Cleanup

Tessa took out all of her aggressions on the 205 pots, pans, and dishes in her sink. With each plate that she slotted into the dishwasher she slowly relaxed. She could hear the squeals and laughter that filled the living room. Stella was a big hit and a perfect addition to the family.

As far as she was concerned if the kids could be dragged away from Mario Cart then it was a very good thing.

Hands slid around her hips and Jon’s distinctive soap scent beat back the Palmolive bubble she was currently in. She sighed and leaned back. “How’s it going out there?”

His smooth chin tucked into her neck and his teeth found her ear. “I’m lonely.”

She shivered and laughed. He always knew how to find her ticklish and turn on spot at the same time. “You didn’t get roped into a Mario Cart marathon?”

“Nah, their old man is a side of boring next to a puppy.”

“I love you, Jon.”

His arms tightened. “I know. And I did talk to Mom.”

“Dammit--”

“C’mon babe, I had to. This thing between you two is ridiculous.”

“I wouldn’t call it ridiculous. Petty, mean, childish...now those fit.”

“For both of you.”

She bumped him back. “I’ve been perfectly reasonable-”

“You’ve been perfectly cowardly. Tell her off, show her that backbone that you have no problem showing me. If you don’t want me to fight this battle for you, then do it for fuck’s sake.”

She turned around, her fingers dripping in suds, ready to rail at him when she saw Carol over his shoulder. Eyes, so much like Jon’s, flashed with a similar temper.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Carol said stiffly.

“Jon, why don’t you go out with the kids.” With a nod, she smiled. “Carol and I need to talk.”

Carol took a step back. “I’d rather go back out with my family.”

“It will just take a minute.”

Carol’s chin lifted and her eyes cooled. “Fine.”

Jon looked between the two women, rubbed the back of his neck and left without another word.

“This isn’t working Carol. Why don’t you just get whatever it is off your chest. Open forum, no recriminations, no screaming matches, just spit it out and we’ll see if we can find some sort of common ground.”

“God, you’re a cold one.”

Tessa blinked at her. “What?”

“I don’t understand how my son can be with someone so reserved and cold. I just never will understand this.”

She slowly dried her hands and tried to figure out where she would get that idea. Nothing about her relationship with Jon could be described as cold. But she thought back to the first day she met Carol. Good breeding and an academic family meant capping your emotions. The exact thing about her life with her family that she hated, that’s all Carol had seen from her.

Taking the higher ground, painfully polite conversations, and stepping away from Jon every time she came in was the way she was taught to behave from the womb. But this wild Italian and German family wasn’t like that. And she’d learned to be open and loving with the kids, but rarely around the elder Bongiovi family.

Tessa moved in closer clasping her hands with Carol. She could tell that she wanted to back away, but Tessa held on. “I love that man more than anything else on this Earth.”

“You have a funny way of showing it. He was destroyed when you left him.”

Tessa’s gut rolled. “I know. If I could do it over I would, but I can’t. I didn’t have a family like yours growing up. And I never, ever thought I’d find someone like Jon. And when we lost that baby it killed me.”

“And it didn’t kill Jon?”

“I watched it kill him. I watched him grieve for that baby, a baby that I’d never put into my plans. All that guilt, all those hormones, and in the middle of it all was this brand new relationship that was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t make any sense of it, so I shut down. But Jon and I got through it. We found a way to deal with it and grieve for that little life. He taught me what love can be like.” She tightened her grip. “He taught me how to open myself up to this amazing family that came as a package deal.”

“That doesn’t mean that when something bad happens again, and it will, that you won’t run and hide. And you would change him completely if you left him again. I won’t lose my boy to that again.”

“I’m not a fortune teller. The only thing I can tell you is that I trust him and I’m committed. There’s no more running in my future. Unless Jon drags me out to exercise.” She smiled and finally saw a thawing in Carol’s cool gaze.

“Look,” Tessa sighed, “we might never have that close mother-in-law daughter-in-law thing, but I want you to know that this family is mine now and I’m not going anywhere.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Carol’s fingers slid free and she went back out to the family.

Surprise, surprise. She was left alone to finish cleaning up.

Well, one thing was for sure...Queen of the May Bongiovi was never going to help out with something as mundane as dishes, but at least she’d listened. She hummed and for the first time her chest didn’t feel like a boulder was sitting on it anymore.

That was about all she could ask for for this Christmas. She might not be what Carol wanted for her son, but she wasn’t going anywhere. She tucked the last pot into the strainer and slathered her poor abused hands with lotion before heading back into the living room.

Jon was on the couch with Romeo draped over his chest, Stella snoring on his feet. Jake was at Jon’s head on the corner of the sectional. Steph was tucked into the corner opposite of Jake, a fashion magazine open on her lap and her head propped on her hand dozing.

Jesse was on the floor, stretched out with the game remote hanging loosely from his fingers Mario long forgotten to dreams. John Sr. was kicked back in his son’s recliner snoring lightly. Carol was on the phone in the other room probably talking to Matt’s wife.

