3/30/2008

Chapter 111

Tessa wrapped her arms around her stomach as if she could hold all her guts inside. It felt like they were going to spill out from the scene that wouldn’t stop running in her head. She understood the easy intimacy between Jon and his ex-wife. They had been together for a very long time. But to see it, right there in her face as he slotted her ever so neatly into the friends with benefits role, it had been nearly unbearable.

A warm wind floated off wide expanse of water, lifting her hair. She wasn’t sure if it was just one of those unseasonably warm days in January, or her fever that made the wind feel so good, but she turned her face into it, letting it wash over her.

“Tessa.”

She didn’t turn around at his voice. She knew he’d follow, just wasn’t sure how long it would take him. “Impressive, I thought it would take you at least two hours to find me.”

“C’mon Tess, that’s not fair.” He lifted her coat up to her shoulders but she side stepped him. “It’s too cold out here for you not to have a coat on.”

She looked to the side, but didn’t turn completely around. “What? I’m going to get pneumonia?”

His voice went low and gravelly, “Knock it off.”

“Or you’ll what?”

“I’ve already had one woman try and manipulate me today, let’s not go for two.”

She turned around this time. “Oh happy day! At least he knows the ex is being manipulative.”

“Give me some fucking credit!” He shouted into the wind and that started him on a hacking fit. “Dammit,” he said and sucked in air.

She stepped toward him, her fingers hovering over his shoulder. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He turned back to her. “I know when a woman’s manipulating me, Tessa. Especially a woman I’ve known since I was a teen.”

“And you should know when one’s not.” Her arms crossed low on her stomach again as she felt the acid rise in her stomach. “I’m expected to stand there with Dorothea shooting daggers into me, looking at me like I’m less than shit and you just sit there.” She gasped, couldn’t stop herself. “Just sat there!” Her fingers curled into her hip bones as she sneered. “Oh don’t want to hurt Dorothea, don’t want to make waves. What about me?”

She pushed the blowing hair out of her eyes. “I’ve been taking it without making even a murmur of protest. I understand that we’re still trying to figure things out, but that thing at the door was the last straw.”

He honestly looked confused and a little offended when he finally spoke. “What thing at the door? I showed her out and gave her a hug. You can’t be-“

“No!” she sliced her hand through the air. “I’d be a pretty sad case if I couldn’t deal with you touching another woman. And with your job, I’d be in even more trouble. What I mean is that she saw me in the doorway and played a better actress than you could ever think about being. Hell, she missed her calling.”

“She wasn’t-“

“Oh grow up and smell the reality of it, Jon,” she gave him a disgusted glare. “She’s playing you. And now that I know you know she’s manipulating you, I could just scream.” She sucked in a shaky breath. “And then what you said,” she dashed away tears she didn’t realize she’d let loose. “That’s what I get for overhearing…nothing good ever comes of it. You wouldn’t have left her unless she’d asked you to go.”

He crossed his arms now. The blue of his eyes had turned stormy like the rushing river behind her. “Are you done?”

“Don’t you dare go stone face on me! I have a right to get angry dammit. I’m frustrated and fuck you if you think I’m second best.” She pushed at him. It was making her crazy that he just stood there and stared at her. Like she was insane to even have an issue with what happened.

He took a step back and let her batter at him, but it was like beating on an immovable rock face. She growled and headed back up the hill away from him before she did something really stupid, like throw him in the river. Maybe like a rock, he’d sink. Trudging up the incline to his house, she started coughing until she couldn’t see anything but black dots before her eyes as the cold mixed with her overtaxed lungs.

She felt the world tilt and she swore. No way was she ruining her exit by passing out dammit. She stopped and held onto the banister to his deck, hoping like hell her vision would clear. The last thing she heard was, “God save me from willful women,” and the world went completely black.

~

She woke on the couch with the lights low, whispers in the nearby kitchen and a pair of blue eyes peeking over the end of the couch. “Hi,” she said with a croak.

“Hi.” Jake folded his arms over the arm of the couch and tilted his head at her. “Are you feeling better?”

She struggled up onto her elbow. “Yeah, guess I shouldn’t have gone outside yet, that’s all.”

Gingerly, he came around and sat at her feet. “My dad had to carry you inside. He says you’re pretty sick.”

Damn. She was hoping that the whole passing out thing had been a really bad dream. She cleared her throat, hoping she sounded stronger than she felt. “Hope I didn’t look too pathetic.”

Jake’s eyes glittered as he gave her Jon’s smirky half grin. “Totally a soap opera moment like the stuff Jen watches.”

Tessa winced and shrunk back down on her back. “That’s so not good,” she muttered.

“I didn’t know my Dad was that strong,” he said with a bit of awe.

She pulled the throw blanket up to her chin.

His eyes were playful as he looked up and over her and the couch. “Hey Dad, Ms. Donovan’s awake.”

Jon came up beside them on the couch and ruffled Jake’s hair. “Why don’t you go help Lottie take out that last batch of cookies?”

Jake stood and raced to the door, skidded to a halt and turned. “Ms. Donovan, do you want a hot M&M cookie? Dad said you like them. We made them just for you.”

Touched and feeling even more awkward, Tessa nodded. “Sure, sweetie, that’d be great. Oh and Jake?”

He turned back, his eyes so very much like his Dad’s. “Yeah?”

“You can call me Tessa.” She looked up at Jon for the first time. His face was unreadable. “If that’s okay?”

“Sure,” he sat on the couch next to her causing her to scoot over.

“Cool, I’ll be right back with your cookies, Tessa.”

“Why don’t you put the new cookies on the rack with Lottie first? We need to do a little adult talk for a bit.”

