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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.