That was their next stop.

She rounded the couch and ruffled Stella’s head, tracing her silky over-sized ears. The dog woofed in her sleep, but didn’t stir. Instead of disturbing anyone, she settled in against Jon’s other side her eyes misting when her husband instinctively made room and held her tight. Romeo’s little fist curled into her blouse and she decided a nap sounded like the perfect end to her day.

She had everything she needed right here.

 
 
 
 
 
The End
 
Happy Holidays
 
Tara Leigh

Christmas Eve Dinner

Jon sat at the head of the table, Tessa to his left, his mom to his right, his dad at the foot of the table to act as a goalie when Romeo decided something under the tree was far more exciting than the food on his plate.

“Well, aren’t you going to say grace?”

Tessa laid a napkin across her lap, her entire body stilling at Carol’s sharp stare. Jon slid a hand under the table and found her hand on her knee, pulling it up on the table. Tessa wasn’t overly religious, and he opened his mouth to say something.

Instead, she held her hand out to Jesse next to her. And so it went around the table Jesse to Romeo, Romeo to his father, his father to Steph, Steph to Jake and Jake to his mother, and finally his mother to him. A circle. His family for better and for worse on Christmas. All of them more precious than he could even articulate.

“Bless this table, the food we’re always fortunate enough to have, and for every person that could be here with us. Bless the ones that we’ve lost, for the family we’ve gained, and bless us in the future, so that we may deal with whatever life has in store. Amen.”

Jon leaned into her, his mouth brushing hers and holding for a moment before he settled his own napkin on his lap. He slid his gaze to his right, his mother’s shrewd eyes still on Tessa. He could never quite figure out what his mother had against his wife. Beyond the fact that his divorce and remarriage were changes in his life, Tessa had never done anything to bring out such spite. Of course, his mom had only seen him and Tessa at their worst the first time through.

In fact, his mother’s less than stellar reaction to Tessa had been the catalyst to an already volatile situation. Watching Tessa walk away from him had been one of the worst days of his life. He wanted to believe that his mother just wouldn’t forgive her for that, but she’d already been on the warpath on the Tessa subject to start. It probably hadn’t helped matters. Love and loyalty were bred into the bone when you were a Bongiovi.

Carol’s loyalty was to her family, and to her grandchildren’s mother, even if that didn’t suit either of them anymore. The last time he’d seen Dorothea, it was as if that inner light that had attracted to him all those years ago, was back. It hadn’t been him to keep that light going. No, it was Sam, a landscape architect from Trenton, that had flicked it on again. And Tessa, his bookstore owner, that had found his.

Tessa smiled at Jesse, offering him a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes. One of Tessa’s raised brows was all it took for his son to take a normal helping instead of the entire bowl. His eldest son was going through yet another growth spurt and eating everything in sight. She brushed his bangs out of his eyes in an offhand gesture that had Jesse blushing.

His son had a tiny crush on his step-mom. Tessa seemed oblivious to it, and he wasn’t inclined to let on to either of them. Jesse’s crooked grin usually got him an extra helping at dinner or a second dessert, and most recently an extra hug before bed when they stayed with him. He couldn’t blame him. Jon was usually looking for reasons to hug on her too.

He dug into his own helping of turkey, surprised when it actually tasted great. He loved his wife, but the kitchen was definitely not her strength. The nice thing about SoHo was that going out to eat was easy, and he preferred to concentrate on Tessa for dessert than doing the dishes.

When his mother cut into hers, the twitch of surprise on her face, followed by rapid fire chewing, was enough to make him take an extra helping of cabbage salad, stuffing, and gravy as it came around the table. He’d pay for it in the gym and the turkey coma later, but it was worth it.

“This is wonderful, Tessa.” His dad lifted his wine glass up. “You, uh…changed the recipe from last year.”

Tessa smiled, wiping the edges of her mouth with her napkin. “I know, don’t remind me of last year’s disaster. I do have to confess, I called Mary for help. Last year I listened to Food Network, this year I went to the master. Traditional is best when you’ve got limited talent.”

Jake forked up a hunk of turkey breast and ripped off a bite, leaving the rest skewered to his fork as a prize. He nodded, giving Tessa a thumb’s up. “Tessa’s usually got pizza and Thai restaurants on speed dial for when we come over,” Jake said helpfully. “This is really good though.”

“Thanks, a lot Jake.” Tessa sneered at him playfully and pointed to his plate, but it was too late, the slab of breast meat broke off his fork and fell into his lap.

“Oops!” Jake said and Jon heard the slurping gulp of a puppy finding his first table dropping.

“Do not feed that dog from the table,” Jon said when Jake’s hand fished under the table.

“C’mon, Dad, he’s hungry.”

“No teaching him bad habits.” Jon’s voice was firm and Tessa laughed. He shot her a look and she tried to school her features, but her green eyes were dancing with humor. “C’mon, let me have at least one day where I pretend I’m in charge, huh?”