“Is there going to be kissing? Because if there is, I’ll call before I come back.”

Jon couldn’t stop the laugh. “Jake!”

“What? There could be kissing. How do I know?” he rounded the corner and disappeared into the kitchen.

Somehow Tessa didn’t think there would be kissing involved. She tucked her cheek into her arm, facing away from Jon. Their earlier argument replayed in her head. She didn’t regret anything she’d said, but she did regret the hysterics. She wasn’t a drama girl, dammit. And she’d started screaming at him like a demented…well, soap opera star.

“Tessa,” he said quietly. “We really need to talk.”

“I’m thinking now’s not the best time,” she said and closed her eyes.

“Obviously, it really doesn’t matter when or where it’s going to happen. Now’s the time.”

Trying to gage his mood, she rolled over, raising an eyebrow as he pinned her closer to the back of the couch.

“You’re not going anywhere this time. You yelled and now it’s my turn.”

“To yell?”

“No, not to yell, Tessa. I think you did enough of that for two of us.”

Resisting the urge to sulk and knock him off the couch she put her head back down on her arm. “Yeah well, I was entitled you jerk.”

“You’re right.”

Her head popped up and the room spun like the teacups at an amusement park. She put her head back down and closed her eyes until her equilibrium was back.

“Aw, babe.” He sighed and laid his forehead on her shoulder. “Maybe we should do this later.”

“Hell no, you don’t get to stop talking when I’m right.”

He gave her a tired laugh that hinted at a cough. “I am letting Dorothea get away with more than she should. I think it’s because I feel guilty.”

Needing to sit up, she struggled up. “What? Why?”

He leaned back to let her sit up next to him. “I don’t want you to think you’re second best, ever.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “And when I said it was her idea to leave…well, it was. I was content and maybe that was the problem. Content wasn’t what she wanted anymore. She deserved more and so did I. All those times I’ve said I hate change,” He paused a moment and she nodded at him to continue. “Well, it’s true. Content was good enough, but it isn’t anymore.”

“But she-“

He pressed the tips of his fingers over her lips. “I honestly don’t think she meant to do that in front of you. She was trying to work me over, not you.”

She closed her eyes. He didn’t believe her. She couldn’t blame him, but it didn’t hurt any less that he brushed her off. She leaned into him, letting her cheek rest against the soft cotton of his shirt. As usual, nothing was resolved and she was still in the same stupid little slot that she would probably always be in.

“It’s only you, Tessa. Even with all the history I have with my ex, there’s only you. I promise.”

“Is it safe to come in?” Jake called from the hallway.

Tessa pulled back, and gave Jon a half smile, leaning back into the couch. “C’mon in, Jake.”

Jon looked over his shoulder, worry beetling his brows before he turned back to Jake. “Hey buddy, whacha got?”

“Cookies of course!” Gingerly, he handed a napkin to Jon and to Tessa. “Blow on them, they’re still pretty hot.”

Tessa felt the chocolate from the bottom of the stacked napkins, smiling softly at him and enjoying a rare moment with Jon and one of his children. And for now, that would be enough.

3/27/2008

Chapter 110

Jon stood up, turning to face the familiar voice. Brown eyes stared back at him, vacant and unseeing as she focused at a point to his right. He dropped his hand on Tessa’s shoulder. “Dorothea, what a surprise.” He could feel Tessa stiffen beneath his touch, unsure if it was because of him or his ex-wife. He squeezed gently, trying to reassure her and himself that this wasn’t going to be as awkward as it felt already.

“I didn’t realize you had company,” Dorothea said stiffly, hiking Romeo higher on her hip when he reached for Jon. “Not right now, Romeo.”

Jon let his fingers ease away from Tessa as he transferred his straining son onto his hip, with only a mild pull back by his former wife. “Hey buddy, how you feeling?”

Romeo rubbed his nose and dropped his head against his chest with a thunk. “Hot,” he said and let out a soft moan as he settled himself.

He brought a hand up to rub his back automatically. “Any reason why you’re taking them out while they’re still sick?” He asked with an arched brow.

Dot’s eyes went arctic as she glanced at Tessa again and back to his face. “I was going to leave them with you because Jennifer is too sick to even get out of bed. I need to pick up my parents from the airport and didn’t want to have to drag them in and out of there.”

He hushed Romeo and nodded. “That’s fine, but a call would have been nice.”

“Jessie and Steph are in school or I wouldn’t have inconvenienced you,” she said with as much warmth as the Navasink River.

“Hey! They’re my kids too, but I would have warned you that I had company,” his voice rose as a tickle in his throat threatened. He tried to swallow the cough, but it wouldn’t be denied and he turned away to cover his mouth, he caught the look on Tessa’s face. Closed off, eyes glassy with tired and sick, but she sat there with her shoulders back. He hated that he still had to keep his two lives separate, but their protection was more important than what he wanted.

Maybe this would move them a step closer to trying to do that. He turned back when Jake tugged at his hand. “Daddy, is that your girlfriend?”

“Uh,” he glanced at Dot, then back to Jake when her only response was a stony face, he lowered himself to his height, shifting Romeo to his other hip. “She’s a really good friend of mine.”

Jake nodded. “The bookstore lady, right?”

When Dorothea crossed her arms over her chest, he bit back a sigh. “Yes that’s right, Ms. Donovan.”

He smiled and dragged the back of his hand over his nose. “Pirate lady.”

Laughing, he stood. “Yes, that’s the one. Good memory, Jake.”

He walked over to Tessa and looked up at her. “Are you sick too?”

Tessa looked at Jon then to Dorothea before she answered. “Yes, I think I have the same thing you do.” She sighed with a sniff and gave him a conspiratorial whisper, “It kinda sucks doesn’t it?” Her face had gentled as soon as she started talking to his son and he started to relax.

