3/31/2009

Chapter 153


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Jon scraped his palm against the stubble on his cheek. He didn’t even have to feel around to know she was gone. Pushing his hair out of his eyes, he slammed his hands down on the mattress. “Son of a bitch.”

Was last night all they had left inside of them? Powerful, amazing sex that lingered on the edges of love, buried under countless degrees of pain.

He swung his legs off the bed, digging his fingers into the base of his skull. He could smell her on his skin, in the room, in the sheets that pooled around his hips. The lush, yet light, scent haunted him like one of the thousand memories he’d dragged around with him the last few months. The lone pillow that lay on the bed sailed across the room before he even realized his intent. The resulting crash of pictures from the wall had him swearing.

His phone trilled into the silence of the room, dragging him from his thoughts. Looking around, he spotted his duffel sitting in the center of the oversized chair in the corner. He checked his phone, found a text from Richie and promptly ignored his request for a phone call.

He was in no shape to talk to anyone right now. Collecting his toiletries for a quick shower, he tried to breathe through the red haze over his eyes. By the time he tugged on a pair of cargo shorts and t-shirt a few minutes later, he could think again—barely.

Had she brought his bag up to him before she left? Is that why it was sitting there?

She wouldn’t have.

She couldn’t have left him again.

“Get it together.” He forced himself to walk, not run. The kitchen was empty, the bathroom, and the living room—Nothing.

He swallowed hard, closing his eyes until the roar of the ocean broke through the haze of panic. As if on auto-pilot he opened the door that had locked him away from her for most of the night. The water was there. The beach, with its ever evolving promise—and the woman that was full of promises broken.

Before he could think about it too clearly, he headed down the stairs until he reached the dunes along the house. His stride was purposeful, until he got closer. Rocks dotted the shoreline making a small peninsula. She was crouched down, her feet curled around the smooth, water-worn rocks. A baby blue, bikini tie peeked from her t-back white tanktop and a pair of black shorts bagged around her too slim hips. Spray dotted the front of her shirt, and salt water clung to her thighs as the foam teased her ankles.

“Hi.”

He swallowed back most of the anger. Finding her still on the property was a point in her favor. She’d still run—he wouldn’t let her forget that, but at least she was still there. He walked to the water’s edge until the shifting sand pulled at his feet. “Hi.”

She picked around the rocks to the shells jammed between them. “I’m sorry I left you in the rain yesterday.”

Her tone was conversational—like she was talking about forgetting a prescription, not leaving him to rot on the deck. Determined to keep things as honest as possible, he swallowed back the need to scream at her—to shake her until she looked at him—listened to him. “You left long before that, Tess.”

“I know,” her voice was hoarse.

“Is that all you’re going to say?”

“Did you talk to Nichole?”

Trying to follow her tangent, he cleared his throat. “Yes, I went to see her a few weeks ago.”

“Oh.”

The confusion and hurt in her voice sliced at him, but he kept his tone even. “That was the first time I caved in and went looking for you.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to tell her about the all night drive to Mary’s house though. Even he had a shred of pride left. “That’s when I found out you’d …” he trailed off. What? Taken a sabbatical? Disappeared? Escaped?

“We’ll go with time off,” she said with a wry smile. “I needed a bit of time to think,” she said over her shoulder.

He jammed his fingers into the sudden ache that flooded his bicep. The woman made him nuts. “Are you so determined to do everything alone?”

She sucked in a quick breath and stood up, hopping down to the sand. “Okay, I deserved that.” She flipped the wide, dark lenses up into her hair. Her eyes were clear in the sunshine—no shadows haunted her right now. Hesitantly, she reached out to him. Trailing her nails through the hair along his forearms, he tightened his fingers on his elbows, careful not to move.

How many times had he ached to have her do just that? The endless nights without her curled back against him—those same nails caressing him absently into sleep. He didn’t know how he would survive another night alone after having her again. “You didn’t deserve any of this.”

The openness in her eyes faded quickly as she withdrew. “Oh, I deserved it.”

His brows snapped together. “What?” He snatched her hand, encircling it with both of his. “You can’t believe that.”

She tugged her hand away. “I can’t?” The laugh that came out of her mouth didn’t match the sunshine and the pretty beach they stood on. It should have been a carefree laugh—not this dark one with secrets.

He stuffed his hands into his khakis, too frustrated to be sure he could stop himself from grabbing her and shaking her. “Talk to me, Tessa.” He reached one hand out, but jammed it back in his pocket when she took a step back.

She turned to face the ocean, her feet matching his in the foam. “You’ve wanted to grieve with me for our,” she swallowed hard, folding her arms over her stomach. “For our baby.” The silence between them was almost as awesome as the ocean air and the tide that seemed to breathe around them.

He watched the waves crash in on each other until she spoke again, her voice jarring after the long bout of silence.

“I couldn’t figure out why each time you mentioned it, I wanted to scream and bury every piece of the idea of that baby.” She closed her eyes. “Every time you wanted to talk about it, I hated you more.”

His chest constricted. He’d known that she’d been pulling back, but the thought of her hating him cut deep. He stared down at her, surprised to see tears dripping off her chin. “Ah, Tess.”

She held her hand up when he tried to lean in and drag her closer. “Don’t,” she whispered. “I don’t deserve any of it.” Her voice so thick with tears it ripped his guts out.

“Baby, please.” Anger was no match for her tears. They were so rare—so impossible to ignore. He’d waited—prayed—begged to any god he could think of for her tears before. Anything to know she was still alive inside that cold shell she’d become. Now that they were tracking down her cheeks, he just wanted them to stop.

She swiped at her cheeks, sniffling as she laughed that dark laugh again. “God, if you only knew. You’d never want to touch me again.”

“Tessa, just tell me.”