Tessa patted his hand. “Of course, babe.”

“A woman should know how to cook for her family. All these career minded females give marriage a bad name. And if they’re not going to know how to do it, then they should hire a chef.”

And just like that, the smile slid away from Tessa’s face, and she pushed turkey and stuffing around her plate. Tessa had never been one for hired help around the house. She’d been okay with a cleaning service a few times a week because they were both too busy to take care of the two floor penthouse all the time.

Jon spun his wedding band around, his gaze colliding with his father’s and swallowing what he’d been prepared to say. Dammit, he wasn’t going to sit her and let his mother dump on his wife, but his parents had raised him to respect his elders. The first few years with Dorothea had been very much the same. It had taken nearly five years and a grandchild to win over his mother.

Romeo slid off his chair and came around to Tessa, crawling onto her lap. “What’s up, baby?”

“I hate the booster seat. Your lap is much better.” He picked up the smaller fork at Tessa’s place setting.

“Romeo, you go back to your seat and eat like a big boy,” Carol admonished.

“It’s okay,” Tessa said automatically, slipping her arm around Romeo and shredding up some stuffing and meat in kid sized pieces.

“Dorothea wouldn’t let him get away with that,” Carol muttered.

The handle of his fork bit into his palm. “Mother,” he warned.

“Consistency is how your raise a child.”

Tessa brushed her cheek against Romeo’s and said something too low to hear. He gave a great big sigh and slid down to the floor and back to his seat. Her eyes cut to his, and Jon tried to reach for her hand, but she moved away. Just fucking great.

As if she hadn’t insulted and demeaned his wife, Carol turned to Stephanie. “How is that design internship going, dear?”

Steph shot a look to him, then smiled weakly at her grandmother. “Pretty good, but I’m spending the winter here with Ken’s shop to learn about it from the inside. If I never sew another button it’ll be too soon.”

Tessa gathered an empty roll basket and stood with a whispered, “excuse me.”

“Dammit.” Jon pushed his chair back and went after her. He saved himself from a bloody nose with a palm slap to the door, following her into the kitchen. “Tess—“

“Don’t,” she said and gripped the counter, her back to him.

“Baby, I—“

“If you make an excuse for that woman, I’m going to roll you up and shove you in the convection oven on 400.”

Jon winced. “Not my idea of a tan.”

She whirled around. “Do not pick now to grow a sense of humor, Jon.” She pointed to the door, her voice a growl. “I have been nothing but polite and nice to that woman since the first time she’s walked into this house. This is my house too, and I deserve to be shown a little goddamn respect.”

“I know, and I—“ She cut him off again and he clamped his molars together at a grind.

“You know, and yet you do nothing about it. Why don’t you just go out there and change all the tags under the tree that say Tessa to ‘Doormat’ huh?”

He traced the top ridge of his brow with his middle finger. A tension headache raged. He’d been keeping the kids occupied, fielding snarky comments from his mother, and chasing a puppy all damn afternoon. And now, the one time his wife actually cooked an incredibly edible meal, he was in the kitchen fighting about his mother. Again.

Wrapping his fingers around her arm, he pushed her back through the French doors that led to the patio. It was rather mild for December. Mild enough to keep the fight outside and away from miniature ears. He closed the door at his back. “I am trying to keep the peace between the two women I love. Yes, my mother is a pain in the ass, but what am I supposed to do about it? That respect your elders thing doesn’t stop because I’m heading into my goddamn golden years, Tess.”

“What about respecting me? That woman comes in here bitching from the word go. What exactly do I do that is so awful, huh? I think we blended this family into something pretty great. Hell, even Dorothea tolerates me. Of course that took her getting laid like peat moss ground cover, but whatever. We’re making it work.”

Jon managed to swallow the laugh into a snort. “Tessa.” She crossed her arms and hugged herself tight. Sighing, he stepped into her, thankful when she didn’t back away this time. He pressed a light kiss to her temple, then her lips, waiting until she melted into him like she always did. Her arms crept around his waist and her nose went to his neck, burrowing into his collar. Her warm breath eased the tension that had taken up residence in his brain and slowly she relaxed in his arms.

They weren’t just making things pretty great, they were damn near close to perfect even with his ridiculous schedule, and her getting a new business of the ground. The kids were well adjusted, he still made love to his wife almost every night he was home, the new album was garnering a really good response, and his parents lived in Florida seventy-five percent of the year.

It was the twenty-five percent that was trying to kill him slowly.

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, holding on tight for another moment before he stepped back. “Let me talk to my mother after dinner, okay? Please?”

She tipped her head back, her fingers digging into his hips.

“I know, I know. You don’t want me to get into the middle, but Baby, there’s nothing else I can do. You want me to stand up for you—which I want to!” He cupped her shoulders before she could stomp away. “But the only way I can do that is if I tell her what’s going on. She likes to push your buttons.”

“Does she want me to rip her face off? Or bloody that perfectly lovely Channel suit? Because if that’s what she wants, I’m more than happy to rip into her.”