“Is that from kissing my Daddy?”

Dorothea stepped over and took his hand. “Leave Ms. Donovan alone, Jacob. C’mon, you guys are going to go to the airport with me.”

So much for relaxing, he thought as he brushed a hand brush over Jake’s sandy colored hair. “Why don’t you leave them here? We’ve got Lottie to help us out.”

“I don’t think so,” she said with a clipped tone.

Ignoring her Jon eased Jake toward his housekeeper, “Lottie, why don’t you get the boys some juice?”

Lottie came forward and gathered Romeo into her arms. “Come with me, darling. I have some graham crackers with your name on it, yes?”

Jake perked up. “The ones with Spider man?”

“Ahh, you know I only get your favorite kind!”

“Let me walk you out,” Jon said amiably. He turned back to Tessa. “I’ll be right back, ba-“ he cut off without finishing. “I’ll be back, just wait here okay?”

Tessa pushed her hair behind her ear, sniffling from her cold, he hoped. Her green eyes were shuttered and she wouldn’t look at him. “Sure.”

Fuck. He put his hand at the small of Dot’s back and led her to the front door. “Look, just go to the airport and pick up the kids on your way back. It’s no big deal, they’re here already.”

“I told you I don’t want the kids near your new girlfriend yet.” She used such venom on the word girlfriend that he winced. “I’m not sending her away, Dot, nor am I sending her upstairs away from the kids. We all ended up with the same cold, so we’ll be fine. They can’t get it again.”

She leaned on the door. “You know that’s not the point. But beyond that, just how am I supposed to explain that,” she gestured to the kitchen, “to my parents when I come to pick up the kids?”

“I don’t know, Dot. How do any former in-laws deal with another woman in the ex-husband’s life?” His voice lowered dangerously. “Look, you were the one that wanted the divorce. You were the one that wanted a separate life. It took me some time, but I moved on-“

“Didn’t take long,” she said on a low breath.

Exasperated he took a step back. “Is that what this is about?”

“Does any woman want to be replaced by a younger model? And so quickly?” She asked and reached for the door.

His anger melted away. “Hey, I thought we talked about this.” He snagged her arm. “It wasn’t that quick, Dorothea and she’s just a few years younger than me.”

“She doesn’t look it.”

“Well she’s sick without a stitch of make-up on.”

“And why is she here if she’s sick?”

Because she loves me and wanted to take care of me and got sick for her trouble. He heard that in his head and well, that would just be stupid to say. “Because Lottie got a good look at her when she came to check on me and deposited her upstairs to be taken care of, but that’s not the issue, Dorothea.” He gentled his voice. “You cannot get mad because she’s here. I’ve done everything I can to keep up our end of the bargain and not mix the kids with my relationship for awhile. You came here unannounced.”

“You have to know how hard it is to see you with someone else,” she said softly.

He sighed and gathered her in for a hug. “I know, I’m sorry, Dots. You know I wouldn’t flaunt it in front of your face if I’d known you were coming.”

She snuggled in to his arms and pressed her nose into his neck. “It’s ridiculous how good you smell even sick,” she said and pulled back slowly, smiling up at him. “I didn’t mean to overreact. I just need to protect my kids, Jon. You understand right?”

“Of course,” he said amiably. Inwardly he sighed. He knew when she was manipulating. He’d been with her for enough years to scent it before she even started working him. He knew it was hard on her. Knew that in her position he probably wouldn’t have dealt as well with it as she was.

He opened the door wider for Dorothea. “We’ll be fine while you’re gone.”

She stopped at the door jamb. “I don’t like this Jon. Not at all.”

Jon put his hand over hers on the door. “Change isn’t ever easy, but we’ve gotten through it before, we’ll do it again.”

She lifted her hand to his face. “I know.” She said and stepped away from the door.

Closing it as he turned, he saw Tessa at the doorway to the kitchen. He started forward, “Tessa, wait.”

She just held up a hand. “Don’t,” she said with a broken whisper. “Just don’t.”

She backed away and into the kitchen.

He headed after her and watched her stuff feet in shoes, as she opened the back door. “Tessa,” he said on a sigh as the door closed in his face. He grabbed her jacket and his and was just about to follow her when Jake tangled himself around his legs.

“Dad, where’s Ms. Donovan going?”

He sighed and looked down at his son. “She’s a little mad at me, Jakey.” He ruffled his hair. “Where’s Romeo?”

“He fell asleep. Lottie put him in his room.”

“Oh, alright. That’s cool. What about you, big guy? Feel like a nap?”

“Nope,” he said and grinned up at his dad. “Lottie said we could make cookies. Think Ms. Donovan would like that?”

“Only if there’s extra M&M’s in them.”

“Yeah!” Jake ran back to the pantry. “Lottie! Do we have M&M’s?”

He waved at his housekeeper, motioned toward the door. When she nodded, he slipped out and looked around the grounds, until he saw a flash of copper by the dock. “Shit,” he said and started walking.

3/21/2008

Chapter 109

“Could you hand me a tissue?” she sneezed, trying not to empty her nose down her face again. Would the snot ever end?

Jon tipped the box. “I think we’re out again.” He said mournfully.

The flu had hit relentlessly two days after her visit and somehow she’d landed in his bed. Lottie had taken one look at her when she’d checked in on Jon that morning and ordered her upstairs to bed with her other patient. And one thing was for certain, she’d never been a good patient.

Jon was on day four of his convalescence and seemed to be just as bad as she was. She didn’t know if it was because he was male and just naturally a baby, or if he was seriously still that sick. She sneezed again and hoped it was just him being a baby. God, this sucked.

