4/30/2009

Chapter 158






What in blue hell was he thinking? She’d just tripped over herself to tell him she wanted to try. She’d run in the rain and poured her heart out to him that she was going to be all in and he brings up vows? Had he finally cracked?

They weren’t fixed. They were far from fixed. Okay, so it was pretty amazing that he still wanted her that much, but they’d never spoken about forevers. In fact, they’d made sure not to—painfully avoiding subjects that would include rings and tulle for God’s sake.

Instead of slowing, he sprinted up the stairs to the widow’s walk, the rain still slashing down. The widow’s walk where he’d kissed her senseless in the same kind of weather just a day ago…God, just a day?

He turned around on the spiral staircase, reaching his hand out to her. “C’mere.”

“I’m wet.”

He grinned, a fat raindrop dripped from the tip of his nose. “Very. In fact,” he gripped her waist, his thumb smoothing back and forth over the textured material until it felt like a burn on her skin. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to build up some sort of resistance to him. “I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to think about anything but you in that particular shirt.”

She frowned, looking down at the heavy thermal with its waffle texture stuck to her skin. “What? It just makes me look even flatter and skinnier.”

He tsked, his grip so sure on her hip. “Don’t worry, we’ll put some meat back on you.”

“Jon, can’t we just go inside? We can take a shower—“

“Together?”

She blinked. His hair was matted to his head, slick with salt spray and his wicked hairline sticking up in every direction. The crinkles around his eyes were deep with something more than happiness, something more than humor. “Uh—“

He came down two stairs, tugging her closer, until their chests bumped. “I miss touching you, but I’ll wait.”

“You don’t fight fair.”

“Nope.”

He leaned down and she stiffened. They so hadn’t fixed anything. He still had a family that she didn’t know, she was anything but sure about herself and their future. Instead of stopping, he kissed her. Sweetly, without heat, without anything but his lips and unimaginable patience, he kissed her until she was loose and sighing. “Jon.”

“I missed us.”

God, she missed them too. This was the easy part. The man knew just where to hit her. “I want to just be us, but do we even know what that is anymore?”

“How are we ever going to find us again if we’re constantly poking and prodding at just what made us want to be together to start with? Do you want to hear the details about how miserable I was without you? How I sat in a vat of guilt until I made everyone in my life miserable?”

Her lower lip trembled. No, she didn’t want to know, but she did need to know. She nodded. “I think I do.”

He walked her back a step and then another until she was flush with the wide rails of the balcony. The teasing glint of happiness was gone and the sparkle fizzled until the dark blue of his eyes matched the turbulent sky. “The night that you walked away from me, the night when my parents came and blew apart any semblance of a façade between us—that was my lowest point. I wanted to blame my mom for being a bitch like she always is, I wanted to blame my dad for bringing her, but the only blame I could finally settle on was my own.” He locked his knees so that she couldn’t move away. “And yours.”

She swallowed back the need to move away from him, to hide from his words. They were both to blame.

“I lost it—completely. I fucked up interviews, I didn’t sleep, I drank and smoked way too much. I hid myself away from life and from my feelings for you. I holed up at Richie’s place in California until he couldn’t stand to look at me any longer. We released the album and every day I had to talk about how hard it was to write, how cathartic it was, how hopeful I was. I lied. I lied again and again to every newspaper reporter, VJ, radio interviewer.”

She flinched each time he said, lie. She forced herself to watch him and take in the pain.

“Then I had to sing Memory over and over again. I had to sing the song that would forever be associated with you and losing you.”

She couldn’t escape that particular song, herself. No matter how many times she tried to turn it off when she heard the opening chords it stayed with her. The haunting voice was there in her silent room at night when she couldn’t sleep, it was there in her head when she saw something that reminded her of him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“This is what you want to know, right? That my guts were on dispay every day and not a single soul knew it. They thought the pain was for Richie, for his loss, for his daily fight to stay sober. They didn’t know it was for me too. And I let it be for Richie. He took the brunt of the interview spots unless it couldn’t be avoided. I wallowed in my asshole status. Is this what you wanted to know? That you broke me…that I allowed it?”

