5/31/2009

Chapter 164




Jon parked his car. Every single muscle hurt. They’d done a few festivals in Canada and another couple in middle America. God, why did he sign up for those things? Sweat he could handle, even the heat wasn’t totally unbearable. Of course add in the damn stage lights and he must have sweated out five gallons of water at each show. But he could deal with all of that.

It was the fucking bugs, he hated.

He reached around to the back of his shoulder where one of the little fuckers had bled him dry. “Mosquitoes from hell,” he muttered and tugged his bags out of the trunk. The front lights of his house burned bright. He glanced at his watch, it was ten o’clock in the real world. His body clock? Hell, he couldn’t even be sure he’d even eaten dinner.

Leaning his forehead against the front door, he dug for his keys. He was too tired to eat, too tired to even think about standing up. The thought of a tour was about as appealing as five thousand mosquitoes and him covered in honey. Not to mention, he hadn’t been able to get a hold of Tessa in three days.

They’d played phone tag with the hour difference in Wisconsin and then he’d been dragged to a private party with Richie that didn’t include things like reception. Fucking no man’s land without cell towers. He finally got his key into the lock and dropped his bags inside the front door. Alarm—right. “Fuck,” he mumbled and stared at the keypad. “What the hell was the fucking code?”

“443499.”

“Right,” he said and punched it in. Then frowned and turned around, and swallowed his damn tongue.

Tessa stood in the living room doorway with his oldest Giants jersey hovering around the tops of her thighs. If he was a gambling man—and he was—he was pretty sure she wasn’t wearing anything else. She had her elbow propped on the doorjamb, her red hair tumbling around her shoulders all messy… just how he liked it.

“Hi.”

Without a word, he scooped her up, squeezing the deliciously naked cheeks under the shirt. Oh yeah, he’d never be able to wear it again without thinking of all that soft skin. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on with a laugh. He mumbled a hello against her mouth. Well, he was pretty certain it was a hello, at least it was in his head, and tumbled her onto the leather couch.

Laughter turned to gasps and gasps turned to groans as he rolled her under him. Tired was a different department when it came to Tessa. He could compartmentalize and push it aside at least for now. Maybe someday he would be able to think and not want her so very much, maybe he would come home grouchy and stay grouchy—but here and now, with her back in his arms…

When she made that little sound. When she welcomed him inside of her so completely. When she could make him forget about touring schedules, phone calls and radio spots…there was nothing more valuable to him.

And when they came together, everything seemed to be all right again. Inside her welcoming arms, he finally relaxed. And as she clasped around him and pushed him to the edge of orgasm, he could barely focus on her voice.

“Shh,” she sighed against him, shifting them on the couch until he was on his back and she was curled into him. The tired was there again, bleeding in on him until even the sound of her voice was a million miles away. With their legs tangled, her cheek on his chest, he let the tired take over.

He was home.

She lightly raked her nails through the hair on his chest, down to his belly and back up in a smooth, gentle touch until even the feel of her naked body on his wouldn’t stop the sleep from taking over.



~




Sunshine burned his eyelids. Damn, he’d forgotten to pull the blackout shades down. He shifted, smiling at the silky grumble as Tessa turned her face from the sun and nosed into his side. Rolling off of him onto her belly, she lifted a pillow and dropped it on top of her head. Freckles and sunkissed cream skin teased him.

They’d stumbled to bed sometime in the middle of the night. Both of them too tired to do more than shed what was left of their clothes and fall in. He couldn’t stop the grin when she mumbled and curled her hand under the pillow, next to her cheek. His phone beeped as a text came through. Flipping it over e winced at the time and fired back a quick response to his assistant to verify the interview for that afternoon. About twelve hours down. Not surprising of course, but he did have a few things to do today.

Leaving her to sleep, he took a shower and found a full pot of coffee in the kitchen. He’d been thinking about Tessa and the future for so long now, the actual idea of putting the work in had him in a strange state of panic.

He wanted to introduce her to the kids with the whole – Hey guys, this is my girlfriend thing—but damn if he knew how to actually do it without sounding like a dumbass. He didn’t want to screw up the truce he had with Dorothea, but he didn’t want to leave things as they were either.

It was a precarious balance to make sure he didn’t hurt Dorothea, but Tessa had to know that she was his top priority beyond his kids. The time without her made that reality far more important than it had been even a few months ago. He wouldn’t take her for granted again—at least he’d never do it intentionally. He knew himself, knew that his lifestyle could be hard on a relationship in the best of circumstances.

Pouring another cup of coffee for himself and one for her, he tried to tear apart the various scenarios in his head. Dot’s inherent need to shield the kids and Tessa’s nerves at how she’d fit when all was said and done. His older children seemed to be the most at ease with the idea of Tessa—surprising him. Part of him had been prepared for resistance or even angst, but it seemed as if they were more pissed off about the fact that he’d waited so long, more than the reality of another woman in his life.

Dropping a bagel in the toaster and slathering it in cream cheese, he took the lot of it upstairs to see if she was finally moving. Tumbled and sleepy in the middle of his bed, her eyes were open. She’d stolen all the pillows in his absence, building a fort of white cotton.

“Morning.”

She simply grunted from her cave.

He held out the coffee and her arm came out, fingers gripping the handle, dragging it under the flurry of duvet and sheets until she could get her mouth around the rim. He sat next to her, knowing her morning habits, he held out the half of her bagel. She flipped back a corner and freed her arm enough so that they ate in companionable silence. The slurp of coffee and the crunch of a toasted cinnamon raisin was their conversation.

She sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder. “I love that you know me so well,” she said quietly.

He rubbed his chin on her hair. “Believe me, I prefer that you’re not the chattering type in the morning.”