This time he did laugh. “And I’d probably pay to see you go ten rounds with my mother.”

She sneered at him. “You would.”

“Indeed.” He dipped his head, kissing the sneer off her face. He headed back to the house, her fingers clasped in his as they picked up rolls from the warming drawer and went back through the swinging door.

“Really, Jon. We were eating dinner. Couldn’t you wait to go off with your…wife.”

God, you’d think she’d have to bite her tongue off to say it. “No, Mom, I had to go and convince my wife not to pour gravy over your head. It’s Christmas, the season of giving, hope, and love. Let’s try and show some, okay?”

Carol sat back in her chair, her eyes wide. Jon knew he was going to pay for that, but dammit, she couldn't keep talking about his wife like that.

Jake laughed. “Tessa, were you really gonna pour gravy over gramma’s head?”

He had to hand it to Tessa, she didn’t even crack a smile. “Of course not, Jake. Your dad’s just kidding.” She slanted him a quelling look and picked up her fork. “Did everyone have enough?”

Steph smiled at her. “It was great. Honestly, Tessa. You’re going to have to add chef to your resume.”

Tessa laughed. “Hardly, but thanks darlin’.”

Romeo lifted his fork up. “Best mashed potatoes ever!”

And his family, minus his mother, laughed.

Christmas Eve 4:48 PM

Dinner was a trial, but for the first time in her life she was glad to have kitchen duties. It meant she could hide in the kitchen. Steph came in to help with peeling potatoes, but for the most part it was blessedly non-confrontational.


Jon even tried to help with dinner, but she shooed him back out to entertain the kids and his parents. She listened to Elvis’ Christmas album as she did every year while she cooked. When Blue Christmas came on, Jon popped through the door and swept her into a smooth dance.

Giggling, she wound her arms around his neck as he gave his best Elvis impersonation and twirled her around the kitchen. She thought about that first Christmas and just how far they’d come. He really had become her family, opening her up to his kids and a whole new world in the city. Slowly and surely they were making this marriage work.

When Stella nudged between them on the last turn, Jon stuffed her down and seared her lips off with a breath stealing kiss. The room slipped away, the music slipped away and the happy barking drifted into the distant background.

Two years from now, ten years from now, forty years from now that man’s kiss would always feel just this intense. Not all the time, maybe, but when he wanted to put some power behind his kiss, she was always going to feel it.

When he pulled back he was just a tiny bit smug. “Was there a reason you came into my kitchen, Mr. Bon Jovi?”

The smirk was full blown now, and his blue eyes were as clear as glass. “Yep.”

“Oh really, and what would that be?”

Stella yipped and tried to shove between them and Jon just held her head away from his crotch, and thankfully hers. “Kiss my wife stupid.”

“Or is that, kiss your wife into not going postal on her favorite Floridian guest?”

He wrapped a copper curl around his two fingers, letting it slide over his skin. “Side benefit.”

Her pulse gave one hard knock as he looked down at her mouth, then back into her eyes, then over her shoulder. She followed his gaze, and found the pantry door. “Oh, no. I definitely don’t have enough wine in me for that.”

“C’mon, you know you want to give me my seven minutes in heaven.”

“I do believe that’s seconds, there Rockstar.”

“I can last longer than seven seconds, I can assure you that.” The burst of laughter that came out of her, made his eyes sparkle even more. “In fact, I can make do with seven minutes.” He traced his fingers over the buttons on her blouse, taking care to follow each gemstone that laid across her chest before dipping into her cleavage.

He nibbled her jaw until her head tipped back to give him additional access. God, he knew just where to go to make her….she moaned, losing track of thought as the tip of his tongue flicked behind her ear. He grabbed her knee, dragging it up against his hip to let her know just how quick he could make that seven minutes work for her.

Pushing her back a step, she sidled around the table and let him back her into the pantry door. She hit the wood with a thud, his knee sliding between hers as he scraped his teeth along her neck and worked the zipper down on her dress pants. Her fingers dove under his shirt, inching under the fitted cotten until she found the soft hair at his belly and then up to the crisp, heavier patch at his chest. Her nails dug in as her thumb found his nipple. He fumbled for the doorknob and the swinging door to the kitchen bounced along counter.

Carol stood there in her Christmas red shell, with matching lips and a disapproving glare.

“Well, shit.” Jon muttered into her hair and zipped her up before stepping back. “Hi, Mom.”

“Honestly John Francis, we’re right in the other room. Hold your glands until we go home, can’t you?”

Tessa pulled down her blouse and buttoned one of the little pearl buttons he’d managed to get free somewhere between the table and the door. The man was very sneaky. She wiped her mouth with a pointed look at Jon. Her own festive lipstick was smudged around his mouth. She fought down the need to laugh.

You’d think they were teenagers and not well past adulthood with the look in Carol’s eyes.

Jon pressed his lips together, his thumb wiping away the coppery lipstick. He looked back at her. “Did I get it all?”