She shook her head. She hadn’t meant for it be about that. Each word felt like a bullet, like a knife—like a renewal of the pain she’d felt those days on the beach alone. “How could I know?”

“I may not have shared you with my family, but I thought I shared all of me with you. I thought when I told you that I loved you that it meant something. I thought that when I touched you there couldn’t be a single doubt.”

She tipped her head back. “When you touch me, there’s never a doubt—the doubt starts when you keep me separate from your life. The doubt is there when you choose the easy way out with the children and your ex-wife. There’s the doubt.” She dashed at the tears that were leaking free again. Stupid tears.

“It doesn’t count that all of my friends knew about you, that my band knew, that the majority of my life knew?” His voice was dark and clipped. “I know I was wrong, but not to that level. Not enough to leave me when we were already so hurt. Not when we were supposed to be working together.”

She slapped a hand on his chest. “I’ve never been part of a together!” She shook her head. “Can’t you see that I was afraid? God! Everything you make me feel is so huge. There’s no halfway.”

He cupped her jaw, forcing her to meet his eyes. “There’s not supposed to be!” He stepped closer until they were thigh to thigh, bringing his other hand up to frame her face. “It’s not supposed to be easy to leave. And when you walked away like it was…”

She gripped both wrists. “It wasn’t.” Her voice was so hoarse it barely registered on the whipping wind around them. “Knowing I wasn’t enough, that I killed our baby just because I never—“

He shook her. “You did not kill that baby!” His chest heaved as he squeezed her upper arms. “That baby just wasn’t meant to be. Neither one of us is to blame for that. If I have to tell you every day, I will.”

He still spoke of forevers. She didn’t have anything to give him. “Even when I walked away, even when I hurt you—“

“Even when you ripped my heart out, I couldn’t let it go. I had to try again—if I didn’t, I’d have always wondered. I’d never have let this rest, Tessa. You have to know that about me.”

She did know that. “How could I think I was enough?”

His eyebrows snapped together. “What?”

She pushed at him. God, no—too much. She didn’t mean to put that on him. It was her problem that she’d never been able to make anyone stick around. That no one had ever wanted to make a connection with her. It had been sweet and amazing for the time that she’d had it.

“Tessa.”

She shook her head, shoving him back a step. “I—“

“I live in a world where there’s people crawling all over me at all times. Someone always wants a piece of me, someone always wants a bit of my time, but I always felt alone. Until you. Red hair, witchy green eyes and someone that fits me, knows me, loves me. I’ve got all the unconditional love a father can have, but no one that’s ever fit me like you do. Body,” he hauled her close, until her heart thundered in her ears. “And mind.”

She needed him so much. It frightened her how fast he’d become the other half of her. She’d never had anyone, outside of Nichole’s family, mean quite so much.

“I need you to need me.”

Her eyes shot to his. “What?” Surely he hadn’t said it. She just wanted him to say it.

His jaw was chiseled granite and his eyes as fierce as she’d ever seen them. “Let me know, right here and now. I can do it—I’ll hate it, but I can walk away if you’re not all in. I need everything, Tessa. No halfway this time. All or nothing.” His chin lifted. Proud and strong, even with the wind and the rain battering at them, he was obviously the stronger element here.

She lifted her hand to his cheek, cool with the rain and the dip in the temperature. She ran her thumb along his lower lip. Rain and tears mingled, even as her hand went rock steady. “I never thought I’d be enough. All I have is me. No family, no hope for a family—just me.”

“You do have family, Tessa. You’re not alone, but even if you were, that would be fine by me. All I want is you. I can be your family.”

Just like that night when they’d trimmed his Christmas tree. He’d said it then and she hadn’t listened—hadn’t dared to believe that just the two of them could be enough. She slid her fingers into his hair, up and around his neck, then shoulders, until she could hold him close. Until she could touch her mouth to his.

Until his taste and his words meant the same.

4/27/2009

Chapter 157





The blood—it was all he could see. Each pounding sneaker-print in the sand, each pump of his arms should have pushed him past the memory, but it followed him like it was tethered. He’d been able to push down that memory for so long, but talking about it again brought it into high def reality.

