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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.