulled up with her less than soccer dad looking man.

He rounded the car, opening the door for her. “Your chariot awaits.”

“A mini van?”

“A Volkswagon Touareg thank you very much.” He retorted.

“Mini Van.”

“SUV,” he allowed. “Jesse and Jake are now both doing football and soccer. I needed a kid car to help out Dot.”

“It’s very becoming,” she said with a laugh. “Hottest Soccer Dad on the block.”

“Shut up.”

She listened as he told her about the kids, about Richie and Ava—as he filled the silence with stories and words. Until they simply stopped flowing. Until the house loomed before them. Huge and perfect. The French influence there in the wrought iron rails that covered the balconies, the pristine white window panes and the perfectly aged yellow of the plaster. His home.

He opened the door for her again, easing her out of the car with his good hand. The conversation was stilted now. He opened the door and it felt familiar and foreign at the same time. The wide staircase that she’d run up with him a million times. Soft lights and polished marble and there standing with her hands twisted.

Lottie.

She bustled forward, her arms outstretched. “Oh Miss Tessa,” she said, tears glistening in her dark, all too knowing eyes.

She smiled brightly. “C’mon now, no tears.” Tessa pushed forward, hugging her quickly. “I’m okay. Jon’s going to drive me crazy for the next few days by waiting on me hand and foot,” she looked over her shoulder, “right?” When he nodded she turned bac to the tiny little housekeeper. “And then I’ll be right as rain.”

Jon just grunted and steered her toward the stairs. “I’m going to get her settled.”

“I have soup and a thermos of tea waiting for you upstairs. Hospital food, shouldn’t even be classified as food,” she clucked.

Tessa grinned, finding her fingers wound through Jon’s left hand as he slowly walked up the stairs. Instead of complaining, she simply let him take care of her. Richie’s voice rang in her ears. Maybe letting Jon take care of her a little would help him move on too.

They got to the top of the stairs, Richie standing in the hallway. She couldn’t quite meet his eyes. She could still feel the disapproving glare, even though he hid it from Jon. “How’re you doin’ Tess?”

She slid her hand around Jon’s forearm, drawing slow tracks through the hair there as she felt him relax against her. Familiar. Right. This is where she should be for now. “Better.”

“Good to hear,” he nodded to Jon and melted back into the shadows.

“He didn’t have to go.”

Jon flicked a hank of her hair that had grown out to her shoulders. The neon green of the cast burning bright against his pale skin. She cradled his broken hand in hers, bringing the purplish fingers to her cheek. He cleared his throat. “He just wants to give us a little time to settle in. Then you won’t be able to get rid of him.”

His fingers dropped away and she followed him into their room. Again, the familiar and the strange coalesced until she had to close her eyes for a moment. Their bed lay made and pulled back. Her favorite sateen sheets looked inviting and yet cold at the same time. Could she get back into a bed with him? Was that where they’d made the—She bit her bottom lip until the ache backed off.

They’d been careful and careless too many times to count, but part of her knew just when that baby had been created. The timing was right for the hotel in the city—when they’d come together so sweetly and so overwhelmingly. She slid her hand across her belly where the stitches tugged until that night dissolved.

Sunlight poured into the room and she moved to the French doors, pushing them open until the water and the early spring warmth diffused the memories. She heard him bustling around, getting her clothes ready. Drawers opened and closed as he put her things away.

She turned around to see him place the brochures into the top drawer of their shared dresser and looked back out on the river. She hadn’t missed the slight slump of his shoulders or the way his head tipped forward in thought. When he closed the pamphlets away, she braced herself for him.

But he said nothing, just stood behind her, pulling her back against him, his hand gently covering her middle as his bristled chin rested on her head. They stood that way for awhile, watching the sun slowly slip over the horizon, through the trees as the light breeze pushed away a few of her demons.

For now.

11/27/2008

Just a Few Things To Be Thankful For

Hello to all my readers! I know I have a few that are out of the Continental US, but I'd just like to take a second to really THANK everyone that's been following this story.