Working hard to keep things on an even keel between them was the only thing that mattered. How was he supposed to function if that was in his head? How was he supposed to smile at a fan or an interviewer if all he could think about was her nearly lifeless body?

The unflinching reality of the loss of the baby was enough, but the fact that she’d nearly died in the process was almost too much to think about. He could live without seeing her every day, could live without touching her, he could even live with her decision to leave him—but not that. Never that.

The bittersweet edge of Memory was something he lived with each time he did a radio spot, a rehearsal, a promo—it was always in the back of his mind. The song that had meant so much to him that night—the reason he’d lost all concept of time. The night he’d almost lost her.

Sand kicked up, bouncing off the back of his thighs as he pushed harder. The baby hadn’t been nearly enough of an entity to hold onto the anger and the loss. It was the fact that she’d nearly died on him and that losing that baby seemed to have shredded some of the foundations he thought they’d been building.

Was it all pretty sandcastles, destined to be washed away with the first storm? Or was there something still there, between them, to hold onto? Just the thought of her not in his life was enough to weigh in on his answer.

Tessa wasn’t what he’d been looking for when he’d driven down Main Street in Red Bank. Who needed something that all-encompassing this late in life? He should be living out the dreams he had for his kids, the projects that surrounded his music and the philanthropic outlets he’d started, instead he fell stupid in love with her. Beyond reason, beyond intelligence, beyond hope—this woman was central to him now.

Falling in love at forty-five should be a helluva lot easier. Life lessons and experiences should count for something. Instead he made more of a mess with her than he did all through his twenties with Dorothea. Both of them made countless mistakes, but it was the running he couldn’t handle.

If he was willing to put in the effort, so should she. Knowing about her family dynamic shed a bit of light on things, but not enough to let her keep shutting him out. Part of it was his fault—he knew that the bubble he’d created with them was a fragile thing.

Could he let another woman be central to his life when it was so obvious she didn’t want to need him? The moment something awful happened, she shut down—shut him out. Even now, she wasn’t letting him in. The night he’d arrived had been a clash of desperation and mixed needs. Their bodies knew what each other needed, but their hearts were on two different wavelengths.

His thighs burned as he finally turned back for the house. The rain was coming down in sheets now, thunder rolled off the white caps of Long Beach Island. The familiar old and the new colliding again. This is where he’d originally brought his children, early on in his marriage. Before the Hamptons had become another home where he could schmooze when necessary and stay quiet when he wanted to forget about his status.

He’d forgotten the simple loveliness of New Jersey’s shore and the way it held onto him no matter how many times he tried to leave it. His breathing evened as he paced himself, the ugliness of the first few miles snapped back into a more regulated, routine run. The sky grew murky with an indeterminate time of day.

He couldn’t even say when he’d left and how far he’d run. Blind rage had fueled him for a long time. The houses looked the same in their staggered wealth from millions to hundreds of thousands. Yellow, blues, whites and greys all blended together as he pushed forward. Scanning the houses for the widow’s walk, he didn’t notice the other runner coming toward him until a familiar slash of red hair came into focus.

He slowed into a jog and then into a walk as Tessa’s lean legs and wide sneakered foot pounded into the sand. She still wore his thermal, though it was decidedly tighter and more interesting in its current rain soaked state. Tiny black running shorts hugged her hips and the tops of her thighs. She was all feminine grace and fragile strength. Want warred with good sense. Nothing was straightened out between them, yet the need for her was always there—always pushing in on him.

Instead of stopping, she ran full tilt into him. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders, her rain slick face buried in his neck. Catching her tight against him, he sucked back the quick surge of love and lust that was just barely banked.

“The only place I want to run to is you.”

His fingers threaded into her hair. The wet silk twisting and curling around his wrist as her ponytail came loose. She stepped back and looked up at him, her eyelashes starred with the dewy rain. Fresh faced and impossibly beautiful, he pressed his forehead to hers. “Why the change of heart?”

She stood up on her tiptoes, their lips meeting briefly. “I finally heard you.” Her eyes wet with tears or rain, he couldn’t quite tell. “I’ve been so wrapped up in my own fears that I didn’t hear you.” Her hand, fingers splayed wide, pressed against his chest. “My time in the hospital should have been a wake up call, instead all I could think about was how different we were. Your family versus my family, the kids, your life—all of it just didn’t seem to have room for me.”