She nosed her way into his neck and smiled. “I had to bribe a pregnant lady to get today off, you know.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes, it cost you a bit.”

“Me?” he laughed and pushed her back into the mountain of down. Because of their position, he ended up staring at her pretty pink tipped breast. Giving into the temptation, he took a nibble, then worked his way up to her mouth. “What do I have to do with a bribe?”

She twisted her fingers into his hair. “I said you could get her and Adam into Per Se after the baby was born.”

His eyebrow rose. “Jesus, Tess, I haven’t even eaten there.” It was one of the top restaurants in New York City. Not to mention one of the most exclusive when it came to invites inside.

“I told her my boyfriend could do anything.”

He groaned. Amused that she would think to use him for a bribe and that it was something so public. The fact that she didn’t even think twice about them and a future date was enough to make him wiggle in closer. “We’ll take them there as a celebration for…Did they name the baby yet?” He tucked a lock of her hair around her ear. “Are you okay with the baby?”

She leaned up until she could kiss his chin. “Yes, I’m fine. I’m excited for the baby actually.” She drew her fingertip through the stubble on his chin and into the cleft. “I’m already hovering like a lunatic though. She’s ready to murder me.”

He bumped his nose with hers. “She’s fine, she’s healthy. I even talked to Adam the other night and he said all the doctor’s visits have been perfect.”

“I know,” she whispered. Clearing her throat, she kissed him again. “Thanks for checking up on her though. I just love her to pieces. I don’t want anything to happen to that little—“

“Shh,” he kissed her softly, thoroughly until the lingering doubts were stuffed down again and she relaxed in his arms. “Nothing’s going to happen to her.”

She sniffed and nodded. “My brain knows that.”

Again, that little flash of memory of her and the floor and blood wrapped around him so tight, he had to force out a breath.

“I’m going to be a rockin’ Aunt Tessa. I already spent a ridiculous amount of money at Baby Gap.” She glanced away from her study of his mouth and chin and met his eyes. Her laughter left and she cupped his face. “Stop.”

His jaw tightened and her perfect face swam into focus. She was fine, she was there and his. She wasn’t going anywhere. “It only happens once in awhile,” he confessed, pressing his forehead into hers.

“When you get that look on your face it kills me.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, dragging him down until there was no air between them.

He hugged her back—fiercely. It probably would never leave him…not completely. A part of him would always have that memory of her twisted and broken on the floor. The night he’d almost lost her. Watching her walk away from him had nearly killed him, but nothing like seeing her on that floor.

Her fingers gripped his hair, his lips buried in her neck and shoulder. The silk of her hair, the warmth of her body, the reality of her there with him pushed back the fear. His charmed life finally found a crack and loss leaked in, forcing him to face vulnerabilities he’d never had to handle before.

“I’m all right,” he said, rolling onto his back until she was curled into him. He buried his fingers into her wild red hair, pressing a kiss to her forehead he unlocked the muscles that had clenched in the quick flash of panicked memory. “Did you put some tags on all those baby things from me?”

She looked at him for a long moment and traced the cleft in his chin, her finger tip finding his lower lip. He bit the tip. “C’mon, you’re not going to make me make my assistant buy stuff for her.”

The quick laugh was exactly what he was looking for and she relaxed against him. “I called Tico and he’s sending me a bunch of Rock Star Baby stuff. You can take credit there.”

He laughed, situating himself until his back was against the headboard. His hand trailed down her thigh until she hooked it around his hip and out of the sheets. “When did you call him? And how did you get his number? I swear his cell phone number is as protected as the President’s.”

“He gave it to me ages ago when you guys were recording. Remember that little party?” When he nodded she smirked. “I texted him and he called me back.”

Tico always was a sucker for a beautiful woman. “Yeah, Teek isn’t much for texting.”

“We had a lovely conversation about babies and all the new stuff he’s doing. Baby Caroline Elizabeth Wexler is going to be wearing some seriously stylin’ clothes. He’s even sending that ridiculously cool baby carriage.” She folded her arms on his chest, propping her chin on top. “You know—the one that’s way overpriced. I’m doing a baby shower at the store. She’s gonna love it.”

He relaxed. The worst of the cold sweat faded and another worry was put to rest in the same instant. He’d wondered how Tessa would be around Nichole and the baby, but she was honestly happy for her friend. The sadness that was so much a part of her, had receded until it was barely a flicker. She talked about the baby and the store, her eyes animated and that quirky mouth of hers couldn’t stop spreading into a smile.

She wrinkled her nose. “You don’t care about baby showers.” She slid up higher on his chest until the tips of her breasts brushed his arm. “What do you have on the agenda today?”

“I’m doing it.”

“Hanging out naked in bed all day?” She tugged at the t-shirt he wore. “Well, one of us is naked.”

He laughed, tracing lines into her lower back. “Yep.”

“Liar.”

“No, seriously.”

“You don’t know how to have a lazy day.” She echoed his lazy touch by tunneling her hand under his shirt, smoothing her palm across his chest.

He rolled her over until she was on her back. “Maybe you don’t know me so well.”

She hooked her knee up on his hip and cupped him naturally. “Uh huh,” she looked over at his cell phone on the night stand. “I bet there’s five things on your calendar.”

“Nope.”

She reached for the phone, but he snatched it up faster. “Damn, Tessa.”

She rolled him, pinning him on the bed. “C’mon, let me see.”

He held it out of reach. Damned if there weren’t six things on his friggin’ schedule today. “It’s a secret.”

“Tell me at least one.”

He shook his head.

“Phone interview with WMMR.”

He frowned down at her. “How the hell did you know that?”

She laughed and swiped his phone out of his hand. “I heard it on the radio yesterday.” She sat up, at ease in own skin. God, if that wasn’t a turn-on. Her hair was all over the place, the long line of her torso tanned and full of freckles. The scar winked next to her little tattoo, silvery and fading with each day.

