At the arena, Veronica chose a seat a few rows back and on the other side of the box from Jon. She knew how the media worked and didn’t want to be included in their shots of him – or his family.
Tico sat beside her, and explained the differences between the indoor and outdoor games. Even though Nashville had an arena football team, she’d never been to a game. Periodically, Jake would come to sit and visit for a few minutes. It was never for very long – she’d noticed very quickly that the two youngest wanted to be close to their father as much as possible. She figured it was because he was away so much.
“Ronnie, can you help me? Please?” Jake was struggling to open a bag of chips.
“Sure buddy.” Reaching out, she took the bag, opened it and handed it back.
“You’re welcome.” She was constantly amazed at how polite the kids were – even Romeo at three years old. A glass appeared in front of her face. She glanced up to see Jon. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Do you want anything to eat?”
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
“Well, if you get hungry, there’s lots of snacks at the bar.” He gestured towards the back of the box. She nodded.
Towards the middle of the fourth quarter Veronica saw Jesse go by with some nachos. She glanced at her watch. “You’re not spoiling your dinner are you Jess?”
“Don’t worry about him, little girl, he has a hollow leg.” Richie chuckled. “What’s for dinner anyway?”
Veronica exchanged a look with Stephanie. “You’ll just have to wait and see Jughead.....and so will the birthday boy.” She’d seen the two of them talking before Richie asked the question. “Although I’m not sure why it matters to you. I’ve never seen anything you won’t eat.”
“And as long as you’re cooking, you never will. Boy Wonder over there, on the other hand.....his cooking is enough to make you choose starvation.”
“Hey, I’m Batman, you’re the faithful sidekick.” Jon protested.
Richie shook his head. “Nah. I’m taller.”
Veronica snorted and rolled her eyes. Tico just snickered.
“Ronnie, how come Uncle Mookie calls you ‘little girl’?” Jake plopped down beside her and propped his feet on the seat in front of him.
“Because I’m so much shorter than him, and younger than him.”
“Oh. Why do you call him Jughead?”
“I bet I know.” Jesse offered. At her raised brow, he continued. “It’s because you’re Ronnie. Ronnie, Jughead....just like the Archie comics.”
Veronica laughed. “You’re right.”
Jesse frowned. “Okay, so, you’re Ronnie, Uncle Mookie’s Jughead, Dad’s probably Archie....who’s Betty?”
“David.” The adults answered in unison.
“That makes sense.” Jesse snickered. “What did they call you Uncle Tico?”
Tico ran his tongue along his teeth and ignored the smirks and grins from his friends. “Pop Tate...or actually, Pop Teek”. He was the ‘old man’ of the group and often had to listen to their problems...even back then.
The ride back to Jersey started noisily as key plays were discussed and analyzed. At about the half way point however, the van got quiet. Both Romeo and Jake had fallen asleep, Jesse was listening to his iPod and Stephanie was texting to her friends. Veronica had spent half an hour answering e-mails and voice mails and was leaning against the window, staring out into the rapidly diminishing light, her mind not on the passing scenery, but on dinner, the packages she was putting together to go to Dubai.....and the boys’ questions during the trip down. Don’t go there Veronica! You’ve moved beyond that. You’re a strong, independent woman with a great job and wonderful friends. You have a full life. She snorted at her own thoughts. Of course I do. These feelings are just because dealing with Jon and helping him cope with the past has brought all those old dreams and disappointments back again. But it’s only temporary. All I need is a little time and everything will settle back in its rightful place. Scolding herself about living in the past, she refocused on the present and immediate future, mainly planning her evening.
Jon heard Veronica’s soft snort in the silence of the van and turned to study her as she sat staring out the window, wondering what she was thinking about. Maybe he should have stepped in to stop the boys’ interrogation. Despite her protestations that she was fine, that she was healed, there was an air of sadness around her that hadn’t been there before. Am I responsible for that too? Did bringing her home to spend the weekend with the kids cause that? It wasn’t what he’d intended. He wanted to make things better, not worse. He thought things were going well. The kids seemed to have accepted her, and she’d been warm and friendly with them – although he’d noticed that she wouldn’t get too close to Romeo if she could avoid it. She didn’t ignore him, and wasn’t mean or rude by any means, but he could see that it was an effort for her interact with him. Blowing out a sigh, he raked a hand through his hair. It seemed that his midas touch didn’t extend to Ronnie. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t seem to get close to her – and stay there. Every time he thought he was making progress she’d push him away. He really couldn’t blame her, but he wanted to move beyond the past so badly! He remembered how she’d made him feel when they were together, and he wanted to feel like that again. He needed to feel like that again. He didn’t know if they could rebuild what they had, or even something close, but he desperately wanted to try.