His hand dropped to the small of her back. “Tess,” he sighed, pressing their foreheads together again. “How did we go so wrong?” He’d made just as many mistakes as she had. Selfish and stupid seemed to be the definition of their relationship. Not just him—her too. The idea that they’d loved so much and yet could tear each other apart was terrifying.

“Maybe we would have fixed things easier if the,“ she pressed her lips together and kept her gaze locked with his, “baby hadn’t tested us so completely. Maybe we would have found even ground eventually.”

“Love isn’t always enough, but I think we have what it takes.” He cupped her jaw. “I’m not an easy man, Tessa. Between my selfishness and my job, my kids and my family, I’m a bad bet.”

“Testing my instincts to run?”

He cupped her face as the rain whipped around them. Maybe he was testing her. Was it so wrong? “Giving you an out before you tear me into two again.” He frowned. He hadn’t meant to say that at all.

Her eyes did spill over with tears this time. “We’ve made so many mistakes. Maybe too many.”

His heart stopped. He wasn’t sure if it was the roar of the ocean or white noise in his own head. He saw her lips moving, but the wind kicked up and the ocean decided that was a perfect time to try and wipe out their slice of the beach. “What?”

“I don’t care.”

Was breathing optional? It felt like it just then. “Tessa.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I don’t want an out. I never want an out again.”

“Ever?”

“Even when you make me too crazy to speak, too afraid to stand still, or too angry to make sense of us.”

The strength of her voice gave him hope. Enough hope to smile down at her, to drag her into him until there was no howling wind, no rain and certainly no doubt. They were both all in for the first time in as long as he could remember. He locked their fingers together. “Sounds like a good start to some vows if you ask me.”

Her eyes jerked to his. “What?”

He just grinned at the bone white coloring on her face. Let her stew on that for a little while. “C’mon, the rain is ridiculous.” He started toward their private beach, but stumbled back when she didn’t move. Trying desperately not to laugh, he tugged her forward. “Let’s get back to the house.”

“Vows?”

“C’mon, I’ll race you.” He let go of her hand and lengthened his stride. Jogging backwards, he laughed. “You’re going to lose.”

She blinked, then caught up to him, her green eyes still dazed. “What?”

He waggled two fingers toward the packed sand. “Running…racing. You—me.”

She nodded and followed him, her pace definitely slower.

“Tessa!”

“I’m coming,” she scowled at him, and her pace finally matched his.

He swore he heard her growl the word vows again, but he was too busy laughing. They weren’t quite at the vows stage, but he figured he should plant a seed. If she stayed by his side, he wasn’t settling for anything less than forever now.

4/24/2009

Chapter 156





She woke to the smell of…bacon? Tessa blinked away the foggy veil of sleep, slamming her eyes shut at the rain that dripped between the slats of the shutters. “Crap,” she muttered. She’d seen the first fingers of dawn before she’d finally drifted off.

Too bad the damn storm moved in just behind it. It suited her mood. Of course four hours of sleep had nothing to do with that. Ha. Stupid man had her all twisted up. Want and guilt did not make good sleep companions.

She flipped back the sheets and caught his citrus scent. With a growl, she tugged and tore at the bedding until it was a pool of white and green on the floor. Slamming through the closets and linen cabinet outside her door, she growled. Were there no friggin’ sheets in this place?

Balling up the ones from her queen sized bed, she caught Jon’s eye from the hallway. “Problem?”

His eyebrow zinged up into his overgrown bangs. He held a spatula in his hand, a towel tucked into his running shorts and a battered t-shirt read Asbury Jukes. He looked fucking delicious. Goddamn it.

“Well?”

“Uh,” his mouth flattened into a line, but she was pretty sure she saw a twitch of humor at the corner. Jerk. “Nope.” He disappeared back around the corner into the kitchen.

“Good!” she called out and headed downstairs to the laundry room in the tiny kitchen downstairs. Damn if he didn’t look as good as whatever he was cooking. She couldn’t even remember being hungry in months. ‘Shit!” she slammed the top of the washer back and pushed through the half empty bottles until she found detergent. She cranked it onto a super load extra heavy on the suds—anything so they stopped smelling like him. Even now it surrounded her.

