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.”