It's been quite the journey and I know I fall off the map sometimes with the posting, but most of you stick with me--for that I am eternally grateful.

Tessa and MY version of Jon have become lasting characters that will forever be with me. As a writer, it's sometimes a blessing and a curse to fall in love with your characters. Sometimes they become just a little too real to me. Some things that have come to me on this lovely little journey.

* Umm...driving home from the market, a song comes on the iPod and all of a sudden I'm plotting how to use it.

* Driving from the market to my friend's house--figured out how to plot the pivotal scene between Jon and Tessa later in the story.

* Driving in the middle of the night--catching a theme here? LOL--found a way make New Year's special back on chapter 100. *faints--that's right, NOT finished on CHAPTER 100--stilllllll going*

* Redesigning Blog 3 times in the span of one story.

* Realizing that hey, there's more to an erotic romance than sex and people will STILL read it! HURRAY!

* That writing is what I truly love and it's gone past a hobby into a goal.

* That I've got the most amazing fans out there who care almost--if not more--than I do about the outcome of this story.

* That no matter where I go from here, this not so little story is my very first novel and I got to share it with all of you.

* That staring cross eyed at the computer makes me beyond happy.


You guys make the writing worth it. Even if someday I leave the FF genre behind, I know that you were with me at the start and I couldn't have gotten where I am right now without you, THE READERS.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for everything you do.







Love,

Me



PS: And yes...I'll be back in the next week/week and a half with new chapters.

11/05/2008

Chapter 139

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Richie said softly.

Tessa looked up from her notebook. Her To Do list was more than half a page long. She had to get her life back, and Jon’s life back. “I’m just getting back to normal, Richie.” She looked down at her notebook and checked off the first on her list.

Talk to Jon.

Now he knew she was doing all right. He could stop feeling so responsible for her. Things would get better now that she was up and moving. It was going to take some time to get back to 100% but she was well on her way. “I wanted to thank you for being there for Jon. I know he was worried about me.”

Richie frowned down at her. “He was devastated. He almost lost you, darlin’.”

She smiled at him. “I know, but everything’s okay now. We can get back to our life and that life is a busy one that’s for sure. I know Jon’s given up so much to be here with—“

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Richie pressed a hand into her bed and leaned down. “Jon needs to be here with you, needs to see for himself that you’re all right. Sending him off to work and do Soul stuff is not the way to reassure him, you know.”

She sighed. “You’re right. I’ll talk to him when he picks me up tomorrow, I promise.”

“Why don’t I go get him—“

“No, Richie. He should get some stuff out of the way so that I won’t be cutting into his life too much tomorrow. I mean it’s going to take a few hours to get out of here and the paperwork done.” Right, paperwork. She replaced the first thing on her list with hospital paperwork. “I know what a busy man he is and I’m sure he’s put a lot of things on hold while I was…sick.”

“Sick? Tessa you lost a baby and almost died! That’s not sick. That’s life changing.”

She looked up at him, his dark eyes were heated and his normally serene face set in a frown. “But I’m okay.” She patted his hand, curling around his large fist. “I’m okay, Richie.”

He stared her dead in the eye, quiet for a long time. “You keep telling yourself that while I go make sure my friend really is.” He stood up and walked to the door. “He lost a baby too you know. Maybe he’s not fine.”

Her heart throbbed for a moment before she cleared her throat. There was no way she could make him see that normalcy was just what they needed now. “Richie!” She called out as he walked through the door. He turned back to her, but those sympathetic dark eyes had gone flat. “I promise we’ll be okay. It’s just going to take some time.”

Without another word he left the room. She rubbed the ach low in her gut. She couldn’t wait to get rid of the stitches. The pain would go away with the stitches, she was sure of it.

She pushed the make-shift desk away from herself and stood up. Restless energy ate at her and the pull of her body did nothing to ease her anxiety. She needed to get away from the hospital and back to her life.

“Oh my God, you’re up!”

Tessa turned around and smiled. “Hey, Nic.”