“You gonna stay down there the whole time, or come up here and eat?”

She scowled at the stairs. She wanted to yell up for him to take his bacon and eggs and shove it, but damn if her stomach wasn’t eating itself in anticipation. Grumbling, she peeked around until she could see up the stairs and sure enough he was standing there. “I’m coming.”

“What?”

“I’m coming!” she called out, yanking a long sleeved thermal shirt over her head before she realized it was his. She sighed. It was the only warm thing in the laundry room. At least it just smelled like soap.

“Well, get up here before it’s cold.”

She stomped up the stairs. Happy as you please, his damn voice was all sunshine and good cheer. Reigning in the urge to blow raspberries at him, she sat down. A fluffy omelet and crisp bacon filled her plate. “Thanks.”

“Sure.”

They sat in silence, only the click of fork to plate. “It’s great.”

“I can do breakfast,” he said with that same chipper voice.

She tried to tamp down the urge to snap at him. There was no reason for her to be so growly, but she couldn’t seem to shake it. She wanted him there—in fact, she was amazed that he even wanted to keep trying to make them work.

“What did you want to do today?”

She looked up at him, the blue of his eyes searing right through her. She found a little comfort in the faint purple hue under his eyes. Maybe his night was just as restless. She shrugged. “I usually just walk the beach, go down to the ice cream shop and sit on the beach.”

“Well, the tan works for you.” He reached over the table, but she flinched back. He lifted his hand. “Sorry.” He tucked his hand under the table. “I like the extra freckles across your nose and cheeks.”

She frowned, brushing her thumb over the bridge of her nose. “Curse of the redhead.”

“I gotta say, I love the red. It’s the first thing I noticed about you when I was driving by your store…” he drifted off. “Wow, can you believe that it wasn’t that long ago? It was November. I was just coming home from touring and you were outside tucking these wreaths around your—“ He cut off. His face went from open and amused to bone white.

She leaned forward. “What?”

He stood up and went to the patio door. “Nothing.”

She frowned, standing behind him. She reached out to touch his shoulder, but curled her fingers back into her palm. Dropping it back to her side, she sighed. Communicate. Right. God, they just sucked at this. “What?” she asked again, more gently.

“The first time I saw you, you were hanging those big Christmas wreaths outside. You know, next to your sign?” He didn’t turn to see if she agreed. He just stared out at the misty rain soaked clouds that drizzled their misery. The waves tumbled and crashed against the rocks as the tide ate up the beach. “Then…” he reached above his head, gripping the top of the doorjamb, leaning forward. “You were on a ladder, your hair blowing everywhere. All this red hair, that I just couldn’t look away from.” His voice roughened. “I don’t think I ever told you why I came in your store.”

“I thought it was to bring the kids in.” She crossed her arms, tucking her fingers into the sleeves of his shirt.

“Nope,” he said, pressing his nose into his bicep, but not meeting her eyes. “I was driving home, tired as hell, but then I saw all this crazy red hair whipping around no matter how many times you tried to jam it behind your ear. I even got honked at to keep moving,” he said wryly.

She couldn’t stop the smile, some of her crabbiness lifting.

“But I also have this memory of you and another wreath.” He looked out on the water once more. “This one after Christmas. Another ladder…and you,” his voice cracked, “twisted on the floor.”

There was no hesitation this time. She pushed forward, curling her arms around his belly from the back, pressing her cheek into his back. She slipped her hands under his shirt to find skin and hair, the muscles flexing under her touch. “I’m sorry.” The night it happened. The night she’d killed their baby.

His head bowed. His fingers went white on the jamb. She could feel every inch of him lock. “There’s part of me that still lives through that. It creeps up on me. I saw you. So much blood, Tessa.”

His words were stilted and raw. “I’m sorry.”

It was like he hadn’t heard her. He just kept talking in a low tone. “That night. I should have been there. I should have paid attention. Instead, I was in the studio. I should have made sure you were all right. You said you didn’t feel right.”

“Jon.”