She shook her head. “Let it go—let me go, Jon.” She whirled, running up the beach.

“Son of a—“ he growled and took off after her. She was quick, he’d give her that. Her lighter frame gave her the advantage in the sifting sand, but he’d been running on the beach for more than half his life. His legs were longer, stronger and damn if his anger didn’t give him an extra push.

He wrapped his arm around her waist, dragging her back against him. “Stop it!” he ordered.

She struggled—clawing at his forearms, her feet kicking out when he lifted her off the ground. “Let me go!”

“No,” he growled into her ear. “Stop running away from me.” He pressed his cheek against her hot, wet one. “Just stop.”

She leaned back on him. “I can’t,” she sobbed then doubled over. “Oh God, I’m sorry. It’s my fault.” They both collapsed into the sand.

He held on tighter, trapping her between his legs and banding his arms around her until she sagged against him. “I’m soo sorry.” Her voice was a mere whisper, broken and so unlike the woman he knew.

“Baby, please. It’s not your fault.”

She shook her head. He held her tight as the horizon blurred in reaction to her torrent of emotions. The tears weren’t pretty, the anguish was so overwhelming he couldn’t do anything but rock her. It destroyed him by degrees to hold onto her and listen to all the pain.

“It doesn’t matter. Nothing can be this bad, I promise.” He turned her into his arms. His fingers were buried in her hair as she practically climbed into his skin. Her tears dripped down his neck and into the collar of his shirt. “Tell me,” he begged.

She pressed her cheek against his chest, the hiccupping sobs had receded into small shudders. “I never wanted it.”

He was trying to understand her cryptic statement, but no matter how he turned it around in his mind, he could only come up with one thing.

She hadn’t wanted his baby.

3/24/2009

Chapter 152


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Tessa wandered through the house, clicking off lights and checking the locks as she prepared for bed. Her fingers tightened on the doorknob as the muscle car that had initially given her such a rush, sat in her driveway.

Still.

Was he out there, waiting? Did he really need to be this stubborn? She’d given him the out he needed. That you needed. She stuffed down the stupid voice. Louder now—annoying and unbending.

Like Jon.

Her fingers dug into the trim along the sliding window of the second floor. Watching a droplet of water dribble down the glass, her thumb and first finger toyed with the lock. She should check to see if he was still outside. She flicked off the last light next to the television, but there was no sign of Jon on the porch.

Cursing, she padded down the stairs and checked the more sheltered patio, but still he wasn’t there. The lingering drumbeat of rain gave her a twinge of conscience. It was his fault if he was going to sit out there and get wet. He could sleep in his car or on the porch. It wasn’t like it was that cold. He could find a hotel. He had unlimited resources for God’s sake.

It wasn’t her problem.

The clatter of a chair against the house made her flinch. “Dammit,” she muttered, rushing to the window again. The surf was raging as the wind kicked up. Her fingers curled around the handle of the back door and she unlocked it.

“No, he’s a big boy.”

She relocked the door and crossed her arms over her lightweight t-shirt. She was going to bed. Cracking her knuckles, she turned away from the door and walked to her room—okay, so it was slowly, but she was going. If he wanted to be comfortable he could take some of his millions and go to a hotel—hell even a motel, dammit.

It wasn’t her problem he was stubborn.

Like you?

“Shut up.” Great, now she was answering the voice. She snapped the sheets back and slid into the crisp cotton sheets. She curled into the big, fluffy down comforter that somehow kept her warm or cool, whichever she needed. She turned off the light and the sound of the rain became more pronounced. The wind seemed to batter against the glass as fiercely as the rain.

She stared at the ceiling. Hell—even the shadows of the raindrops lay there against the ceiling. “I hate you,” she whispered. “Shit!” Flinging back the covers she stalked down the hallway to the back patio door of the second floor. She pounded her hand against the llight switch, snicked the lock open and shoved the door wide.

“Jon!” She called out. “Are you still out here?”

Silence.

Nothing.

Hugging her arms to her chest she winced as the wind and spray hit her. “Stupid man.” Her feet instantly prickled at the cold floorboards puddling with water. She called his name again.

Nothing.

She went back downstairs to the lower deck, but it was equally drippy with tide spray, rain and wind that stung her cheeks with both. He wouldn’t be up on the widow’s peak. That was just stupid. “Of course he would,” she muttered and pounded up the stairs.

She hit the spiral staircase with a gasp as the rain hit her full force. “Jon, you stupid shit, do you want to catch your death of cold?” She shouted as she rounded the top. Water ran down the sides of the deck, drumming against the deck below, slickening the stairs until she had to hold onto both rails. “Jon!”

The bench and the chairs lay empty.

No Jon.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” she growled turning back around. Her heel kicked out as a hooded figure filled the stairway. Sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt stuck to every inch of his lean body, dark and heavy with rain.

A hand clamped on each of her arms as he hauled her upright. “You okay?” he called out over the wind. She nodded and he advanced on her instead of retreating back down the steps. “Stubborn, willful—“

“Pain in the ass, arrogant, stupid.” She answered back, lifting her chin.

Instead of answering her, his mouth crushed down on hers. Too surprised to jerk away, she stood frozen. There’s no way he should even be slightly warm with the cold rain, but his body was like a furnace. His mouth was flame hot as he hauled her into his arms.

She pushed at the hood over his head, her fingers scraping through the half damp strands. Rain poured around them on the curved stairwell. The wind battered her. Jon battered her.

Jon.

Her Jon—there.

Still there. She could yell at herself later. Now, she wanted him, just him. She returned his kiss, sucking his heat into herself. God, it felt like she’d never been warm before. She was up an extra stair from where he stood so they were on even ground. Her arms circled his shoulders as their mouths met, kiss for kiss, heat to cold, feeding to starving.