The laugh couldn’t be contained and she passed him a towel from the butcher block. “You look like a drag queen.”

“I’m glad you think this is funny,” Carol said stiffly.

“Christ, Ma, lighten up. There was mistletoe.” He pointed above the pantry door.

Tessa stared down at her potatoes, cutting them into precise chunks and dropping them into the water. Jon put mistletoe above the pantry every year, and every year he got her in there for a little nostalgia.

“The natives are getting restless. Don’t you have appetizers or something? I swear, I don’t know why you get rid of Lottie this time of year. Or at least hire someone to take care of things while we’re all here.”

Her make-out glow dimmed drastically. “Because,” Tessa said through clenched teeth, “Lottie is with her family. I like to do Christmas dinner for everyone.”

“Let’s hope the turkey’s not dry this year because you were too worried about doing nasty things in the kitchen.”

Jon let out a bark of laughter. “There were plenty of times I caught you and dad kissing in the kitchen.”

Carol simply sniffed and fled back to the living room.

“Holy Christ, really?” Jon laughed, leaning into the counter. “You’re my wife, I’m allowed a little snogging in the kitchen.”

They’d passed snogging and went all out into groping, but who was she to judge. “Grab the cheese and fruit platter in the fridge, will you?”

Jon sighed. “No seven minutes, huh?”

“Nope, just seven more hours of hell.”

Christmas Eve - 11:30am

Tessa stood in front of her three way mirror.  The door to their bedroom was barely a buffer to the laughter downstairs.  Stella gave another happy bark and she tried not to smirk at Carol’s sharp shout of dismay.  Smoothing the high waist of her black skirt over her blouse, she lifted her new necklace out of its case.  The twinkling gemstones gleamed off the snowy white leaving the platinum chain and matching settings into a seamless chain of family.  Her birthstone flashed a soft topaz along the center of the shorter chain and Jon’s light blue complimented it on each side.  The longer chain was a mix of all those people important to her--Jon’s life, her life, and the mix of the two.

They had definitely gone for the smushy gifts this year.

Maybe they had needed them.

She pressed her hand against her belly.  “You can do this.  She is just a woman.  Carol is not a monster.”

“No, she’s not.”

Tessa whirled, a blush hot on her face as Steph stood in the doorway.  “Oh, hell.”

“I knocked, but you didn’t hear me.”

Willing the embarrassment to fade from her cheeks, she waved her in. “Come in, honey.”

Stephanie smiled wide, her dad’s smirk lingering in her blue eyes as she closed the door behind her. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”  She gave her a once over.  “Really nice outfit though.” She stopped beside her.  “Man, I want those boots.”

It was her turn to smirk. “Aren’t they fabulous?” She kicked up her foot and admired the calf skin black leather knee-high boot.  They felt like a cloud.  Running after a dog did not equal heels today.

Steph hooked an arm around her hip until the two of them filled the mirror.  Her dark tones and lanky body to Tessa’s Irish cream—it was quite the contrast.  “Bling from Dad?”

Tessa ran her finger under the chain that fell to her midsection.  “Yeah, and the puppy of course.”

“I’m in love with Stella.  Copper’s not too much fun these days—he just likes to sleep.”

“Well, you know you guys can come over anytime.”

Steph dropped her head on Tessa’s shoulder.  She was a few inches taller than Tessa’s own 5’5.  “I know.” She sighed.   “It’s so weird this year.  Mom’s got Sam which is making Nana all twisted.  I thinks she figured Dad and Mom would get back together eventually.”

Tessa stilled.  Is that what the kids wanted? Still?  “I’m not letting him go,” she said quietly.

“Oh God, no!” Steph linked their fingers. “Dad’s so much happier with you and Mom’s like a new person since she met Sam.  This is the way things are supposed to work out.”

“You are one of those wise beyond your years people, you know that right?”

“Yep.”

“And just as modest as your dad.” 

The both of them dissolved into laughter.  

“Don’t let Nana get to you, Tessa.  She doesn’t mean to be so bi..uh, snotty.” Her father’s sparkling blue eyes danced in the mirror.  “She just likes to have things go her way and when they don’t…”

Tessa sighed.  This is what Carol reduced her to—getting advice from a teenager.  It was time to grow a backbone.  Just like Jon said, Carol was a control freak like him.  Maybe not in those words, but that was the truth of it.  She stood up taller, lifting her chin.

“There she is,” Steph teased.  “That’s the face you get when Dad’s doing something stupid and you need to drop him down a peg.”

Tessa’s eyebrow rose.  “Observant little thing.”

“I’m an artiste.” Steph hugged her.  “Let’s go downstairs and face the masses.”

“Do I have to?”

“Don’t make me play parent, Tessa Bongiovi.”

“All right, all right.” Steph skipped down the stairs, her streaky blonde ponytail swaying over her shoulder.  Stella galloped out of the living room, spinning out on the marble front foyer.   She tried to gain purchase, but her oafy big paws skidded out from under her.  