And there she sat, punching at numbers on his phone. Quite the picture. He heard the light buzz as it was unlocked.

He had the damn thing password protected. How the hell—

As if she’d seen his mouth drop open she kept scrolling through the menu. “Jake’s birthday. C’mon, Jon, be more original.” She found his calendar and flipped around the iPhone. “That’s seven on there, buddy.”

He groaned and plucked it out of her hand. “I’m changing the damn password.”

She slid out of bed and shrugged into a purple robe. “You’ll forget.”

Dropping back down on the bed he locked the phone in disgust. “How did you know that?”

She grinned over her shoulder. “He’s the one you talk about most when you’re in Dad babble mode.”

He frowned. He didn’t babble. “I love my kids equally.”

“Oh, baby.” She sat down, giving him a quick kiss before cinching the tie. He didn’t want her dressed, dammit. “Of course you do. Jake’s just the one that’s most like you and he does the funniest stuff.”

Damn if she didn’t know him far too well. He didn’t like to be predictable, but at the same time it was amazing that even after all this time, she was so in tune with him. “I want you to meet the kids.”

Her smile faded as she slid off the bed, her back to him. “Of course I will.”

He rolled off the bed. “If you noticed, one of the things on the calendar was dinner tonight with Dot.”

“Well you haven’t seen the kids in over a week. I figured you’d go over there.” She said it over her shoulder, still hiding from him.

He twirled her around until she faced him, smoothing his hands down her arms. “I don’t expect you all to miraculously become best friends, but I want everyone to know just how much you mean to me.”

He could see the resistance fade and her shoulders slump a little. She plucked at the bottom of his t-shirt. “Sneaky bastard,” she mumbled.

He tipped her chin up. “Come with me.”

She shook her head. “Oh, I’m not barging in on that.”

“You’re not barging in, you’re a part of my life.”

“Look, Jon.” She linked their fingers. “I want to meet your kids and part of me would love to show Dot just how strong we are together.”

He frowned. What did that mean?

She rolled her eyes. “C’mon Jon, in the back of her mind she’s always thought we wouldn’t last. Hell, we almost didn’t.”

As much as he’d love to ignore that part, he would have to concede. “We talked Tessa. When you were in the hospital,” the bone scraping fear threatened to claw up his back again, but he pushed it back. “She finally got it.” Her fingers slipped away from his and he caught her hand in both of his. “I swear it.”

“You talked about me?” She swallowed hard, gathering the lapels on the robe tighter with her other hand.

“Not like that.” He sighed. Oh, the female mind—would he ever understand it? “She saw how messed up I was. She figured it out on her own, just how much I loved you. It’s hard for her, but she knows.”

She stepped into his arms. “You have no idea how happy that makes me.” She leaned back and looked into his eyes. “Not that it’s hard on her,” she twisted her lips and nibbled on the bottom one. “Okay, maybe a little.”

He quirked an eyebrow as his fingers linked at her lower back.

“She was a grade A bitch to me, Jon.”

He kissed her forehead. While Dot didn’t want him anymore, it had to be hard to see him with someone—anyone, really. Let alone someone he’d gone so over the edge for. “She hasn’t been happy for a long time, Tessa. I couldn’t make her happy, no matter how I tried. And when I stopped trying and we broke up, she thought that would make her happy. It didn’t. Now, I’ve got someone else in my life.” He smoothed her hair back over her shoulder. “Someone who gets me as I am now. We may not have the same history as I do with Dot, but what we have is more than history. You get me, Tessa. I don’t have to be alone anymore.”

Her mouth dropped open and she rose on her toes, hugging him close. “Of course you’re not alone. Even if Dot doesn’t love you like that anymore—between her and the kids you were never alone.”

He buried his nose in her hair. That was one thing that was the hardest to explain to anyone. Between the touring and the interviews, the schedules and all the people that counted on him, he did feel alone at the end of the day. Even knowing Tessa was so far away sometimes, having her in his life had already smoothed away some of the edges. Just a call, or even one of her quirky texts was enough to get him through.

Each day that he’d been gone, she’d been sure to amuse him in some way. A dirty text, a rant about the store, a picture text of a body part sometimes—he never knew what would come through the phone. Richie begged to see them. Sometimes he even complied—if it wasn’t her and that damn white button down shirt. Christ, the inventive things she could do with that shirt. All he knew was that he was in much better spirits after that little connection.

He wasn’t sure if that made him pathetic or just stupid in love.

“I know I’m not, babe. But when every day is the same and you don’t remember what city you’re in. And you have three hundred plus people depending on you at all times, it sure feels that way.”

“Not if I have anything to do with it.” On tiptoes again, she pressed her mouth to his.

The months without her were past the definition of lonely. He’d been a bastard of the first order. As mad as he was about the divorce, it was nothing compared to what his friends and staff had dealt with when she’d left him.

The kiss went rough as he tried to pour in just how much he did love her. To show her that she did mean everything now. That life without her wasn’t something he would deal with again. Fear and doubt didn’t have room in their life now. Perfect didn’t exist, but they were damn close when they were together.

His mouth went to her neck and he tore back her robe until he bared her shoulder to taste and to explore. She pushed at his t-shirt even as her robe fell open. He would make both worlds work together if it killed him. Maybe not tonight, but soon.

5/28/2009

Chapter 163

The familiar bite of sarcasm and underlying worry in her eyes killed the sting. “Why do you think I’m here?” They both stood where they were. Wariness and the need to hug her best friend had her feet cemented into the floor.

“Decided to join the land of the living finally?”