His hands went around her waist, crushing her into him. Surely there had to be steam coming off of them. Lips mashed as they couldn’t seem to get close enough. His teeth scraped across her cheek to her ear, down her neck and back to her mouth as if he had to keep her mind off of stopping.

Like she could stop right now? Could she ever stop wanting him? Needing him? Was he like a drug or like her other half? She couldn’t seem to pull that apart right now.

His fingers dug into her ribs as she arched back. He sipped rainwater from her skin, nosing away the material until he found her shoulder. “Stop me now,” he snarled against her neck. “It’s been too long, Tessa.”

The inky night didn’t give much away, but she could feel the ache coming off of him—or was it her?

She pulled back, his fingers almost bruising as he held onto her. His chest heaved and the stony line of his jaw flexed in the low light. Pushing him back down the steps until they reached the overhang, she pulled him into the light. His eyes were a stark, turquoise blue filled with pain and longing. God, what were they doing to each other?

Without a word, she opened the door, backing herself inside she took him by the hand. Would this night be enough? Would it change anything? Would it help? Would it rip them apart? Would it put them back together?

She touched the tip of her fingers against his mouth. “I don’t know about tomorrow yet.” She lifted her shirt over her head until the thick ropes of her wet hair slapped against her shoulders.

Instead of answering, he curled his hand over his shoulder, tugging the sweatshirt over his head until they both dropped them to the tiled floor. Puddles dripped off their hair, their feet, their clothes, but it didn’t matter. Her eyes soaked him in. The lean lines of his waist, the rippling muscles that hadn’t been there before. Tough and refined—edgy with raw power. Her fingers shook as she dropped her hands to the boxer shorts she was wearing.

He held up a hand to stop her, rolling down his heavy sweats, stepping from them. Kneeling before her, he tugged at the ends of the shorts. She hissed as they slowly lowered. With each inch, he tasted her. A flick of his tongue along her hip, the low curve of her belly button until his hot breath teased along the very center of her. She swayed and his fingers gripped her thighs to steady her.

Staring up at her, he rolled the wet material over the curve of her ass until she was bare to him. Her fingers tangled into his wet hair as he nosed against the line where her thigh met hip bones. Dragging his stubbled jaw against her lower belly, the dent of his chin coasted over the low curve where she was already wet for him. Instead of touching her there, he flicked his tongue over the top of the thin line of hair and traced his way along her ribs and over the hollow of her stomach.

When he lifted her, she hooked her knees over his hips and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. His mouth caught hers again. Pent up frustrations urged his mouth into a rougher kiss and she answered him with one of her own. Teeth clicked and nipped as tongues tangled for dominance. She hated herself for using him, but the moment he’d touched her, she’d been lost.

She’d been lost when she spotted him on the beach, she thought distantly. Then turned it off. She wanted to feel something—anything. And his mouth on hers, his body on hers, left little time for thought.

It was all feel.

He walked them down the hall as she groaned against his mouth, tearing herself away to trail her tongue over the rough sandpaper of his jaw, his neck…the Adam’s apple she loved so much. They toppled onto the bed, his shoulders shuddered under her as if he was holding himself in check. His knee pressed into the mattress, opening hers as he caged her in. His fingers curled into the sheets, into the comforter, tearing it back.

“Stop me now.”

She shook her head, dragging him higher on the bed until he was on top of her. The crisp hair of his chest pressed down on her aching nipples as his breathing went heavy with lust. Shadows and rain dotted the windows, throwing his face into shadow. The pronounced line of his nose, the slash of his lips, the glitter of his eyes in the dark—all there. Not a dream.

Here.

Now.

She could feel his cock hard against her, drilling into her thigh. God, she wanted that inside of her. Filling her. All those empty spots. Just for an hour. Just for a moment. Anything to quench this thirst, this undying need for him flaring hot and real inside of her.

His fingers curled around her knee, dragging it higher on his hip as he sucked a nipple into his mouth. She pushed at the pillows around her head. The pillows that had given her a sense of something around her now, were intrusive. She flung them against the wall, to the floor, away from her. Away from them—until it was them and only them on the crisp sheets.

His knee knocked her legs open wide, his arms shaking beside her head, her shoulder as he held himself in check. Her fingernails raked along his back, ropey muscles shifted and bunched under her hands. He held himself up above her, his mouth on her breast, hot and wide.

Arching up against him, she scraped down to his ass, pulling him closer…on top of her. “Please,” she whispered.

His hand disappeared between them, the blunt tip of his cock pressed against her. The pressure against the tiny knot inside of her had her squirming up against him.

Jon, inside of her again. Him over her. She shuddered, her breath coming too fast.

Oh God. Him. Inside of her again. Filling her again. Everything inside of her wanted it, but she wasn’t sure she could survive it. She couldn’t find enough oxygen.

Stopping everything, his eyes locked with hers. Sweat, rain or a mixture of both, dripped down his cheekbone. He swiped the silky head over her hood, until she jerked against him. He stopped, just on the edge of entering her.

His mouth was there, on hers. Filling her with his breath instead, his certainty. She wrapped her legs around his waist and he finally pushed forward. The invasion felt like the first time all over again. Stretching and filling, pleasure and pain as he inched his way inside of her.

His hips flexed against hers as they slowly moved, as their rhythm came back and the rain and the wind seemed to die down until it was just them. The slapping of skin, the groans from his throat—from hers. The slipping sweat and silky glide of excitement, the slope of an orgasm crested and burned until she rolled him.

Riding astride him, she undulated above him, watching the pleasure and the growling need race over his features in the dim, blue night. His fingertips dug into her hips, increasing the speed, knowing just what she needed. The friction tossed her up and over into a helpless scream and then she was back under him.