A coughing fit hit him out of the blue and he patted along the blankets. “Where’d my cough drops go?”

She dropped back against the pillow as another sneeze rocked her brain and scattered all thought. She rolled over; her head felt like it was going to explode any second. He felt around on the bed until she was ready to chew off his hand. Well beyond her need for niceties she felt a wrapped lozenge beneath her arm and whizzed it at his head. “Try a drink of water,” she said and rolled from the bed to hunt something down to empty her stupid head into.

Lottie hustled into the room with a new box of tissue, another carafe of juice with a medicine chest scattered on the pretty cherries that made up the acrylic tray she carried. “Back in bed, Missy,” she said and blocked her path.

Resisting the urge to stomp her feet and say no, she dropped back on the bed. “He’s a bed hog,” she whined, snagging the Kleenex off the tray with a muttered, “Thank you.”

“Yeah well she steals cough drops,” he said through a thick haze of post nasal drip and a hoarse cough.

“I’ve had five year olds behave better than you two.” She snapped the sheet down and nudged Tessa into a prone position before she flicked the bedclothes back and offered her a few loose pills. She huffed, but snagged two Nyquils and a couple of aspirin for the aches before she curled into her pillow.

“Did Nichole call back?” she asked trying not to moan when her entire body seemed to throb in the same rhythm as her head.

“Yes, she said to rest and she’d take care of everything for the next few days.”

“I’ll go in tomorrow.”

Jon gave a snort of a laugh and winced. “Tomorrow you’ll be begging for the world to stop spinning. I guarantee you’ll still be flat on your back.”

“Bet?” she said and dragged the pillow over her face. The world was already rocking, she didn’t think it was a big stretch to spinning. Shit.

“Oh yeah, I’ll take a sucker bet,” he said while he tugged at the covers. “Would you stop hogging all the covers?”

“Go sleep somewhere else,” she mumbled through the pillow.

“Fine,” he said and sat up.

“Alright, children enough.” Lottie set the tray down and gathered the empty tissue box and refilled juice glasses on each side of the bed. “Get some rest, you two,” she said and left.

She pushed the pillow aside and grabbed for his hand. “Don’t go,” she sighed and curled into him, putting her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m too miserable; I should just go home so we don’t kill each other.”

He brushed his fingers through the matted bangs at her forehead. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said and settled back into the pillows and wiggled down until they were red nose to red nose. “Might as well be miserable together.”

She sniffed at the eternal line of fluid that wanted to drip out of her nose. “I’m so not at my best here.”

“I don’t care; at least we get to sleep in the same bed.”

“Sleep is a nice thought,” she said and sniffled again and let out a strangled breath. The Nyquil began to work as she started to drift. And as with any cold medicine she dropped off like a stone and didn’t stir until the sun blazed through his curtains the next morning.

She rolled over to find the bed empty and the room indeed was spinning as he’d prophesized. “Dammit,” she said and flopped onto her back. When the tilt-a-whirl was too much she stood and lurched her way to the bathroom. Praying that the nausea would subside she leaned over the sink and gave a horrified gasp at her reflection.

“Man alive, not even a mother could love me right now.” She wanted to drop down on the floor and crawl her way to the shower, but made herself stay upright. She could do this. It was only five steps. Each step was excruciatingly slow, but she managed to get there and flip the curtain aside to reach for the taps.

Lukewarm water trickled from the showerhead as she struggled out of her sweaty clothes. She wasn’t sure what the shower would do for her and the fever she still had, but she needed to do something. Disgusting was only one of the words that suited her at that moment.

She rested her forehead on the tile and let the water pour over her. Too weak to even reach up and wash her hair she just stood there.

“Tessa?”

She grunted from the shower and hoped he would hear her, or at least the water.

He pushed aside the curtain until she could see him. His features were still pinched and drawn, but the fever had subsided on his end. “There is hope,” she mumbled through the water.

“Oh baby,” he laughed and shucked out of his own clothing. “You look like you could use some help,” he turned her into him.

She let her forehead roll over the line of his chest. “Everything hurts,” she said with a muffled groan. “Just had to have the flu didn’t you?”

“Never do anything by half measure, Tessa.” He silently soaped up her hair, his fingers kneading into her scalp and neck as the suds slid down her back and foamed around her butt. “Lean back,” he said softly and gently rinsed her hair. Using a large soap filled washcloth he quickly rubbed her down and let her stand under the spray. “Feel a little better?”

“Not quite human, but at least I don’t feel like dog shit anymore,” she said with a tired smile.

Laughing he propped her up on the side of the tiled tub and rinsed off. She watched him through veiled lashes. His moves were economical and graceful in that way only athletes seemed to have. If she didn’t feel like the world was shifting under her feet, she would have leaned in to help herself to a rinsed slice of skin or two.

He stepped out and dried off, leaning in to gather her into a huge fluffy bath sheet. Letting someone take care of her was a novel thing. Part of her was uncomfortable with the fact that she just couldn’t do anything for herself right then and there and the other was impossibly moved.

She reached up and finger combed his overgrown hair, letting her nails scrape gently to his scalp and around the curve of his ear. “Thank you,” she said simply and let him tend to her. She still felt awful, but there was a layer of clean on top of it at least.

“For what?”

She leaned forward and dragged in his clean scent, “For taking care of me.”

He wrapped his arms around her and trapped her hands and arms between them. “Well that was purely for my benefit. I haven’t seen you naked in days.”

Laughing, she let her head tip back as she looked up at him. “The fever makes my…um, eyes sparkle, is it?”