“For God’s sake you almost passed out in my arms that night, while we were in the studio. I should have seen that something wasn’t right.”

Her mouth dried instantly. “No.” She ducked under his arm until she was in front of him. “Jon, no. It wasn’t your fault.”

“What? You’ve cornered the market on guilt?” His good humor gone, as if it had never been. The memories lived in his eyes—stark, hot and terrified. Was that what he looked like the night he’d found her?

She shook her head. “Then it’s just as much my fault for letting Nic go home. For closing up alone. For working myself too hard. For not wanting that baby.” Her fingers dug into his skin, until he looked at her again. For the first time her belly wasn’t full of knots.

How much guilt could two people hold inside? How much was too much? She stood on her tiptoes until she could get her arms around his neck. He resisted. For the first time in a long time, she found resistance. He was always the one to make the first move, the first gesture—the first one to take the brunt of her pain.

The pain was more his this time. She’d been so wrapped up in the loss and the guilt that she just didn’t think about what he’d had to endure all those nights when she’d been sick and so close to death. That he’d almost lost two people that night. She held on. The spicy citrus scent of his soap was familiar and so very right at that moment. “I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with most of this on your own.” She pressed herself close to him. “You must have been so scared.”

His breathing came in tight little pants as he continued to stare outside. She curled her fingers into his hair, up along the crown of his head, pulling him down to her, until his forehead rested on her shoulder, and finally he turned his face into her neck. She felt the wetness there. Her big, strong man and all that he’d had to deal with—it was a miracle he even was here right now. She’d done everything in her power to chase him away.

To run away from him.

Anything but to stand up and deal with the loss together. “I’m the selfish one now,” she said quietly. Her own tears free flowing. “I shouldn’t have closed off. Not when you needed me.”

He crushed her close, until she felt her ribs constrict, but she took the little bit of pain. It wasn’t like she could really breathe right then anyway. How stupid and selfish could she be? His hold eased as he sniffed, pressing her cheek to his chest. “I know you needed time. I had Richie to lean on.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No,” he brushed his chin over the top of her hair. “But at least I had him. He kept me together. If I didn’t have him…” he shook his head. “I can’t even think about that.”

“We should have been leaning on each other.”

“You checked out.”

She flinched. She knew she deserved the words. Those grey days after the surgery, the reaction to the shock and the blood loss. She didn’t bounce back as a normal patient should have. She buried herself in that grey nothingness. Easing back, she stared up into his bloodshot eyes. “I wish I could deny it.”

“I think that’s what makes me the craziest. That you chose to deal with it alone—even subconsciously you nearly slipped away from me. Was everything we were about, so very awful in the end?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“It doesn’t feel like it. It feels like you keep checking out on me. I’m trying here, Tess.” His arms dropped to his sides.

She gripped his t-shirt, slapping her palm against his chest when his eyes went flat. “No.” When he didn’t budge, she twisted her fingers into the cotton. “I won’t.”

“I want to believe you.” He untangled her fingers and pressed her hand against his scruffy cheek. “I want it more than anything.” Then he stepped back and slipped out the door.

She followed him onto the rain slick deck. “Jon!”

“I just need to think.”

She raked her hand through her hair as he padded down the stairs and onto the beach. His walk increased until it was a light jog, then a deep, hard run on the tightly packed sand. She watched until he rounded the point.

Watched until he was gone.

4/20/2009

Chapter 155





Jon smoothed back her bangs, stretching his legs out on the couch. The warm weight of her was the first bit of reassurance he’d had in months. He was still ready for her to leave again. How long would it be before he could trust that she’d stay? Did he have any right to ask her to?

She’d trusted him with the real story about why she’d run away from him. He couldn’t even imagine that kind of guilt, but the fact that she’d kept all of that inside of her instead of sharing it with him put a microscope over his own flaws.

They talked about everything but their personal demons. Oh, he’d shared his fears about Richie, about the music, about his ex-wife—but they’d forgotten to let each other in on the important things that build the foundation of a relationship. He wasn’t used to sharing anything, not even his emotions. He didn’t have to share anything with Dorothea anymore—she knew it all.