Her arms up, over her head as he slammed into her. His mouth in her neck as he pushed for more, forced her to feel more. She jerked against him, as his fingers wound around hers, pinning her there under him as he took her. She screamed out the pleasure and the unrelenting fear that seemed to be locked inside of her.

His name was a guttural and unrelenting sob as he poured himself inside of her. Gathering her into his arms, he hauled her up into a seated position with him still buried deep as he rocked her. The pleasure and the fear coalesced until there was nothing but him.

Always him.

Would be forever him. God help her.

3/21/2009

Chapter 151


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“Why now?”

Because it took forever to get to you. “I couldn’t stay away, one more day.” With the album’s release he had tons of one offs and publicity to do. Instead of trying to fit a trip to Long Beach Island into the mix of concerts, he’d decided to get work out of the way—well for the most part. He still had a few responsibilities, but this way he had a good week alone with her.

It felt way too good to hold her again. Her hair around his fingers and the warm skin under his palm was enough to lure him into taking more. He wanted to crush her against him and hold on tight. He wanted to force her to taste him, to feel him, to love him again.

Instead, he took a step back, his fingers tightening reflexively just before he let go. There were streaks of sunshine in the hair that flowed past her shoulders now. The bruises were gone from under her eyes, but the wariness was still there. He reached out, only to snatch his hand away when she flinched. “I’m not here to hurt you, Tessa.”

“Too late.” She stepped around him, pounding up the stairs.

“Son of a—“ he ran after her, grabbing the back of her hoodie before she could reach the porch. “Would you just wait and talk to me for a second?”

“We’ve talked our way into the ground and back out of it again.” She jerked away from him, zipping up the sweatshirt to her neck. The little flash of a bikini top now swallowed in the bulky material.

“Actually I’ve been the one to talk things into the ground. You haven’t said a word. Not since—“ He watched her face close off and instead of shying away from it this time, he lifted his chin. “You haven’t talked to me since you lost the baby. Since we lost the baby,” he amended.

She twirled away from him, heading to the sliding glass doors. “Dammit, Tessa.”

“I’m not talking about this again.”

“We haven’t talked in the first place,” he shouted after her.

She whirled around, her gaze bouncing around from him to the shore, to the stairs. She fumbled behind herself for the handle, tears dotting her eyelashes. “Why can’t you leave this alone?”

He wavered once before sprinting up the last few steps. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he wasn’t going anywhere until they at least talked. She opened the door enough to get inside, bracing himself for impact, his hand shot out. He ground his teeth together with a curse when the back of his hand smashed into the door frame with the momentum. “Stop shutting me out,” he growled through the glass.

Instead of stopping, she pushed the door tighter. He curled his fingers around the white metal until it cut into his palm. Brute strength won out, but she didn’t back down. “The He-Man tactics were never your style, Jon.”

He invaded her space. Pears and sunshine made his mouth water, but he didn’t say another word, just backed her into the house.

She took a few steps back, her eyes blazing. “This isn’t your property. I can have you arrested.”

He smiled, closing the door behind him. “Call the cops.”

Her eyebrows climbed into her windblown hair then snapped together. “Goddamn, Mary.”

He leaned back against the pane of glass, the coolness from the shadowed porch felt good. “Mary and I had a lovely conversation.” He lifted a wooden keychain with a little silver key. He’d had to work like hell to get that key. “I made myself comfortable in the guest room.” She reached for the key, but he lifted it over her head. “Now, now.”

Her face was free of makeup, but her cheeks were flushed as she gnawed on her lower lip. He could read her clever eyes trying to come up with a plan, so he dropped the key into his shirt pocket. “We can peacefully cohabitate, can’t we?”

Her jaw clenched and her lips thinned as she mashed them together. Then, just as suddenly they were smooth again. What was she up to?

Her eyes drifted over his lips, his jawline then to his neck. She took a step closer to him and he swallowed. He forced himself to meet her eyes even though his skin was quickly warming under her gaze. Shit. It had been way too long since he’d touched anyone, let alone the one woman that had the power to shred him.

Her intent was hidden under thick, blonde tipped lashes. God, did she feel it too? It was such a long time to be alone, for either one of them. She was alone, wasn’t she? He’d have heard if she’d moved on with someone else.

Anger flared hot and bright in his gut before he could stop it. Tessa touching someone else. Tessa loving someone else. Her smile—a gift to someone else.

He hissed as the flat of her palm pressed against his belly. Disorientated that she’d actually touched him first, he froze. His fingers spread across the cool glass to stop himself from reaching for her.

Stupid—don’t fuck this up.

She stepped closer, her fingers tangling into the thicker hair at his chest. She coasted over the wide layer of muscle that stretched across his pecs, her pinkie finding his nipple just as she stood on her tiptoes. “Tessa,” he breathed as his cock hardened immediately.

“Shh…” she said against his mouth. “Just let me…” She slid her other hand under his arm to brace against the door. God, she was so close. He could smell chocolate on her breath as she angled her mouth until it was closet to touching, than not.

She finally looked at him…licking her lips with the tip of her pink little tongue. “Don’t move.”

As if he could. Just the thought of that mouth, that tongue and the taste of her was enough to make him stand perfectly still. If he could have pierced the glass with his fingertips, he would have. He wanted to take. Wanted to bury himself inside of her until the pain went away. Until he found the easy answer that was Tessa and himself.

The answers they’d always been to each other.

He felt the air on his back a beat too late and then he was falling. The key dangling from her fingers as she stared down at him on the porch.

Her eyes were that distant green again. The Tessa from his house. The Tessa he wanted to banish. “No we can’t cohabitate. Go home, Jon.” She slammed the door shut and snicked the lock.

He stood up, slapping his hand against the glass. “You are my home, dammit!”

For a brief moment, pain and something else flickered in her eyes, then she straightened her shoulders. “Not anymore.” And she was gone.