“Exactly,” he said and slid his arm around her waist to walk her into the bedroom. “Lottie wants to come up and strip the bed, think you’re up to going downstairs for a little food?”

Looking longingly at her bed she blushed as her stomach gave an animal-like growl. “Looks like food wins,” she said.

He went to his bureau and flipped hangers until a few of her t-shirts and cotton pants came into view. He flicked them off the hangers and handed them to her, went back into the bathroom and came out with a pair of jogging pants low on his hips.

“You have my clothes in your closet?” she said with a bit of wonder.

He tugged his t-shirt over his head and fluffed his hair out from the collar. “A few times you left a shirt or a pair of pants behind. That’s okay, right?’ His blue eyes were soft and teasing. “Moving you right in, slowly but surely.”

Laughing, she took the clothes, stepping into them with only a stumble and a heavy hand on the bed she managed to dress herself. Even if her forehead was soaked in sweat and her legs were putty, she’d managed to dress herself, dammit. With one more glance over her shoulder she saw a few more shirts hanging next to his and decided not to think about that right now.

She took the steps slowly and smiled bravely when he turned back to make sure she was okay, as vertigo made her want to pitch forward. Thankful to hit the bottom stair she faltered once and rolled her eyes when he caught her against his chest.

“I think I like you a little helpless,” he said with a leer.

“Don’t get used to it,” she said and stood up straight in false bravado, but when she sunk into the kitchen chair she nearly put her head down on the table to take a nap. God, she was exhausted.

“What do you want to eat?”

“Just a scrambled egg is about all I think I can manage.”

“Even I can do that,” he said and took out a small frying pan.

She propped her head on her hand, much like he’d done a few days ago when she’d found him. “So you must be feeling better.”

“Well with my allergies, I’m used to getting knocked on my ass for a day maybe two with an out of the blue cold, but this,” he shook his head and broke a few eggs into a bowl. “This was definitely the flu. I feel a lot better today though.”

“How many days was that?”

“Day five.”

“Shit,” she said and let her forehead drop onto the table. “I’m only on day three.”

He finished cooking and split the eggs between them. “How handy that I’m here to take care of you.”

“You mean Lottie is,’ she said and sat up with effort.

He slid into the chair next to her. “Hey, I cooked eggs!”

She lifted the fork he handed her. “Remind me to pick up a blue ribbon the next time I’m at the craft store.”

“I prefer a gold star,” he said and scooped up a mouthful.

“Yeah?” she grinned. “And where does the star go?”

He leaned across the table and laughed when she batted his hand away. “I can think of a few places.”

The doorbell rang and Jon sat back in his seat. “You still down here Lottie?”

“I got it,” she said from the front room.

He went back to his eggs and Tessa looked over his shoulder. “Expecting someone?”

“No, it’s probably the mailman, he usually has some sort of parcel a few times a week.”

She heard hushed voices from the front of the house and blinked sleepily. She picked at her eggs and sighed. “I don’t think I can eat anymore.”

He stood and took her plate. “It’s okay, baby. We’ll get you back upstairs and into bed,”

She sat back in her chair and let her head fall toward her shoulder. “How pathetic am I?”

He leaned into her and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Not at all,” he said softly and traced a thumb over her cheek.

She wasn’t sure what made her look over Jon’s shoulder, but she couldn’t miss the shock or the bright slash of temper that rode high on the woman’s cheeks that stood behind him.

Lottie rushed into the room. “Mr. Jon…I-“

“It’s okay, Lottie,” came the clipped tone of voice that was unmistakably New Jersey native with a hint of a smoker’s lower register. Jon’s youngest was propped on her hip and Jake stood at her side. “Looks like I should have called,” she said coolly.

3/17/2008

Chapter 108

By the time the end of the week rolled around, Tessa was so horny, frustrated and lonely she could have stood on the top of her building and screamed. It would have been better if he’d been in a different state, but the fact that he was less than ten minutes away from her and she couldn’t see him…yeah it was driving her nuts. She understood the need to keep their new relationship from the kids, but hell. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, can you get anymore selfish, Tess?” she said out loud.

“Don’t forget spoiled, and greedy,” Nic said over her shoulder. “Yup, that’s you.”

She blushed and turned around. “I gotta stop talking to myself.”

“Well that’s the only way I learn things so please don’t.”

Tessa looked down at the serene blue carpeting that was currently just pissing her off. Screw serenity, she wanted to find the nearest punching bag and get some aggression out; her treadmill just wasn’t cutting it. “I know, I’m sorry. I can’t even get my own brain wrapped around Jon let alone talk about him.”

“Honey, you gotta talk to me. That’s my primary function as best friend, you know.” She wrapped her arm around her. “You haven’t been letting me do my job. You’ve been stewing in that back office for days now.”

“Because I feel stupid,” she sighed and let her head drop back. “I need to get myself under control here. He’s going to be gone for days…weeks!” She bit back the shout and took a deep breath, “At a time and I’m so churned up to see him now. What the hell happened to me? Why is he making me nuts like this?”

“Well there’s a difference between missing your guy when he’s out of town and missing your guy when he’s ten minutes down the road. I knew the kid thing was going to bug you sooner or later,” Nic sighed.

Tessa grabbed her forearm, “I don’t have any problem with the kids! I like his kids!” She didn’t seem that way, did she? She’d never really thought about having them herself but she liked his carbon copies. And a few of them were so like him it was eerie.

“No!” Nichole started laughing. “No, not like that. I mean because you’re separate from that part of his life. You’re not built that way, that’s all. No one wants to be the dirty little secret forever. It’s fun at first, but then it just...Well it just isn’t.”