“Yeah, that whole work thing—funny how it drags you back to your senses.” The need to hug her won out and she ducked under the bar-style end of the cashwrap. She hugged Nic so hard she could feel her protruding belly button. “God, you look amazing.”

“I’m a freaking house!” But the tears were there on her dark lashes and glowing mommy to be face. She hugged her hard back then pushed her away, looking into her eyes. Nic’s eyes were dark and assessing.

She felt stupid in her messy ponytail and ratty clothes. The new woman she was, didn’t quite fit in her old space, but she’d get back there.

“You’re tan.”

She laughed. “Your mom’s house at LBI can do that.”

“You’re still sad.” Nic frowned, tucking a strand of hair behind Tessa’s ear.

“Only a little sad because I left all this to you.”

Nic waved it off. “I can run this place in my sleep—well, what little sleep I get these days. What the hell took you so long?”

She gave her a crooked smile. “You know I hate to leave the beach.”

“Mike!” The skinny receiving guy hunched his shoulders at Nic’s voice, then slowly turned around. “Yeah, boss.” His eyes widened as Tessa stood beside Nic and hightailed it over. “Hey, Tessa!”

She’d been gone far too long if Nic had earned the title, boss.

“Watch the front.”

He bobbed his head. “Sure thing.”

She followed Nic’s waddle to the back room where she’d taken over the space. Her belly clutched a little. The pristine shelves were back to ARC’s shoved in every available space, papers and fliers littered the bulletin board and the desk was piled with summer reading program brochures. The school binder with its required reading lists, lay open to Rumson High.

It looked so normal and yet so different.

It had become Nic’s space.

God, she’d been gone for so long.

Nic dropped into the leather chair and swung around, immediately hopping up when she caught her face. “I’m sorry—“

Tessa waved her back down. “No, it’s okay. Sit, get off your feet for a bit.”

Hesitantly, she lowered herself back into the chair. “We’ve missed you. The store missed you.”

“Well, I missed you and that’s what counts.” Nic frowned but she squatted down in front of her. “Honestly, honey, things are good. I did a lot of thinking and a lot of soul searching. Thank God you were here for me to be able to do that.”

In fact, Nic was so capable that she might have to do a little more soul searching. Fresh starts didn’t scare her anymore. She might need to work on that—talk to Jon about that. And she wondered if this wasn’t exactly what she needed to finally settle herself completely.

She told Nic about the beach, about her breakdown. She told her about spending time with Mary and finally about Jon.

“I’ve missed sharing all this stuff with you. I’m no good at doing things alone, girl. I never realized just how much I needed you until you weren’t there.”

Fat tears rolled down Nic’s cheeks. “You aren’t supposed to get a pregnant lady all worked up dammit.”

She hugged her tightly again. “Well, don’t worry—it won’t happen again.”

“And you’re sure about Jon?”

Tessa stood up, ran her hand down the finely crafted desk she’d had built into the room. Amazed that it didn’t seem to fit her anymore, but it suited Nic. Family and stability and the warmth of the wood soaked in tradition. It suited her more than it ever seemed to fit her. At least the new Tessa.

Not that she didn’t want the stability, but she really was looking toward the future now, more than she’d ever allowed herself. Chapters had been the goal for so long, it felt odd to know that she now had new goals percolating.

“Tessa?”

“Hmm?” She swung around. “Oh, yes. Jon.” She lifted herself onto the desk and wiggled her sandy toes. “He fits me. He gets me. He even understands me,” she grinned, “you know that’s a miracle.”

Instead of smiling back at her, Nic frowned. “Don’t gloss over it, woman. You’ve done that before.”

She took her best friend’s hand in both of hers. God, did she know her. “We had the hard talks. We cried about the baby, about us, about what the future means.” She felt the jolt of fear twisted in excitement as it bounced around her belly like a super ball. “He talked about vows for the love of George!”

Nic’s eyes widened to saucers. “What?!”

“Right.” She laughed. The thought of it still terrified her, but it was manageable. It meant the future was in sharper focus, but it was still in the future. God, she should be used to warp speed with that man, but he still managed to throw her off balance all the time. She was pretty sure he got off on throwing her off balance to be honest. “He loves me, Nic. Even the crazy, neurotic parts. Maybe because of my crazy, neurotic parts.”

“Is he what you want?”

The question was right there, in the heart of the matter. He was everything she wanted and never dreamed of hoping for. “He makes me as happy as he does crazy.”

She rubbed her belly absently. “Sounds just like Adam.” Nic looked her over for a moment, reaching for her hand suddenly.

Tessa jumped down and knelt in front of her when Nic put her hand on the side of her belly. She blinked wide as something bumped her hand. “Oh wow!” In all her years, she’d never been close to a woman during their pregnancy. She’d never even stood this close to someone this far along, let alone have it be her best friend.

Nic pulled her hand up to the top of her belly and Tessa gasped as a foot or a fist cleared her skin. “Jesus, Nic.”

“She’s an active little thing.”

Tears blurred her vision for a minute. God, how long had Nic known it was a girl and didn’t tell her? Hell, she hadn’t asked. A baby—a niece for all intents and purposes. She looked up and saw her best friend’s head tilted back, eyes closed. Dark circles were under her eyes, oh there was a valiant effort to cover them, but they were there, none-the-less. “I’m sorry.”

Nichole lowered her head until their eyes met. “For what?”

“I haven’t been here for you to help or even get excited about the baby. I’ve been a total ass.”

“I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed to not have you more involved. I’m not going to lie, Tess, but you’re here now and that’s the important thing to me.”

She sniffed. “I am.”

“Is it hard,” Nic gestured to her belly, “you know—with the big ole bump? I wondered if you stayed away because I was preggo.”

She sat back on her heels, rubbing her hands on her thighs. “Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have that kind of connection to someone. To have a little person grow inside of me.”