He slammed the side of his hand against the shatterproof glass. “Tessa!” He stalked around the house to the front door, but that was locked as well. He headed up the stairs to the second level’s porch, but that door was just as locked. He saw her climb those stairs, but she ignored him, heading down a hallway to the bedrooms. “Fuck.”

He reared back to kick the Adirondack chair on the deck, but remembered his bare feet and dropped into it instead. He swiped his hand over his chest and belly where she’d touched him and cursed the hard on that tented his fucking shorts. She’d played him. His Tessa, completely and utterly played him, to get the fucking key.

He didn’t know if he should be pissed off, or proud. Standing up, he decided on pissed as he went back down the stairs. Pissed flipped to irate as his leather duffle sat on the front stoop with his wallet and keys on top. “Tessa,” he growled.

Well tough shit, he wasn’t going anywhere. He shouldered his bag, jamming his wallet and keys into the side pocket. He climbed the stairs and then up another level to the widow’s peak he’d spotted on his first look at the house. Another Adirondack chair and matching bench sat looking out at the ocean.

The view was beyond spectacular—Ocean, sky, and a horizon that was miles away—the perfect place to wait her out. He dropped his bag and sat down to do just that.

3/12/2009

Chapter 150




Mid July 2007

Tessa lifted her face to the breeze off the ocean. She licked a circuit around her Espresso Roast flavored ice cream cone. It had become a daily routine to walk to the Skipper Dipper. She was slowly making her way through their flavored soft ice cream list. Today’s selection was one of the best—could be the coffee flavor thing, though.

Bay Village was hopping as always. It was a tiny little bayside town that lived off the foot traffic from the rental properties that made up the majority of the Long Beach Island coast. There was a fair amount of cars, but bicycles seemed to be the favored form of travel with the odd skater here and there.

Instead of heading back to the shops along LBI Blvd, she wanted her feet in the sand again. The beaches out this way were public, but she preferred that walk back to the Bouchet summer house. Not to mention that she needed to be around people a little bit, even if they didn’t talk to her—which she preferred.

She’d been in her own head way too much lately. People watching made her feel a little less lonely sometimes. She wasn’t really fit for people, but if she exhausted herself walking around the village, sometimes she could even get some sleep. And on the really good nights, the dreams stayed away too.

She smiled at a fat and sassy baby that wasn’t quite at the walking stage. She was having a blast flinging sand into her daddy’s face. His eyes crinkled in the corners as he rolled the little girl onto his chest, lifting her into the sky, more sand flying as her laughter caused a ripple of her own.

The bright blonde of his hair flashed another face into her memory. The crinkles on that face were more defined and held a twinkle that skipped through her heart like adrenaline. The smile faded from her face, pushing her back to the water’s edge. She’d gone a whole day not thinking of him and just like that…he was back.

At least she hadn’t dreamed of him for the last two nights. Of course dreaming would require sleeping. No matter how many miles she walked on the beach, she couldn’t find a way to get herself tired enough lately. Biting into the waffle cone, she broke off a piece and flung it up to the gulls overhead. The more enterprising of the greedy birds snatched it from the air and glided to the beach.

Each day got a little easier to breathe. She’d hoped to find peace at Mary and Tom’s place, but the minute she’d stepped out of her old truck, she’d known it was the beach she’d been looking for. She’d never really taken the time to go on a vacation and her scholarly parents certainly hadn’t been the type to bring the family to the shore for vacation. She was fascinated with the waves and the push and pull of the ocean.

The public beach thinned out until she crossed over to the private beaches where the timeshare stood. The bright white and yellow beach house butted against the beach with a wide, flat set of stairs that led right into the back of the house.

The mix of vacation homes and all year round home owners dotted the shoreline with weather beaten greys, whites and blues. The houses ranged from tiny bungalows to three story seaside palaces. The Bouchet house came into view—two stories and three porches. Her favorite spot was the very top lookout. She couldn’t wait to curl into her bench-style Adirondack chair and watch the tide come in.

The house next to her was a rental. She smiled and waved at the new family trudging up the walkway with bags full to bursting and coolers weighing down tired shoulders. They’d learn—as the others did—what to bring down and what to leave behind. As usual, the mother was harried and the father was sunburned—his corporate skin unused to the beachy sun, poor muffin.

A man stood on the beach near her house, feet splayed in the sand. It looked like the family had a visitor. A gauzy white shirt fluttered in the breeze, his royal blue swim trunks hung well past his knees and sunglasses perched at the end of his nose. This was no pale skinned suit in vacation clothes. His skin was already bronze with sun, a silver and twine bracelet glinted off his wide wrist. Wild blonde hair blew around an angular face.

She shook her head, tugging the zippered ends of her hoodie over her suddenly chilled belly. God, she really needed to get more than a handful of hours sleep tonight. So what if her dreams were usually of him. If she was starting to see him on the beach, well…any of the progress she’d made was all but gone.

Dropping her flips on the sandy stairs she turned on the tap to get most of the grit off her toes. The wind kicked up, the ocean roared, letting her know the tide was on its way in. She turned back, watching the spray of the foam off the rocks.

“Tessa.”

Her belly lurched. “Oh God, you are going nuts.” The ocean was saying her name now? In his soft, sin soaked sheets voice no less. Well, it was only a matter of time before the madness set in. She’d been at this house alone for weeks now. Checking in with Nic eased the guilties, but she kept those conversations short.

“Tessa.”

The voice was closer now, her eyes swung to the left and the man from the beach came closer. His shirt was wide open, defined pectoral muscles shifted under silver tinged dark hair. “No,” she whispered. She had to be seeing things.

He couldn’t be here—not here in her little slice of solitude. The achingly familiar line of his collarbone came into focus, then his jawline and stubble dotted chin.