“Don’t hey, Nic me!” She rushed into the room. “Oh, I missed you so much!” Nic wrapped her arms around her neck and held on. “Are you sure you should be up?”

Tessa patted her back. “I’m fine. I’ve been horizontal for way too long anyway.” She slid away from her. “I talked to the doctor and she seems to think I should be able to go home tomorrow.”

Nic frowned at her, spinning away to come around to face her again. “Are you sure you’re ready to go home?”

She snorted. “Darlin’ I’m so ready I’d walk out today if they didn’t sick Janet on me every three hours like clockwork.”

“Tessa, you were flat on your back two days ago with no signs of recovery and now you’re running around here like nothing happened.”

“Of course something happened, I had surgery.” She reached for her notebook and the reach was too long, she hissed and curled into herself as her body reminded her just how soon it had been.

“Christ, woman.” Nic rushed around to help her back into bed. “You don’t have to be strong.” She smoothed her hand over her hair. “It’s okay to lean on us.”

She slid back on the bed. “I’m okay, just moved too fast.”

“You are not even listening to me.”

She looked up at Nic’s sharp tone. “I am listening.” She sighed. “C’mon, Nic, you know I suck at asking for help. I do things on my own, that’s what I do.” She folded her blankets over her legs and eased back on the pillow. “I’m not going to be happy until I can get around on my own.”

“Well, you don’t have to do it on your own. That’s what I’m trying to get at. Too bad whatever anesthetic they used made you stupid.” Nic folded her arms and kicked the rolling tray.

“I doubt it was the anesthesia.”

“No, you’re right. You’re always stupid when it comes to help.” Nic sighed, dropping arms to her sides. “Honey, you need time to heal from the surgery and the loss of the—“

“What I need is everyone to stop treating me like I’m broken!” Tessa swiped her hand through the air and hissed as her fragile, useless body reminded her that she was broken and she hated it. “I need to get back to normal. That’s all.” She closed her eyes and dragged a shaky hand through her hair. “That’s all.”

“Hey, I’m sorry.” Nic wrapped her fingers around her hand. “Shh. Don’t get upset.”

She gripped her fingers back and forced her breathing to even. “I just want my life back.”

“I know, baby.” Nic tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “I know.”

10/23/2008

Chapter 138

She felt…foggy. The days had blended together until she didn’t know up from down and day from night. The misty grey had been soft and soothing, like water and a warm blanket at the same time. Too soothing. Too easy.

Tessa slid her fingers into his hair. He’d refused to leave. Even though she could see the exhaustion etched into every line of his face. He looked older. She’d done that to him. The worry for her and the—

She swallowed. His hair feathered around her fingers, soft as a child’s hair. Would their child have had his—

She glanced away from Jon, shutting that thought down as a nurse bustled in. The tuneless tune was as familiar as her cell phone ring. “Hello, Janet.”

She clucked her tongue. “Miss Tessa, you should be sleeping.”

Tessa felt her lips twist into a smile. “Don’t you think I did enough of that?”

“Ah, baby girl, your body needed to heal so it did what it does best. Shut down and force you to do the mending.” She checked the chart at the end of her bed and hung a new IV bag. “You seem like you don’t sit down much.”

The smile was less forced now. “You’re very intuitive.”

Janet nodded to Jon’s crooked lean on the bed, his head pillowed in his arms cradled around her hand. “He’s gonna be a hurtin’ boy in the morning.”

“I couldn’t get him to leave.” Tessa gently raked her fingers through his hair as she knew he liked. “He’s so worried about me.”

“He’s a good man. He’s been here the entire time.”

“I know,” she said softly, letting her head fall back on the uncomfortable pillow and stiff bed. He was a good man. He deserved a woman that was whole.

“Get some rest,” Janet said softly. “Don’t make me put something in that IV drip.”

Tessa smiled. “I will. I’m just going to think for awhile.”

“Turn off your brain. Us women think too much anyway.”

Tessa laughed. “True that.”

She turned to watch the dark window, closing her eyes when the nurse came back a few hours later. When the light of day crept in, she finally slept.