“You guys can try again. The doctor didn’t say it was out of the question.”

She smiled up at her eager face. Mommy hormones were in full bloom. “I could, but that’s not where I am in my life. I’m going to be the very best Aunt Tessa to this little girl.” She patted Nic’s belly. “But you know me, Nic. I never wanted kids. I’m just not hardwired for them. Not that I don’t love kids.”

“No, I know you do. You wouldn’t do the storytime for them if you didn’t.” She shrugged. “I just figured one day you’d change your mind.”

“Honey, I just turned thirty-seven.” Hell, she didn’t even remember her own birthday. It was in the middle of her murky melt-down session. “I know I could try to have one. If I asked Jon, we’d be trying the night he came home. I could go the fertility specialist route if I needed to, but I don’t want to.” She wiped the last bit of moisture from her cheeks. “The worst part of dealing with the baby dying wasn’t the baby—it was the knowledge that I didn’t want the baby. That the fact that I’d never wanted children, did I cause that little person to—“

She jerked to a stop when Nichole shook her. “Don’t you ever think that! Oh my God, Tessa Donovan!”

Jeeze, all she needed was the middle name and it was Mary in the living flesh. She leaned forward and hugged her instead. Nic held on so tightly, that she actually got a few good kicks in from the baby as well. “Didn’t say I was smart, Nic.”

“How could you think that?” She sat back in the chair. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

The hurt in her eyes was enough to cut deep. “Honey, I didn’t even know that’s what I was thinking. It was so wrapped up in grief and pushing everyone away that I didn’t know what was going on. I made so many mistakes that it’s a miracle anyone’s even still talking to me.”

“I would have told you, you were stupid months ago if I knew that was in your head!”

Tessa smiled through the last of her tears. “I know you would have, but maybe I wasn’t ready to hear them either.”

Nic tapped her on the forehead. “Moron.”

“Yeah, undoubtedly.” She stood with a groan. Way too long on the floor like that. “I’m going to go take a shower and change into some work clothes and you’re going to go home. It’s time things got back to normal here.” As if she could even recognize normal now.

Nic tried to shake her head.

“Seriously, Nic, I should have been back a long time ago.”

“Then you wouldn’t have Jon.”

The grin that kicked up was completely involuntary. “I have a feeling we would have found our way back around to each other. I can’t seem to see too much of a future without the belligerent pain in the ass.”

Nic slid her arm through hers. “Do tell.”

And she did.

5/24/2009

Chapter 162

Tessa slammed the trunk of her car a few hours later. The sun was lower in the sky—the world a little clearer than the last time she’d been just in that spot. She’d taken one last long walk up and down the beach she’d cried at, healed with and ultimately broken down on. The sand knew all her fears, caught most of her tears and soaked them up, spitting them back out into the big salty sea where they belonged.

She loved it, she would miss it, but she didn’t need it anymore.

What she needed was her store, to go home and help Nic with her very first child due in the next few months. She needed purpose and something to do with her time.

She needed to learn how to live in the real world again and how to mesh with Jon’s family. And—she winced as she sat in her seat—she needed to figure out a little retribution for Jon’s love tap. Reaching into her bag for her sunglasses, she bumped into a hard, plastic case.

“What’d I stick in there now?”

Her poor purse was the catchall for just about everything. The edges and shape said jewel case, but she used her iPod exclusively these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d actually bought a CD. Detangling it from the depths of her purse, she flipped it over. Jon’s bold print slashed across the front. “Play me,” she murmured.

Pressing the CD button on her stereo, she slid the blank CD into the slot and jammed her car into reverse. He probably made a car tunes CD for her drive home. He could be a sweet guy when he wanted to. She figured it was more likely that he was going to try to teach her the joys of Southside Johnny yet again. The man was ruthless in showing her his hero’s catalogue of work. Backing out of the drive, she turned up the stereo against the popping gravel under her tires.

A thrumming bass filled the car followed by a heavy guitar and a mishmash of male voices arguing about the talk box versus guitar manipulation. The incredibly deep voice of one man and Richie’s familiar laugh filled the car.

Surprise and pleasure slid through her in equal parts. He’d given her some of the studio outtakes? Maybe he had been listening?

Catchy lyrics and the odd marriage of twang and slick, bombastic Jovi blasted from the speakers as she hit the highway. She found herself tapping on the steering wheel as the coast filled her rear view.

One song slid into another as she was transported into Jon’s studio—into the center of the creative process. Lyrics that spoke of lost highways and summertime infused the speedometer with a little too much speed.

Jon’s husky whisper rasped over the microphone as Richie’s guitars enhanced the mood. It was the roughs of their work with acoustics and the telling imperfections of demos. She could hear the odd frustration in Jon’s voice where the words weren’t quite right yet. But in the midst of it all, the ones he did get right were thick with personal meaning instead of shrouded in metaphors and storytelling. Jon’s voice ached and the raw, acoustic nature to the song left her speechless.

You used to live to say you love me…now you’ve got one foot out the door.

Then you turn around and ask me—do we got it anymore?

Tears burned in her throat as emotions tumbled as fast as Richie’s chord progressions. Sadness and hope raced against the wild strumming of both Jon and Richie’s acoustic guitars. The chorus bled out until it was just his husky voice that told her he’d come back for her. She knew it probably wasn’t directed at her, but right at that moment, she felt the words in her gut.

Just as any other fan, it spoke to her heart and her soul. As if there was anything she could hold back from him—but if there was—it was gone now. The fact that he gave her this one thing, the personal heart of his music before it was picked apart and manipulated for public consumption—diamonds couldn’t mean more to her.