But Tessa didn’t. Tessa needed to know all those little nuances about him. She deserved to know all the dark spaces inside him as well as the light. The fact that her absence in his life had torn such a hole inside of him was proof of her worth. Making her see that would be the test. As he drifted off with her, he had to wonder if his unyielding stubborn streak was a match for hers.




He woke with a jerk, her weight gone. Even before he could peel both eyes open, he crashed off the couch, catching himself at the last moment. Rounding the couch he rushed into the kitchen screeching to a halt when he found her standing in front of the stove. His gut slowly unclenched.

She was there.

Not gone.

When she turned, licking the tips of her fingers, his gut returned to clenching. Her hair was scraped back in a stubby ponytail, her bangs brushing into her eyes making her look like a teenager. The licking didn’t.

She stopped, an oven mitt in the shape of a lobster encased her hand, as their eyes met. The last smacking sound of her now clean fingertip was the only sound in the room. She turned back around, her shoulders stiff now. “Dinner should be ready in a little bit.”

His eyebrow rose. “You cooked?”

She looked over her shoulder, the copper-blonde swish of her bangs couldn’t quite hide the flash of humor in her eyes. The smile was quick, but definitely there. “Don’t get all excited, it’s just ziti and sauce with tons of cheese to cover up the fact that it’s from a jar.”

“Works for me.”

“I didn’t really want to go out, so you’re at the mercy of my less than stellar culinary skills.”

He moved forward as she opened the oven door, carefully setting the pan in the center of the rack before popping the door closed with her foot. When she bumped into him, she quickly side stepped him with a mumbled apology. He tried to grab for her, but she slipped to the other side of the galley kitchen. “Running again?”

Tessa stopped, her arms crossing low on her belly. “No.”

He walked toward her slowly, watching her crawl deeper into herself. It was as if she wanted to disappear. It was definitely going to be a one step forward, six steps back kind of night. Instead of pressuring her, he brushed her bangs away, kissing her temple before he pulled down a bottle of wine.

In deference to the Italian of their meal, he poured them each a glass of merlot. The tang of currant filled the bowl of the glass as he took his first sip. “It’s good.”

“Monique wouldn’t let Mary and Tom have crap wine in the house.”

He dropped into the chair at the café style table. “Tell me about the Bouchets.”

Tessa’s glass stopped just before her mouth. “I think you know plenty,” she said and took a sip.

“I know that Mary loves you like a daughter. I know that Tom wants to rip my face off for hurting his little girl—that’s about it.”

Her peaches and cream skin flushed as she took a deeper draw. “You’re exaggerating.”

He sat back, resting the glass on his belly as he unfolded his legs, crossing them at the ankles. “You didn’t see Tom. I was walking when I left because of Mary and no other reason.” At her skeptical look he laughed. “I’m serious. That man loves you to pieces.”

Her eyes misted a little before she looked down at her glass. Clearing her throat didn’t make her voice any less hoarse. “Well, I love him too—them too,” she corrected.

He kicked out the chair across from him. “How long have you known them?”

She picked at the stem of the glass for a minute before she sat down. “I was older. After college, when I got the merchandise manager position at Barnes and Noble in Manhattan. I actually took the position that Nic had interviewed for. She hated me at first.”

She seemed to relax a little. He pressed for more, his palms outstretched on the table, but still not touching her. “I have a hard time picturing that.”

“Well, when I screwed up the biggest shipment order just before Christmas she covered for me instead of screwing me over—we were fast friends after that. Could have been the case of Belgian truffles I sent her that broke the ice though.”

Her half smirk was filled with memories that forged a friendship. Much as it was with he and Richie and the other guys in the band. The fun stuff was easy, it was the hard times that cemented bonds. “Chocolate knows no bounds.”

“You have no idea.” She stood, walked to the fridge and reached for a little cabinet above it. “Shoot.”

“I’ll get it.” He reached around her, the curve of her butt brushed against his cargos, his wrist against hers and he dragged in pears and ocean before he opened the door.

Her voice was husky as she moved out of the way. “The gold box.”

He flicked it forward and shook it on the way down. “Leonidas huh?”

“Well he was a very special king,” she grinned, snatching the box.