~

Jon woke with a start. Had the night before been a dream? He looked at her in the sterile bed, just like she’d been for so many days now. Had he just wanted her to be awake so very badly that he’d made it up?

He stood up, his body protesting at the thought of it let alone the actual action. “Fuck.”

“You have to sleep in your own bed, man.”

He turned around, Richie’s barrel chest filling the doorway. “Hey, Richie.” His best friend held out a large cup with the blessed green logo. “You’re a God among men.”

Richie smirked. “Don’t you forget it.” He nodded to the bed. “How’s she doing? Any change?”

“She woke up, she’s even walking around as of last night. At least I hope she is.” Jon tucked a lock of her hair around her ear.

“What do you mean you hope she is?”

Jon put down the cup and scraped his palm against his beard before picking it up again. “Let’s go outside, I need a smoke.”

They headed for the elevator as Jon sucked down half the coffee, hoping to God it would push aside some of the muzzy feeling. “I hope I wasn’t hallucinating last night.”

“Well that depends, was she dancing a jig?”

He snorted out a laugh. “No.”

“Was she in a cheerleader uniform?”

“That’s your fantasy, you sick fuck.”

Richie put a hand to his chest. “I think I’m offended.”

“I don’t think anything’s offended you since ’86,” Jon said and punched the down button for the elevator.

He waggled his eyebrows. “You’re probably right about that.”

Jon rolled his eyes and stepped in the car, thankful that it was empty. He leaned against the rail along the back, resting his cast along his waist. Every part of him throbbed, from neck to toes with the worst offender sitting behind his eyeballs. He tugged his shades out of his pocket and stuffed them on his face. “I talked to her last night. I’m pretty sure I did anyway. The days and nights are blending together.”

“Jonny, why don’t you let me sit with her tonight? You’re going to fall on your face and then you won’t be good to anybody.”

He tucked his cup into the crook of his arm and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll get some—“

“At least have the sense not to lie to me, bro.” Richie cut in. His voice held a rare edge of anger to it.

Fury flared hot and thick in his belly. “If I take my eyes off of her she’ll be gone!”

Richie slammed the stop button on the elevator and turned to him. “You can’t control everything!” His voice resonated through the car. “She’s going to come out of this, but you’d best be ready for some changes, man. She’s not going to be the same woman you knew ten days ago. This woman is going to be different from the soul on out.”

“I—“

“Shut up, Jonny. You can’t force this one to into a schedule, no matter how many sleepless nights you have. This is going to be a clusterfuck of emotional baggage for both you and her.” He clamped his hand down on his shoulder. “Go home and get some rest today.” Richie held his hand up when he opened his mouth to argue. “Wait until Nic relieves you if it makes you feel better, but go home and take a fucking pill.” Richie jammed his finger into his chest. “Literally. Take one of those sleeping pills you keep a script for and never use. Sleep or you’re going to do something stupid or even worse…get sick and then you won’t be able to see her at all.”

Jon hung his head, anger sliding out of him as if it was the only thing keeping him upright. “You’re right. I know you’re right.”

Richie folded his arms over his chest. “Goddamn right, I am.”

He wiped his hand down his jeans. “Get this fucking thing moving before I freak out, man. You know I hate elevators.”

Richie just laughed and yanked on the stopper. “Sissy.”

“Fuck you.” But there wasn’t any heat in his words. Richie’d dragged him off the ledge…again. He stopped, one step beyond the doors. “Thanks, man.”

~

They returned to the room to find Tessa propped up on some pillows, even her IV bag was gone. Jon’s heart stopped. He’d been so afraid the night before had been a dream. He dropped his cup in the trash and rushed to her side. “Hey,” he said softly.

Her eyes were wary, but they were the same clear spring green he remembered. The pinch of pain had eased from her face leaving a fragility he’d never associated with Tessa. Her lithe form was now just a touch too skinny. Instead of bowing to the loss as she’d done the night before, her head was held high…her chin lifted. He could see the resolve glittering there as she faced him.