Before she could catch her breath Richie’s acoustic strumming flowed and Jon’s whisper was back. Hope and the hard talk between a couple shuddered through her little car. She could see every moment of the story unfolding—every piece of the pain Jon lived with when she shut him out. The hope he’d infused into the lyrics as the woman—as she opened up.

Did he really feel that way about her? The voice that crooned as beautifully as Jon’s, could only belong to one woman. Sweeping guitars and the polished feel of the song spoke of studio tweaking, but Leann took the song and infused it with her haunting vocals and the pain that lived in the words.

Let’s put our two hearts back together…and leave the broken pieces on the floor.

Make love with me, baby…’til we ain’t strangers anymore.

She flicked the key off, shutting down the music. Too much. Fumbling with the door she opened it to scorching July heat that bounced off the pavement. Tucking the keys into her jeans she walked off the turbulent emotions his music always caused. Before she knew him so intimately, the music had been enough to make her bleed. Now, with everything she knew about him, both in her own heart and his, it seemed all the sweeter and just…more. More pain, more happiness, more loss. Everything felt so big and so much more important.

Rubbing the heel of her palm against her chest, she walked to the vending machine. Digging for change, she slapped the flat of her hand on the wide, palm-sized button.

Water, crisp and icy, filled her mouth and pushed the worst of the lump down her throat. They had become strangers. It had been as much her fault as the situation. Would she have even thought of leaving him, demanding an audience with his family, or a definition of what they were if it weren’t for what they’d gone through?

Did fate have to deal them that kind of hand to really find the answers? If the hard questions weren’t asked, just how long would they have left it at the status quo?

With her afraid to ask for everything and him afraid to give everything, they’d settled in limbo. Happy without the push and pull of true interdependence, they’d fed off the easy sexual side of their relationship. The sex had blended into love—the love took a left turn into fear.

She gulped down the last of the water and heaved in a breath. It was the fear that had taken over and it was the fear that she would need to learn to live with. He made her feel so much. The music and the man would twist and burn inside sometimes. As much as he shared, as much as he cared—it was nothing even close to what came out of him when the music took over.

Jogging back to the car, she hit the rewind button for the first time and listened to Strangers again. Punching the accelerator, she let the lyrics sink in. She let Jon and Richie tell her tale, the everyman tale and made space in her heart for the ache and the joy.

Even before she’d let him back in, even before the healing, he’d tried to re-write their history. She’d live with the self-fulfilling prophesy. With each mile, she left those broken pieces on the road, on the beach and in her rearview mirror.

Welcome to the party, c’mon in and disappear…

You’re feelin’ like a stranger, but all your friends are here.

“Jesus,” she nibbled on the corner of her thumbnail as the song ripped out her insides. Richie was the heart of the song and Jon facilitated the emotions. The guitar ruled with its wailing harmonies and visceral crunch of notes.

It’s okay to feel a little broken…Everybody’s broken.

God, she couldn’t have heard that right. Backing up the song, she felt it, heard it again. Richie’s guitar clutched and ground out the echo of Jon’s words. This had to be the song that had shredded Jon that one night. He’d made love to her so sweetly, so overwhelmed with pain and his unwavering need for her. He’d been so stirred up about Richie’s pain and his need to help his friend…it had flowed into the music and into their lovemaking until the echo resonated even now—so many months afterward.

And here in a sensory memory that filled her gut with hope and love, she felt the tear splash on her arm. It took on more meaning now as it matched her as well. He’d told her that he didn’t know what he’d do without her—that he needed her strength. Even now, she knew that she’d let him down—they’d let each other down. The song allowed for faults, allowed for being human in every way. And with the hope and the vitality of the song, there was also a bone deep sadness.

The deafening silence of the car as Broken ended only emphasized the heartbreak and the passion in their music. The quiet was heavy with a thousand thoughts. She started the CD over again and let the songs sink into her.

The hour flew by until signs for Red Bank warned her of her impending arrival. She’d thought about calling Nic, but decided the surprise factor was better. She was just about to rewind the CD when another song filled the car.

Simple guitars were the backdrop and Jon’s smoky voice the killer. She could see him at the mic, lips pressed against the filmy shield, those blue eyes closed and focused as the song built. As the force of the song ripped her guts out.

“Oh, Jon.”

This above all else showed the pain and the hope that was so much a part of her man. The fact that he kept it a little separate from the rest showed her that it was an important song—one she needed to pay attention to. It was like an open diary of a man’s viewpoints on life, love and what a woman could mean. Richie’s guitars blew through Jon’s husky voice in that sneaky way that heightened the emotions, molded you and kicked you in the ass on the way out.

Alarm clock rings, it’s 6:45. I like waking up with you on my mind. Knowing that you’re saving me…one more time.

Just who had saved who? She flashed the song back as she pulled into Chapter’s parking lot. Swirling hope and hard times, larger than life sounds blended until there was no doubt that it was about finding your way through the shit and finding sunshine. For her, for him, for any of the guys in the band. The last few years had been nothing but happiness mired in struggle.

In this song—happiness won. She let the song flow out, stepping from her car. The familiar blacktop steamed beneath her sandals, the brick face of her store faded to a dull red with the front facing sun all day. Summer flags that fluttered on each side of her sign like bookends, the wide expanse of glass showed off her wares and the theme window.

God, she missed her window. Someone had done well enough with a grouping of beach reads and beach chair, but it needed sand and a messy beach bag with an iPod, shades, beach towel, and lotions—A sizzling hot, romance lying in the sand with a bookmark peeking from the middle.

Work was calling her, as it called Jon. She was underdressed in shorts and the filched Springsteen tee, but she would see her store and Nic. She fought a grin at the hugely pregnant woman couldn’t be missed as she lorded over the cash registers. Nic was efficient and graceful even as she worked around her distended belly.