When the van stopped in front of the door, they all piled out, the little ones rubbing their eyes and blinking rapidly in response to the bright light of the foyer. Veronica hung up her coat and headed for the kitchen to get dinner started. A few minutes later she heard Jon’s distinctive footsteps on the hardwood floor.
“Daddy where are you going?” Stephanie rushed to cut him off.
“To get some water. Is that okay?” Actually, he was hoping to have a few minutes to talk to Ronnie privately.
“No! I mean....I’ll get it for you.”
“What’s going on Steph?”
The teenager sighed...loudly. “Oh Daddy, come on. You know. It’s your birthday dinner, and we want it to be a surprise, so please stay out of the kitchen until we call you. Go play with Jakey or something.”
“Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe I should check and make sure you’re doing it right.” The sparkle in his eyes revealed his teasing.
One feminine brow rose. “Do you really want to go in there and tell Ronnie that you don’t trust her cooking skills? Especially after that mess you cooked on Friday?” She lowered her voice so that Ronnie couldn’t hear. “If that’s part of your ‘game’, you’re going to be single for a very long time.”
His lips twisted into a wry smile. She’s growing up too fast. “Good point. Guess I’ll have to find something else to do.”
Veronica heard his last comment and called out a suggestion. “Go finish signing my stuff!”
“Yes boss. Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a slave driver?”
She snorted. “Takes one to know one.”
His chuckles could be heard over the sound of his retreating footsteps.
Stephanie was still shaking her head at her father when she joined Veronica in the kitchen. “He has a strange sense of humour.”
Veronica grinned and nodded. “Always has had.”
Stephanie slanted her a look as she leaned over the counter and cookbook. “So he was like that when you dated him?”
“Think you’d ever date him again?”
The knife in Veronica’s hand halted briefly before continuing to chop the vegetables on the cutting board in front of her. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
“Well....it didn’t work out that well the first time.”
“Something like that.”
Veronica wasn’t sure what to say. It really wasn’t any of her business, but Veronica didn’t want to be rude. “There were a lot of reasons. We were young. The band had just made it big, the whole world was opening up for them. Everybody wanted a piece of him.” She paused. “And he was still in love with your mother.” A shrug. “He needed her more than me.”
“My job was to make them larger than life and brand them as rockstars. It’s pretty hard to do that in public, then turn around and remind him that he’s just a man in private. I was too involved to do a good job of that. Your mother wasn’t involved in the public side of his life, so she could keep him grounded on the private side.”
Stephanie frowned in thought. “But things are different now, aren’t they?”
Veronica shrugged. “I guess.”
“Do you still like him?”
“Sure. He’s generally a nice guy.”
Stephanie gave her a chiding glance. “You know what I meant.”
Veronica turned to look at her. “Are you trying to find your father a girlfriend?”
Stephanie shrugged. “He’s lonely. He needs somebody.”
“Why do you think that it should be me?”
“Well, you already know each other really well, and you understand about the music and his job. That’s important. Someone who didn’t would never last with him. And he likes you.”
“Oh? What makes you think so?”
“He brought you home to spend the weekend with us and he never does that with any of the other women he works with. And I can see it in the way he looks at you and talks to you.” She paused. “He’s been happier this weekend than he’s been in a long time. It has to be because you’re here.”
“Stephie, Ronnie, come on. Daddy’s going to open his presents!” Jake came running into the kitchen.
“Okay Jakey.” Stephanie started to follow him out but stopped when she noticed that Veronica wasn’t moving. “Aren’t you coming Ronnie?”
Veronica shook her head. “No. I’m going to stay here and work on dinner. You go ahead. Oh.” She looked around for her purse, wiped her hands, reached in and pulled out a small wrapped box. “Give him this for me?”
“You sure?” At her nod, Stephanie took the box and left the room.
Veronica stood staring blankly at the countertop for long minutes, Stephanie’s words spinning in her head. Suddenly, a hand grasped her arm, spun her around and lifted her onto a strong shoulder. She found herself staring at a jean clad ass...a long way from the ground. “Jughead! What the hell are you doing? Put me down!”
“Sorry little girl, but you’re not going to hide away in the kitchen and miss the fun.”
Richie strode into the living room and dropped her into a chair. Turning to Jon he closed one eye, scrunched up his mouth, hunched his back and let one side of his body go slack. He took a couple steps, dragging one foot. “I brought her like you asked Master. Is there anything else Master?” Jon stared at him like he’d lost his mind.
“Igor! Sit!” Tico growled.
“Si Senor.” Richie limped over to sprawl on the couch next to Jesse.
The kids giggled. Veronica rolled her eyes and shook her head at his antics.