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.
“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.