Steph crouched down and scratched her ears. “You’re such a dork.”  Stella didn’t seem to find that an insult, she was too busy licking every patch of skin she could find.  When she fell back with a lapful of dog, they both laughed.  

“That dog is a menace!”

Tessa gritted her teeth and put on her best customer service smile.  The white pant suit Carol wore was dotted with familiar paw prints and a nice slash of doggie drool.  She pressed her lips together against a laugh.  That would not be a good idea.  “I see you’ve met our Stella.”  She stepped forward and Carol grudgingly gave her a cheek for a kiss, pulling away before Tessa could actually connect.  “Merry Christmas, Carol.”

“It was until that dog ruined my suit.”

“C’mon into the kitchen, I’ve got some club soda that’ll take care of that.” 

Steph met her gaze and after an imperceptible nod from Tessa, she coaxed the puppy back into the living room.  “How was the trip up from Florida?” Maybe a little small talk would ease Carol’s ruffled feathers.

“Horrendous.  Jon flew us in first class, but that airlines definition of first class and mine are quite different.  He should have just sent the jet.”

Tessa willed herself not to roll her eyes.  Yeah, let Jon get right on that jet fuel expense.  “Captain Jack was given some much needed time off to be with his new little girl.  I’m sure you understand.”

“When you work for someone as important as my son, you should be on call at all times.”

And of course because Jon was a celebrity, that made her one too, right?  It amazed her just how much Carol didn’t know her son.  Sure, he liked his creature comforts, but not to the exclusivity of practicality.  Did he do outrageous things sometimes? Absolutely, that’s what made him fun and unpredictable.  Living a life so structured when on tour, he liked to be spontaneous on the off times.  Would he ruin his staff’s Christmas for something so trivial?  A thousand times no.  “I’m sure we can make arrangements for your return trip home to be on another airline, Carol.”

“Oh, he will.”

Tessa snapped out an old linen napkin from the drawer and poured a healthy amount of club soda on it.  “Here,” she handed the cloth over.  “I’ll take your jacket and work on that one.”

Carol shrugged out of her jacket and hooked it on the chair.  When it slithered to the floor, her cool blue eyes zeroed in on her.  “As if it’s not dirty enough?”

“We’ll make sure to get it dry cleaned for you.” Swallowing the acid that threatened to eat her damn tongue, she smiled.  “It’s lovely.  Chanel?”

Carol waved a hand as if it didn’t matter enough to answer her. “It’s last season anyway.  I’ll just donate it.”

The perfectly classic suit could have been worn for years, but as usual, Carol looked at everything as disposable.   Dabbing a little harder than necessary, she tried to reign in her temper.  Carol had been living off of Jon’s generosity for so long, she didn’t even think twice about it.

“I need to wear that for the rest of the day, Tessa.”

She blinked up at her, her fingers clenched around the cloth.  “What?” 

Carol took the jacket away.  “No need to put a hole in it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Considering your department store clothing, it doesn’t surprise me that you don’t know how to treat quality clothing.”

Unable to keep her jaw from dropping, she tried to cover it up by twisting the cap back onto the club soda and heading for the fridge.    Was she fucking wearing rags?  Just because clothes didn’t matter to her enough to buy an entirely new wardrobe every season, didn’t make her any less.  Her practical side was what made her a great business-woman, dammit.

She slammed the fridge shut and turned around, the smug set of Carol’s mouth and icy gaze was enough to have her temper snap.

“Tessa, can I have some juice please?”  The sweetest eyes peered up at her with a wide fringe of perfect lashes.  Romeo held up a plastic Christmas cup decorated with his name. She’d found the plain cups and a cool crafty little kit to make personalized cups.  It was one of the projects she’d done with the kids when they’d been stuck in the house with the miserable winter that had been gripping NY.

Her anger melted away.  She ruffled the silky fall of hair that was in his eyes more often than not.  “You need a trim again, pal.”

He scrunched up his face.  “I don’t like it when the girls at Mom’s hair place fuss over me.”

“They can’t help it.” She swung open the fridge again, cupping his hands around his cup before she poured a half glass of apple juice.  “You’re just as cute as your dad.”

“Ick, girls are gross.”

“I bet you’ll be signing a different tune in a few years. Now, careful, your mom’ll kill me if you get juice on your new sweater.”

He rolled his eyes.  “Oxy-Clean!” he shouted and ran out of the room, the juice sloshing just under the cup’s lip.  

She winced. Oxy-Clean was definitely her friend when it came to having kids around.  With three boys in their house whenever Jon was home, it was a bit crazy sometimes.  Romeo and a bottle of Hershey’s had lost a war around Thanksgiving, and now he thought Oxy-Clean ruled the world.

When she faced Carol again, the smugness was gone from her face, leaving a frown that was quickly masked by the same blank face she usually wore.  Without a word, she left her jacket behind and walked out of the room.

Deflated, Tessa sunk into one of the chairs at the eat-in kitchen.  She let her head tip back, shutting her eyes against the blast of pressure that wanted to dislodge them.  Mercy, she didn’t want to go into that living room.  She wanted to crawl up the stairs and into her bed until Christmas Day.

