Tessa Bongiovi flipped the lock, leaning heavily on the door, fingers over her eyes. She willed the room to be only half the mess when she opened her eyes.
“It won’t look any better unless the chick, you know…Barbara Eden, yeah, that’s it, Genie, right?”
She peeked through her fingers. “Oh, Richie.” When he crossed his arms over his chest and snapped an invisible ponytail and she couldn’t stop the laugh.
Ever After was a little on the destroyed side thanks to an acoustic show with both her husband and his best friend. When she’d proposed the invitation only, intimate show for just friends and family, she figured she could check their annual Christmas party off the list and get to see her husband play all at once. The only star in her Christmas-is-almost-over-thank-God column was listening to Jon and Richie play. David was busy with other parties for his Broadway people, and Tico was the smart one down in Florida.
Jon’s parents hadn’t been interested in this get together. Actually, it was more like Jon’s mother wasn’t interested in the party. John Sr. had sounded plenty excited to hang out with the Bon Jovi staff and extended family. But this wasn’t the venue to put a spotlight on Carol. She and Jon would be the center of attention, not her—Stop it Tessa. Okay, so Jon’s mother was the definition of self-absorbed and spoiled. So what if she needed to lord over a party like the queen bee with scepter and crown included. It didn’t make her party anything less.
It was a lovely get together.
And she only had to get half dressed up for this party.
There were plus signs all over the place, dammit.
Except that Christmas Eve was still on—and she was officially contemplating a trip to Fiji.
She twisted her hair up, jamming a clip into the festive curls she’d spent hours on. Jon, on the phone as usual, was sprawled out on one of her oversized couches that served as an endcap to each aisle. From the half-snarl on his face, she had to figure he was talking to Carol right now.
“You done good, girl.”
Tessa blew her bangs out of her face and smiled up at Richie. “It turned out pretty well.”
Richie snapped his guitar case closed. “I, for one, miss the Christmas shows we used to play. This is the best kind—just a few people.” He stood the oversized case beside the door, pausing with his hand on the doorknob. “You all right?”
Fighting a flush, she pasted a smile on her face. “Of course.” She busied herself by stacking dishes. “I’m just tired. It’s been a wacky few months.” Between the release of the new album, the press and promotion, and getting used to Jon being away from home again, she was a little out of sorts. He wrapped his hands around her fingers, taking the plates from her, before he turned her into him. She sighed, sudden tears blurring her vision. “Oh, Richie.”
“What’s going on in that pretty head of yours?”
She curled her arms around his still surprisingly thin torso, locking her hands at his back. Richie was getting as skinny as her husband with all the working out they both did lately. The reassuring heat of him, the wide expanse of chest and the hint of spiced candy righted her system. He may have started out being Jon’s BFF, but he was rapidly becoming one of hers as well.
Nichole was on kid number two already. And while they tried to get together as much as possible, there was a different dynamic between them. Yes, they were both married, but she was almost a part time wife, where Nic was superwoman. She handled her household, Chapters, Adam, Caroline, and baby Brody without a hitch in her stride.
She had to readjust to life with and without her husband from one month to the next. Three months with him in every corner of her heart, then six weeks without him at all. It was jarring and emotional every time.
Not that she’d trade a moment, but the intensity level was off the charts. One thing you could never say was the word boring.
“Oh you know how it is. Christmas is my favorite and least favorite time of the year.”
“I thought the store was doing well.”
“Oh yeah, both of them are actually. Nichole’s been smooth sailing since she bought me out. Even The Blue Parrot’s doing better than we could have hoped. I think Jon’s midas touch must have came with the vows.”
“Nah,” Richie rubbed his chin on top of her hair. “You’ve got your own golden touch even before Horseshoe Boy got a hold of you.”
She laughed and rested her cheek against his chest. “I’m doing dinner tomorrow, so I’ll need that golden touch.”
“Oh, is that what’s got you all uptight?”
Tessa slipped away from him. It was the only sore subject that came up between her and Jon since they’d been married. She tried to be the bigger woman about things, but damn if she could get Carol Bongiovi to like her. Six meals in the last two years and still she couldn’t get more than a fake smile out of her.
She didn’t want to bother Jon with the details. It wasn’t his fault his mother was a shrew. It was her problem that the almighty Carol couldn’t get past the fact that Dorothea was out of the picture. In fact, Dot had a new man in her life this year—so things were even weirder. Two blended households for the kids to get used to.
Jon was already on edge with the custody thing, but add in another man in the kids’ lives…
wouldn’t be that expensive last minute, right? Fiji
“Just a little stressed, that’s all. It will all work out, just like it does every year.”
“Is that before or after you find a room to cry in after Carol goes home?”
She turned away from him, gathering an armful of dishes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“C’mon babe, I’ve been at the Christmas dinners for the last few years—I’m not blind. And neither is Jon.”
Tessa hunched her shoulders. “Carol and I have gotten better with each other.”