“I was afraid I’d imagined last night.”

She pressed her lips together, looking away from him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to fall apart like that last night.”

He frowned. “That’s what I’m here for, Tessa.” He wanted her to know she could lean on him. He needed her to lean on him.

She smiled over his shoulder at Richie. “Hey there big guy.”

“Hey, darlin’.” Richie leaned down and kissed her forehead, curling around her in a gentle hug. “You gave us all a scare.”

“Believe me, I didn’t mean to.” She held her hand out to Jon. “Thank God he found me,” her hand was cool to the touch, “or my storefront would be on the market by now.”

His eyes widened. “Tessa—“

“Oh c’mon now Jon, if I can’t joke about it then I’m obviously not living. We just need to put it behind us.” She patted his hand and slipped away from his touch. “I’ve been bugging them to get out of here, but they want to run a few more tests. I should be able to go home tomorrow if all goes well.”

He curled his fingers into his palm. “Are you sure you should be rushing to get out of here you were just…” he trailed off. She’d almost been dead a little over a week ago for God’s sake.

She smiled, bright and almost manic. “You know what they say about the human body, it heals fast. Not to mention all that great sleep I got.”

Jon frowned up at Richie, who’s only response was a raised brow. “Honey, we’ve got plenty of time—“

“No, there’s no time. I have so much to do and to get ready for.” Her voice was steady, holding the steely tone she used for the Christmas season. “This is the slowest time of the year for the store, so I need to be there to gear up for the summer reading program. The new floor plans need to be set up and—“

Confusion rolled through him. She wanted to go back to work? “I’m sure Nichole’s been taking care of all of that, Tessa. You just need to worry about getting better.”

“I need work, Jon.” She finally looked at him, the resolve in her eyes was unmistakable. “Work is all I have.”

He shook his head. No, she had him. He pulled a chair over to her side. “I think we just need to take this day to day.”

“I have a business to run and people who depend on me. I’ve let them down long enough.”

Let them down? Jon snagged her hand. “Baby, you didn’t let anyone down. What happened was—“

“Unfortunate, but it’s not like I can do anything about that. The best medicine is to get back to work where I can be do the most good. Sitting around here isn’t helping anyone, least of all me. Not to mention I’m holding up a bed for someone who really needs it.” She patted his hand again and tucked her hand under the blanket. “Now, you and Richie need to go.”

“But you just woke up. I want to spend some time with you.” She was shoving him out the door?

“Yes, I’m awake. So you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I’m sure you put a great spin on this for the newspapers and you talked to the kids, right?” She smiled brightly. “Just make sure you get some rest. You can come and pick me up tomorrow.”

“I’ll come back tonight—“

“No, you get some rest tonight. That’s an order.” She shifted on the bed, wincing a little. “You need to sleep in your own bed tonight. I was reading the newspaper; I didn’t even realize the date. You have a home game coming up this weekend don’t you? I’m sure you want to go see Coach and catch up since I’ve kept you—“

“Tessa!” he said in a near shout.

She smoothed out the blanket over her thighs. “What?”

“Just stop it. I don’t fucking care about the game. All I care about is you.”

“Well of course you do,” she smiled at him as if she was talking to him over breakfast and not a hospital bed where she’d been fighting for her life just days before. “But it’s time to get back to our schedules. You’re a busy man and I’ve completely turned your life upside down for almost two weeks. I know you have things you need to take care of. I’m simply telling you to go ahead and take care of it.”

Take care of it? Just like that? Just go…go to the game? He stared up at Richie, then back down at her, shock paralyzing him. “Tessa, I want to be here for you. I want to stay with you tonight. We should talk.”

Her voice was completely reasonable, even though the things she was spewing out were so insane he couldn’t even begin to assimilate them. She tugged the rolling cart in front of her where a notebook lay. Crossing her ankles under the blanket, she linked her fingers on the make-shift desk. “We have tons of time to talk. Now go on. I can’t wait to get out of here tomorrow.” She looked down at the notebook and flipped the page, her smile still bright on her face. Perhaps a little too bright.