If she could just blink her way to Mary’s house and her peppermint cocoa, the world would be right again.  

The soft brush of lips on hers made her smile.  She brought her hand up to Jon’s cheek holding him there for a minute longer, until the kiss warmed her from the inside out.

“Better?”

She nipped at his chin.  “Yeah, actually.”

“You and my mom were missing at the same time.  I was in the middle of Mario Olympics or I’d have been in here sooner.”

“Who won?”

“Who do you think?” 

“Jake?”

“Yep.” He crouched down next to her, threading his fingers into her hair. “You okay?”

She moaned as his magic fingers found the base of her skull.  “Oh yeah, right there.”

He continued to knead for a minute before drawing his fingers out, to toy with the ends of her hair.  “I wouldn’t blame you for telling her to go to hell, you know.”

Part of her wanted to.  Part of her wanted Jon to intercede and tell the woman to take a flying leap, but he’d already done that too many times to count.  Now, it was a point of pride for her.  “I shouldn’t have to.  I have to be able to find some common ground with that woman.” She leaned in and pressed her forehead to his.  “How did you come from her?”

“I’m half my dad.”

She laughed.  “Good answer.”  She stood up, letting him drag her into a tight hug.  She’d take all the support she could get to survive the rest of the afternoon.

Christmas Eve - 11am

Three hours later, he was exactly right.  The usual bedlam that followed Christmas gifts was in high swing.  Richie, Ava and Stephanie were trying to herd the younger boys into the living room, but they were too interested in torturing Stella.  

Thankfully Stella was as good natured as the breeder had promised.  Instead of being annoyed by the attention, she basked in the petting and wrestling.  Tessa had run upstairs to get a shower in while the dog was occupied.

The gong of the front door echoed ominously.  The day was just about to move from crazy to suicidal.  He loved his mother, it was ingrained to do so even if she treated him more like a status symbol than a son.  He just wished that Tessa didn’t have to feel the brunt of her dismay all the time.

Here we go, holidays 2009 part one.  He opened the door.  “Merry Christmas, Ma!” Jon leaned in with a warm smile. 

“There’s my angel!” Carol Bongiovi came in on a wave of White Shoulders, powder and twinkling gold and diamonds.  She pressed air kisses to his cheeks, thrusting her cashmere wrap—new of course—at him.  “Don’t you have hired help?  Or did that woman talk you out of that too?”

His molars sang as he bit down.  “Lottie is with her family, it’s Christmas, Mom.”

“It’s her job, Christmas or not.”

“Call me old fashioned, I just wanted family with me today.  Why don’t you go in and see the boys and Steph.  They’re in the living room.”

“And your…wife?” Carol asked over her shoulder.

She nearly had to swallow her tongue on that one, he thought sourly.  “Tessa is getting a shower in while our newest addition is being entertained.”

Her eyes sharpened.  “New addition?”

Jon smiled at his dad, accepting his coat.  “You’ll see.” He clasped his dad into a tight hug and stepped back.  “Welcome to Bedlam.”

John Sr. lifted the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue label from one of the two bags he carried.  “I’ve got my meds.”

“Care to share?”

His father clasped a hand on his shoulder.  “I could be persuaded.” 

“I bribe well.”

“So I’ve heard.”  The squealing laugh followed directly by a bark had his father’s eyebrow raise.

“Oh yeah, we might have to crack that bottle before dinner.”

Christmas Eve - 7am

“Shh, Ava!”

The stage whisper was the only warning he had before fifteen pounds of scrabbling puppy skidded across hardwood.  As if in a mighty dog commercial, the newest addition to their family soared through the air and landed directly on the corner of the bed, thudding indelicately to the floor. 

Tessa, used to flying children, jolted up and hoisted the sheet up around her breasts.  Richie waggled his eyebrows and shut the door quickly.  

“But Dad, I wanna see!”  Ava complained from the other side of the door. 

“You had all night with the puppy.”  Richie answered, shuffling her down the hallway.

Jon snagged a pair of sweats off the chair near the fireplace and hoisted the dog up and into his arms.  Her wriggling body and equally wriggling tongue managed to cover his chest and face by the time he got back onto the bed.  “Merry Christmas, babe.”

The dog went right for her neck.  She had good taste.  

He’d heard about this crazy breed of yellow lab and poodle from a few of the roadies, then from friends both in the music circles and some of his Philly connections.  After a little research while he’d been trapped in the airport, he’d learned that both dogs were off the charts intelligence wise.  Things had snowballed from there.

 Tessa was alone more than he was comfortable with.  Since she’d come into his life, the built-in security of staff in the house was a thing of the past.  Tessa wasn’t the type to have people under foot. 

Lottie ruled the roost at the Jersey house, and was happy to go into semi-retirement when they’d decided to spend the majority of the year in SoHo.  So, the hunt for a dog for her had two distinct advantages—peace of mind for him, companionship for her.  