Afraid to look up any further, she closed her eyes. “You’re not real.”

She jolted as a hand touched her face. Fingers teased the ends of her hair, tugging gently before cupping her face. The tear leaked free before she could stop it, burning down her wind whipped cheek. The thumb that brushed it away was beyond gentle. Sun and ocean and that elusive male scent swirled around her. When another tear tracked the first, she pulled back.

“Tessa.”

She opened her eyes and he was there in front of her. His fingers curled into fists at his sides. His eyes were shaded by amber lenses, but the stark pain was there. Dusky blue eyes blazed down at her, his jaw clicked as his teeth ground together.

Insistent.

Real.

Jon.

She dashed away the stupid tears that had fallen. She’d had a handle on them, but just her name on his lips and she could feel the flood right there waiting. She closed the ends of her sweatshirt and folded her arms over her chest. The teeth of the zipper bit into her palms when she finally met his gaze. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for you.”

The wind picked up, batting her hair against her face and into her eyes. Surely she hadn’t heard that right. She pushed it away and tucked it around her ear only to have it fly around her face again.

His lifted his hands, pushing her hair away for her, cupping her face to hold her still. There was gentleness in his touch, but there was no denying the stony set of his jaw, the sureness in his eyes and the absolute authority in his voice. “We’re going to talk if I have to tie you down.”

She stiffened, trying to pull back, but his hold was absolute. “We’ve discussed this and we decided it was better to end things.”

“We didn’t discuss anything. You made the decision, I’m here to negotiate.”

His voice still had that sexy timber, even as his words brooked no argument. She pressed her palm into his sun baked chest and pushed, but it was like trying to move granite. His chest and belly tightened as his feet widened for better stability. “Let me go.” Her heart tripped, slamming against her breast bone.

His eyes met hers. “I can’t.”

“There’s no negotiating, Jon. I’m not a deal to be made, or a friggin’ football team you can buy.” She struggled to get free and he let her go, only to slide his hand into her hoodie, gripping her hip with one hand and the back of her neck with the other.

The heat of his hand on the skin of her waist and back was as effective as a brand. She felt it everywhere and the warmth radiated until she could feel it her bones. It took everything inside of her not to sway into him and hold on tight. It would be so easy to melt into him again, to fall into old patterns.

“Then I’m starting over, because I’m not leaving here until we talk this out. I love you too much to let you go.”

3/10/2009

Chapter 149



Jon glanced down at his in-dash GPS. According to the arrival time, he was about ten minutes away from the Bouchet house. The rural towns looked run down to some, but he’d lived in the northeast long enough to know that it was this sort of rustic hideaway that was coveted by people that wanted to get away from the glamour of the city.

Houses that probably ranged in the hundreds of thousands blended with middle and lower income homes. The roads wound around to show sprawling vistas, achingly simple landscapes and working farms dotted with grazing horses, cows and goats. He pushed his Chevelle into the red zone, hard pressed to keep within the speed limit. The hill he was climbing would be killer in the winter, but the early summer only left wildflowers and beauty.

A few turnoffs that could loosely be called roads later, a wide, wraparound porch came into view. Sunny yellow shutters against white siding gleamed in the early morning light. Black trim outlined the door, windows and top of the porch rails, but it was the explosion of colors from beds of flowers that turned the traditional house into a home. To his untutored eye it looked like a mishmash of flowers popping up everywhere, but he’d bet his next advance that the whole garden was meticulously planned.

It reminded of his Grams place back in Pennsylvania. She’d spend hours playing in her weeds, as she’d called it. He pulled into the circular drive hoping the two hours he’d forced himself to wait at a local diner was enough to keep him out of the rudely early column. He’d driven on the overnight, unable to go back to his house and sleep or face the wrath of Richie.

He needed to see her, period. Driving all night was a small price to pay. It wasn’t like sleep had been a friend of his in months anyway. Gravel crunched under his boots as the late June sun sparkled off her little Honda parked under an overhang along the side of the house.

God, she was really there. He hadn’t called ahead, and he wasn’t sure Nic would have either. Popping his knuckles, he shook out his stiff fingers before gripping the glossy black rail.

A huge wreath decorated the same gleaming black of the door. More flowers sprang from antique pots, a weather worn watering can and a Radio Flyer wagon beside the door. His hand shook a little when he reached for the doorbell. The bell and barking dogs followed by a thump and yip had him curling his fingers into his hand. As an afterthought he quickly tucked the arm of his sunglasses into his shirt.

“All right, All right!”

He heard the voice, then a pair of friendly brown eyes and thick, wide paws pounced on the skinny window. Another smaller dog inched under the big chocolate lab, its lolling tongue coated the glass.

“Sadie down! Get back, Barney.” Another pair of brown eyes peered through the window, this one of the human variety. Her dark brows snapped together, before she inched back, then came back to the window again, this time her eyes were wide with surprise.

Jon tried a smile, but the most he could manage to do was twist his lips into a semblance of a bend. God, what was he doing?

The door swung open. The woman had to be Nic’s mother. She was almost an exact replica of Nic only a bit more…plush. The dogs spilled out around the woman’s legs and crashed into his. He widened his feet for stability. “Hi, ma’am, I’m looking for Tessa Donovan.” He tried to talk above the din, but it was a lost cause.

“Sit!” The commanding tone was impressive. Hell, he almost had a seat, himself. Both dogs plopped onto their butts beside him, flanking either side. Each dog vibrating to jump and lick and hopefully not bite, but they obeyed.

“I’m sorry to come unannounced, but—“

“When she said famous, she wasn’t kidding.”

Jon snapped his mouth shut, confusion evening out to a near head slap. He was as far from his famous persona as one could get lately—even with the promos only two days ago—but to this woman…well, it had to be a little shocking. He held out his hand. “Hi, Mrs. Bouchet, I’m Jon.”