“Riiight. Who was the one that had to take the cleaver out of your hand last year?”
“It was a bread knife, thank you very much.”
He followed her into the small kitchen. Stainless steel gleamed from countertops, sink, and racks. And old-school checkerboard flooring showed wear from countless pacing and preparation. Her staff was amazing. The dishwasher was already chugging, another rack waiting to be loaded. Cyn, her pastry chef of all things chocolate and savory, was wrapping up the leftovers for a shelter drop off. Marshall was efficiently scrubbing pots and pans, and the hired waitstaff was bustling in with the last of the dishes. Within five minutes, everything was stacked and they were ready to leave.
Richie waited in the doorway, nodding for Jon to get off the phone as she took care of payment for the party. Great. He was going to drag Jon into this argument.
It was her problem, no one else’s.
Things were already strained between Jon and his mother, she didn’t want to add to that with a clichéd monster-in-law problem. Just because she could give Mommy Dearest a run for her money didn’t mean she had to go cry to Jon.
Jon jammed his phone in his pocket. He snagged a piece of fudge off of Cyn’s take home tray with a charming grin. He held out a bite for her, the tip of his tongue teasing the tiny dent at the center of his top lip. Who cared if she didn’t want chocolate when that was right in your face.
He waggled his eyebrows and popped the remaining piece in his mouth. “What’s up?” The habitual stroke down her hair eased and pricked at her at the same time. She didn’t want to be soothed. She didn’t want to talk about Christmas Eve, and she didn’t want to get distracted with thoughts of Jon’s tongue.
“Tessa’s contemplating various poisons for tomorrow night.”
“I am not!” she said around the decadent chocolate.
Jon laughed, pressing a quick kiss on her forehead. “Arsenic shows up in a tox-screen. Pick a different one.”
She barely managed to strangle back the laugh as she dumped the stack of dishes on the counter. Cyn sighed and went to work loading another rack. “You gotta stop watching Forensic Files in the hotel rooms.”
“It’s the only thing on at 3am.”
“Well, except the porn channel,” Richie said with a shrug.
“I don’t want to think about you whacking it next door when I’m sleepin’, man.”
“I don’t have a pretty redhead to sext to instead.”
Jon smirked. “You’re just jealous.”
“All right, all right. Enough.” Tessa shooed them out of the kitchen. She didn’t want to think about the fact that Richie knew she dirty texted her husband when she was lonely. Mercy. “Go on home—I have to lock up.”
She tried to pretend she didn’t catch the look between Jon and Richie, but she was thankful to see the room clear out. It was really annoying how well he could command a room—even hers.
Cyn stacked the disposable pans with leftover cakes and pies, candy and her famous garbage bread. “C’mon
, I’ll give you a ride home.” Marshall
Not one to turn down a ride in the city, her jack-of-all-trades employee stacked pots, then grabbed his jacket. “Merry Christmas, Tessa.”
Tessa held up a hand to them and snagged two envelopes out of her purse. “Thanks for everything tonight, guys.”
“Hey, we got to go to a swank party and hang with celebrities,” Cyn said with a wide grin. Her chocolate brown hair was scraped back in a tiny nub at the back of her head, her oddly violet eyes twinkled even in the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen.
“So you don’t want your Christmas bonus?”
Cyn snatched the envelope out of her hand. “Hell, no.”
She laughed. She knew that sooner or later she’d lose Cynthia to her dream. She wanted to open her own shop, she even owned the licensing name for her dream. Damn, she’d hate to lose her. Ever After was enjoying the fruits of her chocolate skills.
But she would help her friend get there. If a little bonus was the only help that Cyn would accept, then so be it. Without looking inside the envelope, the little brunette jammed it in her back pocket. In a whirlwind move that was classic Cyn, she swept her into a big hug and swept her way out with the plastic bins.
She started wiping down the already clean countertops until Jon stopped her. Before she could slip away, he had his hands around her hips and her up on the prep island in the center of the kitchen.
Startled, she looked over her shoulder then over his.
“Richie’s gone too.”
“Oh.” A slow smile started as she hooked her knee around each hip.
“Nuh-uh. I didn’t put you up here so you could distract me.”
She played with the third button of his red shirt. “We’ve been so busy lately,” she pressed her palm against the crinkly hair of his chest. “It’s been ages since I got you naked.”
“While we were getting dressed for the party, is ages?”
She went for his buckle, sliding her hand into his zipper. “That doesn’t count. I only got your pants off.”
“Hey, now!” he braceleted her wrist, groaning when her nails grazed his shaft. “We’re talking here.”
She nipped at the stubbled cleft of his chin. “Talk later, sweat now.” She wanted to lose herself in his touch, in the quick flood of heat that warmed her from the inside and out. She didn’t want to think about the tension and the disapproving glares. Tomorrow would be soon enough for that.