Figuring it would be the ugliest thing on the earth, he’d gone on the hunt.  Okay, so his assistant had gone on the hunt—but he’d made sure to go and pick out a puppy from the litter personally.  He’d gotten it from a family on the outskirts of Westchester county.  The woman had been more than a little surprised when he showed up for the dog, but being a relatively short drive from the city, she was used to dealing with celebrities.  

As soon as he’d seen the golden poof tumble over her too large paws onto her face, he’d laughed.  Instead of bounding up again, she’d stretched out on her back for an impromptu nap.  That right there had sold him.  Following it up with huge brown eyes peeking from the surprisingly springy hair, and her innate friendliness, he’d picked her out, collared her, and bought her on the spot.  

From the look on Tessa’s face, it was love at first sight for her too.  The Labradoodle was going to be a horse, but it was worth that look on her face.  

“For me?” Tessa’s eyes widened as she hugged the dog to her.  She gave a delighted laugh and fell back against the two pillows that hadn’t landed on the floor in their own private Christmas festivities.  The dog burrowed under the sheets, curling into Tessa’s side, her little body shuddering and heaving in delighted ecstasy as she scratched her ears.

“Don’t think you’re going to be taking my spot, dog,” Jon warned.

Tessa finally looked away from the adoring eyes of her present and up to his.  “I didn’t think you really liked dogs.”

“More like I don’t like fur with my allergies, and the mess usually.  And of course, I don’t like to share you.” He leaned in, kissing her softly, laughing when the puppy jumped up between them.  “See?”

Tessa gathered the puppy against her chest and leaned into him, one hand keeping the dog close, and the other at his cheek.  Morning rumpled and naked, she was everything that an adult Christmas morning was supposed to be.  Tempted to drop the puppy on the floor and tangle himself inside her, he sighed when her attention returned to the bundle of energy doing her level best to get on Tessa’s lap.

He ruffled the top of the dog’s head.  A large pink tongue swiped over his wrist before her adoring eyes returned to Tessa.  A huge red bow hung low on the dog’s chest.  Jon tapped the box.  “Don’t forget your other present.”  He rolled off the bed, handing Tessa her robe.  “So, what are you going to name her?” He asked as he grabbed the puppy by the scruff and cuddled her into his arms.

“It’s a her?”  Tessa shrugged into her robe.  “God, I can’t get over how adorable she is.” Her lips scrunched into an exaggerated pucker, she laughed like a girl as the dog licked her from chin to nose.  Scratching under her chin, she rescued the dangling black velvet box snapped around the bow.  “I can’t believe you got me a dog.”

An equal opportunity whore for affection, he laughed around the puppy kisses that had been transferred to him.  “Stop,” he said firmly and brown eyes met his solemnly, then returned to panting with her tongue lolling out of her mouth.  “So, how bad is Mary going to kick my ass for giving you a dog on Christmas Eve?”

With a laugh, Tessa tumbled back into bed with her velvet box.  “Oh wow, we need a carrier and food, she needs a leash and tags.  Did she have her first shots? How old is she?”

He put the dog on the hardwood floor, and she promptly jumped up until her huge paws covered each of his thighs.  Oh yeah, what had he been thinking?  Petting the top of her head, he let her sniff around the room.  God, he hoped she didn’t pee on everything.  “She’s just a little over nine weeks old.  I picked her up last night just before the party.  Ava’s been watching her.”

“How are we going to get all the things she’ll need before your parents get here?  God, the boys are going to flip!” She pushed her hands into her hair.  He could see the wheels spinning.  She was in full on planning mode.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to bust her bubble that he’d done most of it.  She did like to control the world with her decisions.  He sat next to her.  “Open the box, Tessa.”

“What?”

He shook his head and took it from her, flipping it open.  

“Holy Hanna!” The flat of her hand slapped over her mouth, then dropped into her lap.  “Jon!”

“Tessa!” he said in mock shock.

She leaned in, the tip of her finger tracing the platinum links that led to a glittering fall of chain and gemstones that peeked out randomly.  Anything from topaz to diamonds were found in the one of a kind necklace he’d found in London.  

“I asked the artist to make sure all our birthstones were in there.  Our family and the Bouchet’s.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck.  “Thank you.”  She sniffed into his neck and held on tighter.  Knowing these were the good kind of girl tears, he let her sniffle a bit before she sat back.  “I’ll wear it today.”  The puppy climbed up between them.  “I’ll use it like a talisman, right Stella?”

“Stella?”

Tessa nodded.  “She looks like a Stella.  And I have a feeling you’ll be yelling out her name a lot.”

He frowned.  “Why?”

She pressed her lips together and pointed over his shoulder.  

He turned around to find his favorite black boots in pieces.  “Goddammit, Stella!”

“See, I told you.” She hugged the two of them together.  “You needed new ones anyway.”

“Shit.”

She looked around the room.  “Nope, I don’t think she did that one.”

He flopped back on the bed.  It was going to be one long ass day.



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