“You certainly are,” she clasped his hand and dragged him inside. She shooed the dogs out. “Go on, go play,” and closed the door. “I’m sorry. My Mom would kick my butt for being so rude. Welcome to my home.” She turned her head. “Thomas, come out here!”

“Who the hell are you calling, Thomas, woman! What’d I do now?”

Jon swallowed as a towering linebacker of a man came around the corner. A closely cropped, snow white beard framed a darkly tanned face with shrewd blue eyes. A simple cotton t-shirt stretched across a barrel chest and set of shoulders that could probably plow a field alone. “Hello, Mr. Bouchet.”

A frosty white brow winged up into his hairline, then beetled down into a frown. “You’re the one making my Tessa cry.”

“Tom!” Mary admonished, pushing her husband out the way and dragging him further into their house. “Go put some coffee on for our guest.” The kitchen and dining room were one large open space.

“He’s no guest of mine. He can make his own damn coffee.” Tom growled, stomping off to the kitchen even with his gruff words.

“He’s a little protective of Tessa.”

Jon swallowed thickly. “Don’t go to any trouble, please.” He’d had enough coffee that he wondered if it wasn’t running through his veins. He was surprised that Tessa hadn’t explained who he was to her, well…her family for all intents and purposes. Did she see him as temporary the whole time?

Or did she feel like she couldn’t talk about them even to her family? Had he done that to her? Made her feel like even talking to family would be a betrayal? Or even worse, not worth the mention?

Mary shuffled him out onto the back porch with its wide pergola and plush chaise seating. “You go sit down, I’ll be right back.”

The backyard was even more impressive than the front with the wild gardens and worn arbor twisted with some sort of vine in full bloom. Even at nine in the morning, the sun blasted down on the brook along the back of the house, bouncing the light back at him. He shoved his sunglasses back on his face, tipping back on his heels.

It was truly beautiful; he could see why Tessa had escaped here. He looked over his shoulder at the windows and fluttering lace curtains overlooking the incredible view. Was she watching him? Was she sleeping? Stuffing his hands in his jeans pockets, he tried to settle his jangling nerves.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.”

Jon smiled down at the woman, cupping his hands around her fluttering hands. “Treat me like one of your kids, Mrs. Bouchet. I’m not special just because I sing for a living.”

Mary stared up at him for a long moment, then poured him a mug of coffee, still not saying a word. He accepted the mug, taking a sip without thinking and moaned. Mary’s coffee was better than the stuff he got in the city. He gulped down half the cup before he could stop himself.

Tom came onto the porch, his anger breathing off of him like a living thing. A quick look flashed between the married couple and he harrumphed before heading down the stairs to the stables in the back. “I’m sorry about my husband, he’s usually much better behaved.”

Jon waved it off, setting his coffee on the table. “He’s got good reason to dislike me on sight.”

“Tom doesn’t know the whole story, in fact…I don’t think any of us do besides you and Tessa.”

“If I tried to explain it, I’d sound like a narcissistic bas—“

She laughed. “I appreciate your manners, Mr. Bon Jovi, but you can say bastard.”

“Jon,” he corrected. “Well, my Pops taught me not to speak like that in front of a lady.”

Mary’s laughter trilled through the air, bringing the dogs barking around the back of the house. The scrabbled up the stairs for a quick ruffle of ears and the both of them headed out to the stream. Obviously he didn’t rate now that they were out doors. “Sounds like I’d probably like your father. Do you think Tessa would?”

His lips quirked up at the corner. She was sneaky, he’d give her that. “God, I hope so. She only got to talk to him for three seconds before all hell broke loose.”

“Families are hard to gel together. It takes time, effort and patience.”

He snorted. “Too bad I have my mother’s patience.”

She sat down at the oval table and waved him over. “Come sit. We need to have a talk, Jon.”

He looked up at the windows again, sighed and sat down. Normally he’d be all about visiting with—for all intents and purposes—Tessa’s mother, but right now all he wanted to do was see her. Talk to her…touch her. Anything. He was starving for her.

“She’s not here.”

His gaze swung to Mary’s. He pushed his shades up on his head, his fingers digging into the rough cut texture of the wooden table. “What?”

“I see you looking up there for her, hoping she’ll come down.”

“But I saw her car.”

Mary smiled sadly. “She took her old truck from the garage. She needed a sense of past, of something that was familiar and comforting.”

The disappointment was overwhelming. What the hell was it going to take to find this woman? “When will she be back?”

“Could be tomorrow, could be August.”

Jon slumped back in his seat, digging into the corner of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. God, no. She couldn’t be gone. Not again. Cool hands covered his, pulling it back down until she could fold her own around his. “Can you do something for me?”

He stared into the warm, dark eyes of Mary Bouchet. He itched to drag his shades back down over his eyes. It seemed like she was looking dead into the center of his brain with those mom eyes. Hell, he probably didn’t need to tell her anything—she could read everything with that look. He gritted his teeth and swallowed back the need to close off. To bury all the pain that was so close to the surface. Another failure. “What?” he asked hoarsely.

“Tell me your side of the story.”

He shook his head. “The only one that matters is hers.”

Her fingers flexed around his, until he wrapped his own around hers in reaction. “The day anyone is that selfless is the day you get your stupid sign. Tell me your side.”

He felt his lips twitch into a half smile. Putting people off with well placed words was a talent he’d picked up early on in his career. It figured that this woman would be immune to that kind of thing. “I know where Nic gets her no nonsense personality.”

“If a daughter could be a best friend, Nichole would be mine,” she said simply. “Now, tell Mary all about it. From the beginning.”

“About us? From the beginning?” He felt his face flush.

Mary laughed. The giggle was as light and airy as a girl’s. “No, not the courting stuff. I’m sure you’re as lusty as they come in that right.”