Fastening her mouth to his, she kissed him deeply. The crisp bite of the dry wine he’d been drinking stung her tongue. A groan buzzed her lips followed by his fingers in her hair. Knowing she’d won him over, that he was as lost in her as she wanted to be in him, was enough.
She grasped at the comfort and heat he brought, but it slipped away from her like a wispy dream. She poured herself into the kiss, into his hand that cupped her breast. Frustrated, she dug her nails into his belly. Into the muscles that clenched and bunched under her hand. The soft hair that turned coarse at the base of his cock.
The hiss and jerk of him pushing harder into her hand built the dreamy lust back up. He wanted her. She never had to question that. Even when he was tired and cranky, even when he was stressed and frustrated, even when he was overworked and overwhelmed, he took the time to let her know she was always wanted, always needed.
The kiss went from blaze to simmer. His hands in her hair soothed and smoothed as he took the fierce edge of her lust and throttled back. “Baby, please tell me what’s wrong.”
She shook her head, burying it into his neck as her hands came up and around his shoulders. Your mom hates me. Talk about a mood killer.
His fingers trailed over her neck, into the heaviest fall of her hair until his wrist was buried in her curls. “Look at me.”
She held on tighter, knowing it was childish, but determined not to talk about it. They’d had such a great night with their friends. They had so much to be thankful for. Their favorite part of Christmas would happen on Christmas day when they went out to see the Bouchet’s.
This small thing wasn’t enough to ruin the holidays.
He stepped back, framing her face with his hands. With a sigh, he brushed a tear away. “Tessa.”
“It’s stupid. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s not stupid if it takes you out of a perfectly good kitchen seduction.”
She closed her eyes against the crystal blue empathy filling his eyes. That woman would not kill her Christmas, dammit. Not even for a day. She forced back the emotions and opened her eyes again. “See, all better.”
Instead of saying anything he just continued to stare at her in that simple, patient way. He damn well cornered the market on the stare down. She pushed at his chest. “Let me down.”
She twisted back, but he pinned her tight to the table. “Back off, Jon.”
His fingers gripped the edge of the table. “Nope.”
Frustrated, she tried to wiggle free. “Why can’t you be one of those blissfully oblivious husbands?”
“I make my living by gauging women’s moods.”
Her lips twitched. She didn’t want to laugh, or smile. She didn’t want him to be charming right now. “Gauging the hormones of a crowd is not the same as figuring out your wife’s mood.”
“Sure it is.”
His voice was so matter of fact, the first tickle of laughter teased her gut. “God, I hate how calm and matter of fact you can be when I just want to tear ass into something.”
He moved in closer, his nose brushing hers. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Resting her forehead against his, she sighed. “I feel dumb.”
“The last thing I’d ever call you is dumb, stupid or silly so just spit it out. In fact, I can pretty much bet my football pool that I know what the deal is.”
He grinned. “Suckered at least five hundred out of the crew.”
“That’s not fair, Jon. It’s like insider trading the way you talk to the coaches.”
He shrugged. “Fantasy Football is all about luck.”
“And you have a house sized horseshoe up your perfect butt.”
“Yeah? Like my butt do you?”
She reached around and squeezed. “Meh, it’ll do.”
He poked her in the ribs. “I’ll remember you said that, but don’t distract me. We were discussing Christmas Eve and my lovely mother.”
“We were doing no such thing,” she said and squirmed again.
The growl in his tone had her wincing. She promised they would discuss things that came up instead of letting them fester, but it seemed so petty to have to bother him with this minor little thing. “I’m trying really hard not to let her get to me, but dammit Jon, she just hates me.”
“She doesn’t ha—“ he cut himself off at her sharp look. “Okay, so she doesn’t love you like I do, but she doesn’t hate you.” He rubbed up and down her arms. “Honestly, she’s just being stubborn. You think I hate change? Where do you think I got it from?”
“It was Dorothea’s decision to start the ball rolling, why do you have to be punished for it? And more importantly, why me? I’ve been nothing but nice to that woman!”
“I know and I’ll talk to her—“
“Oh no you won’t! If you give her that edge, then she’ll know she bugs the hell out of me.” She pushed him back and hopped off the island prep counter. “Just take me home and we’ll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow.” She slipped her coat on, lacing her fingers with his. “Tonight is our Christmas. No kids, no in-laws, no friends, just us and that lovely California King sized bed in our bedroom at the mansion.”
“Yeah, I miss that old bed. I could use the quiet of
tonight.” New Jersey
“Me too.” She stood up on her tiptoes to brush her lips over his. “Besides, you’ve been killing me with whole present thing for weeks now. I want it!”
“Damn straight.” Pulling him out the front door, she braced herself for the whipping wind. Her cherry red mustang was tucked into the alleyway. Another present from Jon. Impractical and unnecessary since they lived in the city now, but she loved it.
“We’re taking the pony?”
The sly smile on his face was enough to curl her toes. She couldn’t wait to get on the road.