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.

Following HOME