Jon cleared his throat, aware that his skin was about ten shades into the red. “If it was just lust, then it would have been over a long time ago. I certainly wouldn’t be here hashing out my love life to a stranger.”

“Now, now...no need to get all grouchy. I’m talking about the baby. If you can talk about it. Tessa’s been less than forthcoming and we’re trying really hard to understand what happened.”

He sighed, swearing under his breath. “I’m sorry, Mrs. B—“

“Mary.”

He smiled sadly. “Mary,” he allowed. “I’ve been trying to figure out what happened myself. You know about all the medical stuff from Nic, I imagine.”

She nodded. “Ectopic pregnancy with a lot of complications.”

Jon nodded. “Right. I’ve tried to talk to her about the baby, about what it meant for us, if we wanted to talk about family, but she shuts me down every time. I wanted to have a memorial for the baby, but…” he trailed off. The near violent reaction to the baby tag he’d done for himself was a good indicator that she wasn’t interested in talking about that.

“But she wasn’t ready for that. In fact, she probably won’t even talk about the baby, right?”

“Won’t even say the word,” he said quietly.

“Oh, Tessa,” she said wearily. “She’s grieving finally, I can tell you that. She’s looking for a place to put the grief and anger. I don’t think I’m betraying a confidence saying that she wanted to get away from the reality of life without you.” She stood up and took his hand, walking them down toward the brook. She tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and they walked along the mossy edge of the rocks.

His gut clenched. “I left to let her sort things out. I couldn’t figure out any other way to help her.” It seemed that each minute around her was only causing her more pain. Maybe he should have held on tighter, shouted at her louder, told her that the distance was killing him. Anything but the silence and the nothing of her absence.

“She wanted it to be here,” she said absently then sighed as if realizing she wasn’t making any sense. “She came here looking for answers, for a place to grieve. This has been her home since her folks died just after college. For longer than that, I think. You did know about that, right?”

Jon nodded. “She didn’t give me the specifics—never really wanted to talk about family actually, but I knew they were gone.”

“Not surprising.” She tugged him toward the stone bench under a tree. “Her parents weren’t what we’ll call demonstrative. Tessa was starved for love, heck she didn’t even know how hungry she was for it until we overwhelmed the poor girl. But she took to it.” She pointed to the ducks at the water’s edge. “Just like those little guys take to water. She had a few boyfriends over the years of course, but she just never seemed to find a true interest in anyone until you.”

“I can’t believe that.”

She smiled up at him. “It’s true. She was all for building her career and buying her little house and bookstore. Nothing meant as much as getting Chapters off the ground. Then she came here for Christmas and told me about this man.” She nudged him. “You and your family issues, but she was so hopeful…if a little careful in that hope. I’ve never seen her like that.”

He remembered how off balance she’d been when she came home from Christmas. How she’d nearly crawled inside herself rather than talk to him about how scared she was. He’d been so sure he’d said enough, showed her enough. “I screwed up...a lot.”

“How so?”

He smiled down at her, knowing the woman was giving him enough rope to hang himself twice. “I’ve only been in love with one woman my whole life.” He shrugged. “Well before Tessa that is. I met my wife in high school. It might have taken a few years to get it right, but she was the only one I’d ever loved. But my life, the lifestyle, the crazy hours…whatever it was in the end that did us in…Dorothea wanted out.”

“Did you want out?”

He sat back on the stone seat, stretched his legs out and winced at the mud caked boots. Damn, they were his favorite pair. “I was comfortable. Dot and I had a good life and while the fire was gone, we’d always been such good friends that it just seemed like a natural progression.”

“Do you always sit back and let others make your decisions for you?”

He sat up. “No!”

Mary grinned. “Something told me that would be your answer. So why’d you let your wife do the breaking up?”

“It was good enough at the time.”

“Not a very good way to live.”

Jon sighed. “When you live the crazy life I’ve lived, normal feels weird. I just thought it was the whole growing old thing.” And if he’d found more reasons to stay away from home, it had been on a subconscious level. He didn’t like change. When it came to certain things, he was as constant as the sunrise.

Mary’s look was skeptical, but she kept whatever thoughts running through that brain of hers, to herself. “And then you met Tessa.”

“And then I met Tessa.” He leaned back again. “How do you fall in love in a week? That’s what I asked myself a few times…but I did. It was immediate and unplanned.” Unplanned wasn’t the word for it. She was a complication he’d never dreamed could happen to him again. He didn’t know the first thing about melding his new life and his old one together.

Christ—no wonder Tessa’d left him. He was a complete ass. He should have been screaming it from the rooftops how much he loved her. Certainly screaming it to his family…to others besides Richie. Instead he held her so close, kept her for himself because it had been so long since he’d had anything just for him.

“You got awful quiet.”

“You should hear the conversation in my head.”

She laughed. “Was it a good one?”

“I don’t like being called stupid, even when I’m the one saying it.”

“Ahh…that kind of conversation. You know, one thing you both have to know is that you wouldn’t be this upset if you didn’t love each other so much. As painful as this has been, you have to know that much.”

He scratched his fingers over the face full of scruff he was sporting. “I write songs about love conquering all, but let me tell you something, Mary. I screwed up every line when it comes to Tessa. The chorus, the bridge, the verses…it’s a complete mess.”

“Nice analogy, but you got one thing right. You found her and you got her to love you—no mean feat, let me tell you. Now you just have to get the words right.”

“What I really have to get right is the sharing part. Sharing her with my family, with the crazy parts of my life. I don’t know how I’m going to get that part right.”

She gripped his shoulder. “The fact that you see what you need to do is half the battle.” She stood up. “All right, let me feed you and maybe you can convince me to tell you where our timeshare is. You guys have a lot of talking to do.”

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