She hovered around the side of the store, where drop-offs and returns were stacked. She watched as Nic checked out the handful of customers in line, waiting for her to look up and see her. When the last customer left, Nic arched her back, blowing a lock of hair out of her eyes. She turned to go back into the cash-box and spotted her. “It’s about goddamn time! Do you realize how pregnant I am?”

5/16/2009

Chapter 161




Jon cinched his buckle, tugging his white dress shirt over the heavy silver. He wouldn’t have time to change once he got back to Red Bank. A face to face interview with Entertainment Tonight, a phoner and then flight out to do the festivals—he had a headache just thinking about it all.

What the hell was he doing? He’d barely taken a breath before rolling back into the studio and now the mini-tour they’d planned had already blossomed into dates through March of the following year.

He breathed in deep as a pair of thumbs kneaded into his shoulders, just at the base of his neck. “I can feel your tension in the next room.”

His chin dropped into his chest as magic fingers walked across his shoulders and back. “I just thought about my schedule.”

“Knowing you, it’s enough for five people.”

He would have grinned at her words, but her hands felt too good. “That’s it, you’re hired. I’m firing my masseuse and chiropractor and hiring you.”

Her hands looped under his arms, hooking over his shoulders as her forehead pressed into his back. “Tempting offer.”

Detangling her, he pulled her around to his front, an involuntary groan was his first response to her outfit. The little blue bikini top that teased him that first day cupped her perfect little breasts and the tiniest pair of cotton shorts showcased that terrific ass. In between was all skin. “How much is your store worth? Can I buy you out?”

She laughed, trailing her fingers over the tails of his shirt.

He was only half kidding. Part of him wanted her to be available to travel with him, but the other half of him knew that part of what made Tessa so irresistible was her devotion to her work. He understood that and kept his mouth shut. When her hands slipped around into his back pockets and squeezed his eyebrows rose. “I keep my wallet in my front pocket.”

“Aww…I thought that hard ridge in your pocket was for me.” She looked up at him, her green eyes bright with humor. She’d taken a playful turn in the shower, teasing him within an inch of cruelty. It looked like she was going to continue the massacre.

“You want me limping out of here, don’t you?”

“Just want you to remember what you’re leaving behind.” She drew her hands around the line of his belt, under the shirt, her nails scratching lightly along the muscles of his belly.

There was challenge in the tilt of her jaw and smug smile on her face. He walked to his bag, strapping on his watch and swearing. He didn’t have time to—he hissed as he caught her out of the corner of his eye. She’d untied her bikini top to adjust the cups. She was in profile, the swell of her breast and tip of her nipple peeked from the baby blue triangle leaving his cock bent and strangled in his damn jeans.

The mere fact that he could even contemplate getting hard was a miracle. She’d caused enough damage in the shower to put him into an early grave. The things that woman could do with her mouth should be illegal. But that…just the hint of what he couldn’t touch for days was enough to make him forget his schedule.

He tugged at his belt, shaking his head when she laughed, tying her bathing suit tighter.

Her eyelashes lowered, her gaze obviously on his hands. “You have to go, right?”

“Get over here.”

She picked up a clip from the coffee table, twisting her hair up high, leaving her neck exposed. The little minx. “You’ll be late.”

“I don’t care.”

She fluffed her bangs and picked up the little Coppertone bottle, squirting a healthy dollop into her hand. “I don’t want to hold you back. Your work is very important.” Slicking on the suntan lotion from forearm to shoulder, she simply stared as he stalked her way.

“Screw work.”

She waggled a finger at him. “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble with your—“ she laughed, her hands clutching his shoulders as he scooped her up. Athletic as ever, she wound her legs around his waist. “What would your boss say?”

“I keep tellin’ ya, I know the boss—he’s okay with schedule changes.”

“Really, I heard he’s a bastard about--” she laughed at his arched brow. Her knees gripped his hips and her ankles crossed at his back. “Well if you’re sure.” Damn if he wasn’t hard for her—again.

“Tessa?”

“Hmm?”

“Shut up.”

She scissored her legs, the muscles in her thighs squeezed him mercilessly. “Make me.”

His fingers buried themselves into her hair and her clip skittered across the tile. Mouths clashed and her hair fell around his face like rain as she held on. He backed her into the sofa, his hand bracing on the arm when she wouldn’t let go. Instead, she suction cupped herself to him from lips to chest until he had no choice but to flip around and sit down.

Her knees stayed clamped on his hips, but her fingers found the buttons of his shirt and opened it wide. “God, your chest makes me nuts,” she scraped her nails through the hair, her thumbnails flicking his nipples. “So hard and golden.” Her mouth followed the same path and he went from seducer to seduced.

“Shit!” He reached for her, but she pinned him down, her teeth scraping his shoulder as she tugged at his shirt. He arched up unwilling to break the kiss. Wrestling one arm free, he leaned forward, tugging her hair back until her neck was there for the taking.

She laughed, rubbing up against him until his jeans felt like a straight jacket. With each roll of her hips, he struggled until his other hand was free. With both hands on a cheek a piece, he rolled down her excuse for shorts. “Zipper,” he muttered as control waned.

Good fuck, he was going to come in his jeans. What the hell? She fumbled with the front of his jeans and he remembered too late that they were button fly. The sudden rip of buttons was followed quickly by her soft hands. Coconut and sex filled his nostrils as he swore. She stroked once, fisting onto the base of his cock so he yelled out her name.

“Dammit!”

Her mouth was quirked up in an evil grin. “Testy, testy.”

Giving up on the shorts, he tugged at the knot of her bikini. The cups fell down and her grin disappeared at the same time as his mouth found her nipple. An arm came up around his shoulder, leaving his cock hard against his belly. She tilted her hips forward and lifted one knee until she could get out of her shorts.