He stumbled back, not even able to look at Richie. He took a quick left collapsing against the wall outside her door, his heart tripping around his chest like a Mexican jumping bean on meth. She didn’t even want him in the room with her. Had he failed her that completely? Did she hate him so much that she couldn’t even look at him?

“There’s my sweet boy! Jon, how’s my neighbor doing?” Mrs. Haden walked steadily down the hallway her cane thumping dully on the gleaming floor.

“Evidently she’s doing just fine.” He brushed her shoulder gently. “I have to go, Mrs. Haden.” He headed down the stairs, just a breath away from a run.

10/14/2008

Chapter 137

“Are you sure you want me to leave you here, Jon?” Richie turned to him. “You’ve been here on a constant basis since she was hurt. She might need some time to think.”

Jon eased his aching hand onto his belly and leaned back on the headrest. “Part of me wants to give her space, but I’m scared Rich.” He closed his eyes but again that image of her twisted on the floor flashed. Fuck. He stared straight out into the waning grey light of the afternoon instead.

Richie sat in his usual Richie silence. Letting him work out the words before he spoke. When the hell was he going to get some of his patience? “She’s shutting down on me.”

“You know this is going to be hard, man. I know patience isn’t your thing, but for once you’re going to have to sit on your hands and let things play out.”

Jon didn’t need to turn and look at Richie. He knew he’d see understanding and a little sadness in his eyes. Loss was something they were all getting used to this year. It fucking sucked. Finally he turned, held up his good hand and Richie’s spidery fingers wrapped around it. “Thanks, man.”

Richie leaned back in his car and shifted his foot to the clutch. “Call me when you’re ready.”

Jon nodded and climbed out. He stood there as Richie pulled away. Watched the surrounding bustle of hospital staff, visitors and maintenance buzz in and out of the doors. He needed to see her. Needed to hold her more than he could even explain. He hated the weakness, but could admit to himself that her scent and the weight of her in his arms was what he needed more than anything.

The brush of a jacket and a muttered, “sorry,” drew him out of his stupor. Jon nodded to the stranger that bumped him and winced when he heard the shriek and furious whispers. Rushing for the door now, he waved politely at the trio of nurses who recognized him. He saw one step forward, then her friends haul her back. Thankful that the taller blonde of the women recognized him from Tessa’s floor he booked it to the stairs. He really couldn’t deal with people right now. Not when the only person he needed was up those stairs and yet farther away than a few sets of stairs could travel.

Her room was close to the exit, private…shaded. He frowned as he stood at her door. Was she alone? The machines had been hauled away, and now only a few tubes were attached to her hand. She slept, her fingers still clutching her belly.

“Jon?”

Thank God. Jon turned to the voice. “Hey, Nic. I’m sorry it took so—“

“What happened?” she said softly, her fingertips brushing the cast. He looked down at her tired eyes. She was hurting just as much as he was. Was Tessa shutting everyone out?

“Nothing, I just…” he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does,” she said quietly. “I know you’re hurting too, Jon. Tessa knows that. She just can’t seem to get out of her own way yet, that’s all.” She gently wrapped her fingers around his arm above the cast. “Everyone deals with loss differently.”

Jon nodded. He knew that in his head, but in his heart he just wanted a little something from her. A little reaction. Something that said she was with him in the pain. She was with him.

He brushed a kiss over her cheek. “Thanks for being there for her. She’s going to need you. If she keeps shutting me out like this, she’ll need something and I would rather it be you.”

“Jon—“

He waved it away. “I’m not going anywhere, I promise. I know it’s going to be a long road.” He moved away from Nic into the cool shade of Tessa’s room and pulled up a chair. “Hey beautiful,” he said quietly. He leaned in, the sterile overlay of the hospital had the tiniest wisp of her left. He drew in the pears, easing his thumb over her silky brow. “I’m here.”