“Well they kinda know about me,” she began. “They’ve met me indirectly and I understand the need to be careful. It feels like we’ve been together forever, but it really hasn’t been that long. Those kids mean more-“ she stopped herself.

“More to him than you do?”

“No!” Tessa back-peddled, “It’s a totally different thing.”

“Maybe in your head it is, but your heart is a totally different thing…it’s irrational and silly sometimes, even spiteful when you come right down to it. It’s okay, to feel that way as long as you don’t let it come between you two. But that doesn’t mean you keep all this stuff inside. That’s what you have me for,” Nic dragged her close for a hug and Tessa sagged against her. “So I can tell you that you’re stupid.”

“I am stupid,” she mumbled with her smooshed cheek against her best friend’s shoulder.

“Call him.”

“I don’t want to bug him,” she said on a sigh.

“You won’t be. He probably wants to hear from you.” She pulled back. “In fact, call him for my sake so I don’t have to look at your pouty face anymore today.”

Tessa rolled her eyes. “What would I do without you?”

“Pray you never find out, because you need my smarts, because you can be pretty stupid for such an educated chick!” Nic smirked over her shoulder and headed back to the front of the store. “Call him!” She called out.

“Yeah, yeah,” she sighed. Nibbling on her thumb, she flipped open her cell and texted him: Are you alone? And slid the phone back into her pocket trying not to feel stupid.

She hefted a stack of re-shelves and busied herself with a few customers as she waited for his response. When her pants buzzed and she heard the soft tinkle of her text message tone she slid in the back and opened her phone. One word, Yes was all she needed to see. Snapping it shut she grabbed her purse and coat and called to Nic. “Can you handle things for a little bit?”

She waved, “Go! Please! Patty’s here and we’ll be fine.”

Laughing she pushed open the door and headed to her car. Trying not to think about anything too closely she unlocked her car and headed out to his house. Using her code at the gate she pulled in and breathed a quick sigh of relief when she saw both of his cars in the drive. She tried the front door, surprised to see it open and no housekeeper to be found. He generally kept the place locked up just in case an overzealous fan decided the front gate wasn’t enough of a deterrent.

“Jon!” she called out. When she didn’t get an answer, she headed into the den where he spent most of his time. When she didn’t find him there either she headed to the kitchen then upstairs. Frowning she went outside and flicked the lock open so she could get back in. She nibbled on her thumb again and followed instinct, making her way to the studio behind the house.

Not sure if she should just walk in, or knock or if he could even hear her she cracked her knuckles. Was it soundproof on the inside too? Turning the knob she finally heard some life, an acoustic guitar and sniffling to be exact. Not wanting to intrude, she called out his name again.

“In here, babe,” he called out.

She stepped through a maze of couches, boards with more buttons than she could count and a row of Styrofoam cups that went from one end of a square table to the other. The guitar was mellow and haunting, with a bit of country to it. She could hear the pluck and the strumming and the knock of his hand against the strings as he started over. She followed the sound and found him on a small swivel chair, his head tipped back with a heavy sigh and a sniff. His beat up black acoustic held loosely in his lap and his hair was mussed around his angular jaw. Was he crying?

She rounded to him, caught his blurry eyes and bright red nose and laughed. “Aww, Stephanie brought the cold to you, huh?”

He nodded, perfectly miserable and pale. “I really wanted to call you and ask you to come over, but look at me,” he said with a nasaly voice that ended in stuffed up consonants.

Reaching around him from the back she settled her arm around his neck and pressed her cheek to his. “Why aren’t you in bed?” she asked and hissed at the heat he was giving off. “Darlin’ you have a fever, you shouldn’t be in the studio.”

“Every time I lay down the room spins, so I figured I’d get some work done.”

“And how’s that working out for ya?”

“I don’t know, I can’t hear the notes right through the snot.”

Laughing she lifted the surprisingly light guitar off his lap. She looked around and found a guitar stand and set it inside before she turned back to him. She held out a hand. “C’mon let me put you to bed with some fluids and cold meds.”

“I told you, it makes me dizzy and then my stupid stomach pitches,” he whined.

“Good thing this is the first time you’re sick with me or I’d tell you to suck it up.” She tugged him out of the chair. “I promise that if you still feel dizzy you can get up.”

“Gee thanks,” he mumbled, but he followed her. She waited for him to lock up, turn off lights and shut down the board he had fired up to record just in case. Sliding her hand along his back she hugged into him, needing to touch regardless of his state of sickness. “Babe, you’re gonna get sick if you keep touching me.”

“Worth it,” she said and pressed a kiss along his jaw. He followed her into the house through the kitchen door without another word and didn’t even complain when she pushed him into a seat at the table. She grinned over her shoulder as he propped his head on his fist, sprawled in the chair sniffing intermittently. “Cold meds?” she asked.

“Skinny cupboard on the left,” he mumbled.

She opened it and punched two dark green tablets through the back of the pack into her hand. She rummaged through the cabinets until she found a box of Mrs. Grass soup in the back of the dried goods and set it to cooking.

“I’m not hungry,” he groused.

“Did you eat at all today?” she asked, knowing that he’d either forgotten or was too sick to want to.

“Yes,” he lied.

She leaned over the table and met his gaze.

“No,” he muttered.

Tessa turned back to the stove and finished stirring the chicken soup with the super salty content that tasted so good when you were sick. At least it was what her mom used to fix it for her. Setting the bowl in front of him with a spoon she simply said, “Eat.”

She could see him warring with stubbornness and knew she’d won when he took a deep lungful of broth and steam and moaned a little. She puttered in the kitchen as he ate, setting up a large bottle of water, more meds and a stash of cough drops she found in the same skinny cabinet on a tray.