Tugging at his own jeans, he growled as the tip of his cock bumped along her center. She was hot for him, slick and ready. He nosed the hard tip of her nipple, curling the tip of his tongue around the underside just as he slid inside. Sucking hard, he surged up and felt the constricting walls of her surround him.

“Jon!”

He thrusted up inside her, his arm wrapped around her back to hold her up straight. Her eyes went wild and hot, the green flashed as her eyes dilated. God, she was beautiful. In tune with him in every way, she drove him harder and higher even as she tried to keep the upper hand. He couldn’t resist the urge to see just how far he could take it, take them and see her reaction.

Everything stilled inside of him, like the eye of the storm—his Tessa storm as she gasped, tipping her head back, eyes shut in her pleasure. He stared up at her, waiting for the sign that she was just on the edge. The muffled scream, the clasping of her inner walls—God, she was so wet for him. He nearly lost himself when she slammed down on his thighs, vicing around him. He brought the flat of his hand down on her ass in a popping slap.

She reared up, her eyes flashing open. Surprise and pleasure warred as she clenched so hard onto him that he came in a rush right behind her. The strangled cry was followed by a jerk as she milked him. He gasped as she finally let him go and melted against him.

It took a few minutes, but her breathing settled into a normal rhythm against him and finally her fingers detached from the couch. “My God,” she mumbled against his neck.

“God had nothing to do with that one.”

She fumbled over his shoulder and up his neck until her fingertips pinched at his lips. “They feel like the same lips, but the cocky bastard that just said that cannot be the same man I just had sex with.”

He batted her hand away and kissed her shoulder. “Not me, who’s cocky, it was your fault completely.”

“Mine?” she sat up, hissed and looked over her shoulder. “Tell me I’m imagining things and you did not slap my ass.”

“You deserved it.” He grabbed another handful of her rather beautiful ass, grinning at the heat there.

“Ow!” she elbowed him away. She hopped off of him, on none too steady legs, he thought smugly, and turned around to see her butt in the wide mirror on the living room wall. “You freakin’ left a mark!”

“Hey, she who teases, earns her punishment.” He couldn’t stop the grin at his handprint on the roundest part of her cheek. She’d have to remember him for the next hour or two every time she sat down.

“I’ll remember that, Jon.”

He stood, adjusting himself back into his jeans. “That was my intention.”

She stepped into her shorts. “Branding me like cattle?”

He buttoned his shirt, peeking between his bangs. “You’re just pissed because you liked it.” When her mouth dropped open, he laughed, stopping at the middle button of his shirt. He lifted the strings to her bikini top and reached around her neck to re-tie it. “You can’t deny it, Tessa, I felt how hard you came.” Hell, his knees still felt like water at how completely she’d let go.

She blinked at him, the flush as hot as his handprint. Her non-answer spoke volumes. His little Tessa was a constant source of surprise.

He smoothed his thumb down the side of her breast, fixing the triangle until it covered her completely. The fact that her nipple still stood out so straight and hard, was another point in his favor. “Nothing between us is wrong, Tessa—not sex, not anger, not resentment, not even fear. It makes me crazy when you react to me so honestly. Do you know how many women out there will fake a reaction just to manipulate a man?”

“A woman that has to use manipulation to get what she wants isn’t worth forever, Jon.”

“Well, thank God I found you then.”

“Damn skippy.”

He laughed, hugging her until he lifted her off her feet. “I have to go.”

Her arms wrapped around his shoulders more tightly. “I know.”

He didn’t want to let her go. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to pack her up in the car and bring her with him. It was on the tip of his tongue to invite her to go with him, when she let go, stepping back from him.

“I need to get back to the store. I’ve been licking my wounds for far too long. I’ll be heading out today too.” She cupped his face in her hands, touching her mouth to his without heat and without tears. “I’m going to miss you like crazy.”

In her eyes, he saw the woman that had first set him to wanting, but instead of uncertainty, he found peace. A sureness was there now, without the heavy doubt. “Girl, I love you to distraction.”

“Good thing you have a GPS in that hot car of yours.”

He laughed, tangling her fingers in his as he slung his laptop case over his shoulders and hefted his duffle bag. They didn’t really have any room for words, each of them so deeply in thought on the trip to the door. Instead of stopping there at the door, she followed him down the stairs to his car. Watching as he packed the car, she crossed her arms over her belly. This time, there was no protective gesture there, just a piece of sunshine and beach and Tessa with her swirling red hair.

This is the Tessa he would remember for the next week while the machine snapped and tore at him. He walked back to her, tasted the warmth of her own personal brand of sunshine and caught a handful of that swirling red.

“Drive carefully and call me tonight.”

“Oh, I don’t know…didn’t we talk enough?” She waggled her brows.

He pushed her hair back. It would never be enough. That one thing was so clear to him. “At least send me a dirty text or even better a dirty picture text.”

She fiddled with his buttons. “Hmm…I might be able to find a white dress shirt of yours.”

He groaned. “You’re just evil.”

“Mine just doesn’t seem to have the same effect.”

“Oh it does, believe me, it does.” He brushed her nose with his. “Would it be asking too much for you to be there when I get home?”

Her hands came up to twine around his neck, playing with his hair along the back of his neck. She scratched in just that Tessa way that made him want to drag her back inside. “I think that can be arranged.”

They still had so much to talk about. So much to discuss—his thought pattern flatlined when her mouth met his. The kiss was wild and hot like the beach around them. It sure as hell wasn’t a goodbye kiss. Elemental and infused with her taste, the reckless side of her soaked into him, burned him.

She dropped back on her feet, nipping at his lower lip. “See you at home, Rockstar.”

Damn if that didn’t sound perfect.

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