~

The next few days were a repeat of the same. Jon spent the day with her, Nic the afternoon. He used those hours to sleep and see his kids. Recording had been officially been put on hold indefinitely. Richie stayed at the house, cheering him up when he could. Sitting to watch a movie when he couldn’t get a word out of him. Jon didn’t remember any of the movies, but he welcomed the few hours that would pass until he could go back.

She still hadn’t talked to him. It was killing him by degrees. He knew it. Hell, Richie knew it. Even his kids could see it. His temper was starting to boil over. Frustration from learning how to do everything one handed had bled into the constant silence he dealt with. She still hadn’t spoken to him. Anyone really. Her wounds were knitting together on the outside and the hospital had whispered of a different sort of clinic to deal with her emotional healing.

Determined to get something out of her today, he hit the stairs to her room for the fourth day in row. He nodded to the nurses he recognized, smiled at the older lady that was her neighbor, up on her feet…walking the halls to get stronger. “Hi, Mrs. Haden.”

Her frail hands slid around his good hand. “Jon, sweet boy, how is my neighbor today?”

Jon smiled, unable to growl at such a kind soul. She asked every day about Tessa and every day he answered, “She’s healing.”

“You kiss her with those pretty lips of yours.” She lifted a veined hand to his cheeks. “Girls like scruff.”

He laughed. “Good thing, since I can’t seem to shave my face left handed. Even with the electric.”

She motioned him down and pressed a soft kiss on his bearded chin. She was well under five feet with osteoporosis shrinking in on her. “It worked for me.”

He cupped her face with his left hand and kissed her square on the mouth. “That’s better.”

Her faded blue eyes sparkled. “I’ll say! Wait until I tell my granddaughter! She’ll be so jealous.”

Jon laughed and waved goodbye. He rounded the corner to Tessa’s room and stopped dead in the doorway, the smile slipping away in panic. Her bed was empty. A half eaten tray discarded and the room still dark. He rushed in, looking to the floor to make sure she hadn’t fallen. “Tessa?”

He turned around, his heart stopped as the blood roared in his head. She stood at the far window, the slats open as she stared out at the spring buds clinging to the trees. Her arms crossed tight to her body. Even in the muted light of nightfall, her copper hair shone. One of the nurses must have helped her clean up.

“Tessa?” he asked again as he stepped toward her. She didn’t seem to hear him, or she was ignoring him. He tucked a lock of hair around her ear. “Baby, please.”

She blinked, the blank sheen of her eyes faded. “Hi,” she whispered. A frown knit her brows as her hand lifted to cup his cheek. He lifted his right hand automatically and stopped when she caught a look at the cast. Her fingertips lowered to the bits of fading bruises that peeked over the board jammed into the cast. His fingers burned where she touched him. “What happened?”

He waved the reasons away. “It doesn’t matter.”

Her green eyes met his. The first flicker of life there as her frown deepened. “It does matter.”

“I…” he trailed off. God, it sounded so stupid and petty now. The anger that had been so very overwhelming, the anger that was still bubbling in his gut…none of that mattered. Not now. “I went a little crazy when you got hurt. When I found—“ he swallowed hard. “When I found you at the store.”

“This happened at the store?” Confusion swirled. “I don’t remember anything.” Her fingertips traced the white line of the edges of his cast then along the green shell. “I remember the pain,” her breath hitched and evened out. “I remember waking up here. Then just the doctors.”

Her face closed off and he reached out to her. He cupped her jaw, his thumb tracing her cheek, forcing her to look at him. “All that matters is you right now.”

“I want to go home, Jon.” Her hand came up to fiddle with the zipper on his leather jacket. “I need to go home.”

He gathered her in, thankful when she came right to him. She hissed as he pulled her in closer. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “No. It was just my shoulder. I-“ She swallowed and pressed her cheek to his shoulder. “I guess I dislocated it. It’s just a bruise now. Hold me, Jon. Just hold me.”

Pears and Tessa wound around him. He nosed into her neck and held her there against him. Her silky hair tickled his nose, and tears jammed into his throat. When her hands slid into his jacket and around his waist he sighed. “Just try and stop me.”

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