He finished and stood, bringing his bowl to her and looping his arms around her waist. “I’m a foul patient,” he said in way of apology as he rested his chin on her shoulder and hugged her from the back.

Twisting in his arms she pressed her cheek against his hot chest and brushed her cheek against the soft hair that tufted from the V of his t-shirt. “Good thing I ignore grouchy men on principle.” Leaning back she lifted her hand to his cheek. “You really are hot, darlin’.”

“Thanks,” he croaked out.

Laughing because he was so obviously looking for it, she lifted her hand to his forehead. “Soup didn’t help too much, huh?”

“I could breathe for the about ten minutes,” he said helpfully.

She kissed along his neck and reached for the cabinet again and added aspirin to the tray. “Okay, upstairs with you.”

“Are you going to tuck me in?” he asked as he clasped his hands at the small of her back.

She let her hand rest on his chest, fussing with the collar of the shirt as her fingers toyed with the soft hair. “Yes, before I go back to the store.”

“Oh,” he pouted…literally.

She laughed at his jutted out lower lip. “I’ll come back tonight if you want.”

“Yeah?” he said with a tired smile. “My daughter abandoned me. She brought this stupid flu into the house then up and left me when I started coughing this morning. She of course didn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it.” He pressed his forehead to hers and she hissed at the heat there. “God, I feel like shit.”

“Well c’mon let’s get you upstairs and you can try to sleep.”

When she got him settled she started to draw away when he hooked an arm around her waist. “Leaving already? The room’s not spinning now, maybe you should stay. It must be all your Florence Nightingale stuff that’s working.”

Laughing, she sat on the bed, leaning against the headboard as he settled against her thigh. He sighed, his hand smoothing over her waist as his thumb found its way under her sweater to caress distracting circles at her hip. “I’ll stay for a bit,” she said in a husky voice. It really wasn’t fair that he could stir her up, even sick. How pathetic was she?

“This is not exactly what I was thinking for the next time I got you in my bed.”

Laughing and falling back on humor, she said, “What? I always make you hot.”

He laughed and slid his hand up further until he brushed a knuckle along the underside of her breast. “That you do, though I prefer a totally different kind of fever, thanks.”

She batted at his hands. “Hey now, that’s no way to treat your nursemaid.” She groaned as her nipple reacted instantly. Even sick, he could heat her flesh ridiculously.

“Hey, come over in the nurse’s outfit later and I’ll promise to be a bad boy,” he said with a sniff, somewhat ruining the fantasy.

She leaned down and pressed a kiss to his slightly cooler forehead. The meds were starting to kick in, she could feel him pressing into her as his head fell against her thigh and his breathing began to even out. “I look forward to it,” she said softly as he sighed and his hand dropped away from her skin.

Not exactly what she’d been looking for when she took a trip out to his house, but her visit had eased the crazies that had taken over her brain that morning. She slipped away when she heard his soft snore of congested sleep and returned to the store with a smile.

She finished out the day and returned with paperwork and more meds, juice and met Lottie at the door. “Hey, there you are. I wondered where you were earlier,” she said in way of greeting.

“Here, let me take that,” Lottie hustled over to her. “I was out shopping for the sick one upstairs,” she said and dug into the bag. “Oh good, more juice. He’s woken up a few times and only wanted juice.”

“When’s the last time you got him to take something?”

She waved at the stairs. “He tells me he’s taking them every four hours but the medicine pack looks the same as when I checked on him earlier.”

Tessa hefted her laptop case and took a glass of juice from Lottie and tucked a bottle of water in her bag. “Well, I’ll see what I can do.”

“You’re good for him,” she said as Tessa headed to the stairs.

She turned back to the housekeeper, “Thanks, Lottie. I hope so, because I don’t know what I’d do without him now.”

Lottie clasped her hands with a bright smile. “Exactly what I want to hear,” she beamed.

She climbed the stairs to find him sprawled on his bed, shirt tossed aside and his hair sweaty with fever. Tending to him quickly she woke him enough to get some medicine into him before he settled back into his pillows with a hoarse cough and a shudder. She climbed into bed next to him and prayed that she didn’t get the same level of flu when she inevitably got it. Unable to call herself foolish, she opened her laptop to work.

3/07/2008

Chapter 107

Jon tossed his keys in the change bowl near the door and started stripping. He felt like yesterday’s garbage. There’d been a layover for a mechanical issue with the plane in Charlotte and he’d spent most of the day in their private airport that boasted little more entertainment than a corner store.

An ancient video game had eaten most of his money because he’d had nothing better to do between phone calls and text messages. He grinned and shot his sweater and t-shirt into the laundry room as he made a stop at the fridge for a bottled water. Dirty texts to be exact, he thought with a quick shake of his head. His Tessa had a dirty little mind that had left him sitting funny in those stupid plastic chairs at the airfield.

“Hey, Dad.”

He spit out water and grabbed a paper towel to wipe off his chin and chest. “Jesus, Steph!”

She glanced at his chest then up to his face. “Tessa’s not here is she?”

Mottled embarrassment rose on his cheeks as he looked down at his chest. “No!” he ducked back into the laundry room and tugged on the first t-shirt he saw. “What are you doing here, kiddo!” he called as he came back into the kitchen.

She rolled her eyes and read the tacky slogan that claimed, “Miller Life,” and held up a People magazine. “Needed to talk and warn you,” she said and sat back in her chair. A lock of stick straight hair slid into her eyes.

He sat at the table and gave the magazine a disinterested glance. “What’s up?”

She pushed it across. “Page 58,” she said and folded her arms over her chest.