“Special enough to get Chocolate named after him instead of the Spartan thing, huh?”

She laughed. “Now, you only get one. Don’t want to ruin your dinner.” She opened the box. “Take a sip of that wine first.”

Pleased that she seemed to be relaxing a little, he lifted his glass. “Never have to tell me to take a drink of wine, babe.”

“Just take a sip, lush.” She plucked out a piece of chocolate, handing it to him.

He shook his head, opening his mouth. She rubbed the tip of her ring finger with her thumb for a second and placed it on his tongue. Curling his tongue around the hard shell, he watched her eyes dilate. Biting into the chocolate, he moaned at the burst of smoky chocolate center working with the currant of the wine until his mouth tingled. “I think I might have to cross myself after that one.”

“Me too,” she mumbled.

His lips quirked up into a smile. Taking a chance, he leaned down, moving in slow as her eyes went wider with awareness and the tip of her pretty little tongue darted out to wet her lips. He wanted to give her enough time to pull back if she wasn’t ready, but her chin lifted. The quick puff of her breath against his mouth, the flutter of her lashes as her eyes closed, the heady scent of her—all of it made the wait sweeter. He knew her taste would be sweet and smoky like her chocolate.

The buzz of the oven timer had her jerking back.

Could molars grind to dust? He was pretty sure it might be possible when she stepped around him and donned her lobster again. Picking up his glass again—knowing the moment was gone, he refilled and took a swallow.

Her bright smile when she came back to the table had him refilling again.

Six steps back.

Hell.



~



“Goodnight, Jon.” Tessa pressed her cheek against the door jamb, a sliver of light from the hallway highlighted her empty bed. He could be there with her. Inside the room, his warm body next to hers—his skin next to hers.

He reached behind his neck, dragging his shirt up and over his head. She’d seen him do it countless times. The notches at his hips were deep and tight as his cargos settled low on his hips, the cotton stretched out from the all day wear. The line of hair arrowed deep then roughened at the snap, making her mouth water. She knew what lurked behind the zipper. She also knew what didn’t. No hint of white or black rose above that snap—just skin.

She’d had him just the night before. She could have him again. It just felt…wrong. Too soon. Too much Jon.

“Goodnight, Tessa.” He smiled ruefully over his shoulder and closed the door to the guest room.

She followed suit and flicked on a few lights. He’d humored her the entire evening. Hell, she even had him playing Uno for God’s sake. Anything to stop him from asking personal questions, or sitting close—hell, even just touching her.

She’d poured—scratch that—heaved out a lifetime’s worth of emotional crap all over him that morning. She was surprised he didn’t run screaming down the beach until he could find his car. No, he’d held her until she’d returned to a semi-human state. He’d let her sleep—probably drool, in all honesty—on him.

The man was bucking for sainthood for God’s sake. She was an absolute wimp to make him go to bed alone. He wouldn’t do anything. He seemed to be able to read her better than she even knew herself right now. It would be nice to be held. She looked back at the door, then turned back to her bed.

No.

Not yet.

She didn’t deserve all the sweet Jon she was getting. She deserved the recriminations and the hard words. She deserved the anger. She deserved anything but the understanding. It was the understanding Jon that had her ready to dive under the covers and pretend the world didn’t exist.

She dragged on a pair of boxer shorts and a tanktop, flipping open the shutter style windows to get a hint of a breeze. The night had turned heavy—she’d been at the beach long enough to know a storm coming off the ocean by morning.

Crawling into bed, she closed her eyes at the mussed sheets and dented pillows. His scent was everywhere…musky and just that little bit of citrus freshness that clung to his skin. Sex. It was there like a teasing breeze that came and went like trade winds off the ocean. Sultry and warm as a breath.

Jon.

All over her heart and all over her bed.

As much a part of her as breathing.

She lifted the pillow to her nose and fought the urge to go to him. Instead, she rolled into the sheets that smelled of him. Instead, she curled the downy duvet around her shoulders, tucking it around her neck where he usually tucked his chin. Instead, she kicked her feet out to the cool sheets and found only air, not his hair roughened legs.

She turned her nose into the pillow and breathed deep.

It so wasn’t the same.

Following HOME