Sighing he flipped through the thin, glossy pages and saw the celebrity out and about shots and gave an inward groan when he saw he and Tessa at the New Year’s gala. He pushed down until the glare was gone and Tessa’s regal face stared up at him. The photog had caught a shot of them with Elton and fingers twined behind her in an oddly intimate pose despite the foot of space between them. Of course it didn’t help that she had the soft, sweet smile on her face that he looked forward to each night.

He sat down next to Stephanie. “What kind of warning?” he asked carefully.

“Let’s just say Mom’s gotten a few calls and your balls are on the chopping block with most of the housewives.”

“Stephanie!” he glanced at her with beetled brows.

She shrugged, “Sorry, Dad, those were Mrs. Connelly’s words not mine.”

Unconcerned that a neighborhood shrew had less than a stellar outlook on him he took a good look at his little girl. “Is it a problem for you?” he asked quietly.

Again, she gave him a shrug of her slim shoulders. So much like her mother in looks and poker face ability, he sighed. “Seriously, Steph…I like Tessa a lot.”

“Dad, you love her.”

He wiped a hand across tired eyes, suddenly the exhaustion was almost too much to deal with. “Baby…” he started.

“It’s okay, Dad. I know you and Mom have been on the outs for years. Most of my friends have divorced parents. It’s no big thing.” She stood and grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge and helped herself to a large glass.

He looked her over, with her slim teen body that was just starting to show a womanly shape. The wide, assessing blue eyes that spoke of her mother’s wisdom and his creativity, but he didn’t see any distress there. He didn’t know whether to be pleased or horrified that the breakup of the family was being handled so well by a thirteen year old.

He’d tried to keep a normal home life for his kids as long as possible, but school was definitely putting the kibosh on that these days. Between the Paris Hiltons and the Brittany Spears there was very little that was innocent in the eyes of the kids who were old enough to read tabloids, especially when they had their own subscriptions.

“I take it your mother is displeased,” he said softly.

Again with the shrug, “I don’t think it helped that she was at the Spa when she saw the magazine.”

“Hell,” Jon growled and stood. Dot didn’t like surprises on a good day, and while she knew he was taking Tessa out to a party she didn’t exactly need it flaunted in front of her face. More importantly, not with her friends right in the thick of things. Dot had been friends with Elton as long as he had, but Elton had taken to Tessa within minutes, where Dot had taken months before he’d joked with her.

Taking one more look at the copper column of perfection that Tessa had been on that night, he closed the magazine. He wasn’t entirely sure he was up to facing his ex after the day he’d had. In fact, he was fairly certain he was going to go upstairs and hope it was forgotten.

“I appreciate the head’s up, Steph, but is that the only reason you showed up at my door?”

“What? It’s not my house anymore?” she asked innocently.

“I’m sorry, I forgot to put on my stupid hat this morning. Try again.”

She rolled her eyes. “Mind if I hide out here for a few days?”

“Why?” he asked carefully.

“It’s nothing bad, Dad. It’s just quarantine central at the house. Jake brought home a nasty virus that has already moved on to Romeo and I don’t want it to get me next.”

“So you bring it here? Awww how sweet of you,” he said and twisted her into a headlock. “Yeah, just call your mom and let her know you’re here.” He released her and headed upstairs. “Don’t go put on the TV, call her first!” he yelled over his shoulder.

When he heard the deep sigh of teen angst he smiled and took the stairs two at a time. It looked like his homecoming with Tessa would still be a few days. He flipped open his phone and dialed. When “Wanted Dead of Alive,” came screaming back at him from the phone he snorted.

“Hello,” she said a moment later, her voice like smooth dark chocolate.

“Nice ringback tone there, Baby.”

Her laughter was even lower and filled with promise. “Yes, well I couldn’t help myself. Are you home? And are you naked? And even more importantly are you going to do that thing to me in the shower that you promised?”

His cock instantly hardened at her voice and the images it stirred. She’d been teasing him all morning with various scenarios that would culminate with his homecoming. And culminate had certainly been the word of the day as her knees, water and soap had played a staring role in the latest little text explosion. “Goddamn, you are an evil woman,” he said tightly, pressing his hand down on the hard on that was currently knocking on his zipper.

“Damn, my secret’s out. And here I thought I was being so mysterious about it.”

He laughed, tucking the phone into his shoulder as he ran the faucet in the shower, making sure to keep the cool gage revved.

“Now that’s not fair, I hear the shower already and I’ve got at least three hours to go,” she pouted.

“I have a houseguest, babe.”

“What? Richie? Just tell him to go out between the hours of eight and eleven-thirty.”

He coughed, “Well you’re certainly generous with my umm…prowess.”

“There’s about twenty minutes allotted for eating in there too.”

Laughing he stripped off his jeans and shirt. “She’s a bit shorter and a lot more intelligent than my best friend.” The laughter and the teasing slipped from her voice and he wished he could snatch it back. “I’m sorry, Tessa. Steph is hiding out from the germs here for a few days. The boys are sick.”

She swallowed and he could feel the forced levity to her voice. “No, that’s okay. I have tons of paperwork to do anyway. The quarterly reports don’t write themselves.”

“It’s not even the end of January,” he reminded her.

“Well look at that I’ll be ahead! I’m always behind so it will be a novelty.” She said with a half laugh.

“Baby, I’m sorry. I was looking forward to acting out your rather inventive shower scene.”

Her laugh was a little more relaxed. “Maybe another night,” she said softly.

“I’ll call you later tonight to tuck you in,” he said with a low voice.

“I’ll be sure to send a picture so you don’t forget what my bed looks like, stud.” And she was gone.

He whipped back the shower curtain and swore when the needle cold spray hit his erection and left him cursing responsibilities and germs as he quickly soaped up.

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