Dinner was delicious and quiet. Veronica took that as a compliment – everyone was too busy eating to talk much. She looked around the table and smiled. “Slow down. Chew your food.”
The kids ignored her, Richie and Tico grinned. None of them slowed down. Jon paused to take a drink. “This is really good Ronnie.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you like it.”
“Wait until you see dessert.” Tico advised him with a wink in Veronica’s direction.
“Yeah? I’d better save room then.” Jon answered and resumed eating.
When everyone had eaten their fill, and the last cannoli had disappeared, Jesse and Stephanie helped clean up, then Veronica shooed them out of the kitchen – the plan for the evening was video games.
When they’d gone, arguing about which game to play first, she pulled out a bowl and gathered the ingredients for cookies. She would send some with the kids and bring the rest to Philly.
Jon wandered into the kitchen to see what was keeping Veronica and couldn’t resist the lure of her fuzzy red sweater any longer. Walking up behind her, he rubbed his hands up and down her arms a few times before sliding his arms around her waist. He bent his head and nuzzled under her ear, inhaling deeply, savouring her scent. “Thank you....for the necklace, for dinner, for – hey! You’re making more cookies?”
Veronica chuckled. “You’re welcome, and...yes.” She pulled away to slide a tray into the oven. “I don’t know who inhales them faster...the young kids or the big kids.”
“What do you expect? You’re a great cook.”
When she moved to prepare the next tray, he tried to take her in his arms again. She shifted away. “Jon, don’t.”
“What? The kids aren’t around to see.” She didn’t respond. He sighed. “I’m sorry about the kids’ interrogation this morning.”
Veronica shrugged. “They were pretty standard questions. They’re only kids, they couldn’t know.” She frowned. “And I’m not sure they should.”
“You don’t think we should tell them that they had a brother that died?”
“What would be the point? It was before any of them were born, and they’ll never know him. It won’t mean anything to them anyway.”
“He was still their brother. Blood of their blood.”
He grimaced. “They still have a right to know.”
She could see the pain in his eyes. One hand rose to cup his cheek. “I appreciate that you’re acknowledging him, but it doesn’t need to go any further than the two of us.”
“But I want them to know. Maybe not Jake and Romeo yet, they’re too young to understand. But Steph and Jesse are old enough.”
“You’d better talk to Dot about that first. Speaking of Dot, when are you taking them back? Tonight or tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll drop Steph, Jesse and Jake off at school, then take Romeo to Dot’s. Do you want to come with me?”
“Go play with your kids Jon. They’re waiting for you.”
“And what if I want to play with you instead?” He reached for her again.
Again, she evaded him. “I’d have to decline. I’m busy. And your kids want to celebrate your birthday with you.”
He sighed and raked a hand through his hair. “Will you at least come join us when you’re done here? Please?”
Veronica delayed as long as she could with the cookies and cleaning up, but she finally ran out of things to do in the kitchen. Taking a deep breath she joined the others in the living room to find that Jesse had challenged his father at Guitar Hero. She settled on the couch to listen. A familiar intro had her smiling. As Jon butchered his way through Bad Name her smile grew into a grin, then outright chuckles.
“Didn’t you write this? Funny, I could have sworn I was there when it was written. I guess Richie did more of it than I thought.”
Richie winked at her. Jon turned and challenged her. “This game has nothing to do with playing a guitar! You think you can do better?”
“Ooooh. Come on Ronnie, show him!” Stephanie urged.
Jesse waved her towards the screen. “Go ahead Ronnie, show him!”
When she hesitated, Jon pushed. “Come on, Miss Smartypants, or is your mouth making promises that your body can’t keep?”
One raven brow rose in a smooth arc. “Is that a challenge, cowboy? Alright. Step aside Pretty Boy.” Standing, she took the guitar from him and pushed him towards his seat. She settled the guitar in place and nodded at Jesse to resume the game. Not only did she play Bad Name perfectly, but she sang along. As the last note faded away she smiled smugly at Jon while the kids cheered.
“Sorry Daddy, but she kicked your butt! And with your own song!” Stephanie laughed and high-fived Veronica.
“Hmpf! I’d like to see her try that with a real guitar.” Jon grumbled, but there was a sparkle in the blue eyes glaring at her.
The next few hours flew by as challenges were issued and accepted for various games. Veronica sank onto the couch to rest after a particularly gruelling game of tennis with Jesse and reached for her glass of Coke. Romeo climbed up beside her, leaned back and yawned. Five minutes later she felt a weight settle against her side, then gradually slide down to her lap. Her heart skipped a beat and her throat closed when she glanced down to see the small blonde head resting on her thigh. A closer look confirmed that he was asleep.
“Jon?” The strange note in her voice had him spinning towards her. A single sweeping glance told him what the situation was. “You’d better come get him and take him upstairs.” Her voice was low, but her eyes were screaming at him to hurry.
“Yeah, I got him.” He carefully scooped his youngest up in his arms. “Come on Jakey, it’s bedtime for you too.” With a few grumbles, the five year old slowly climbed the stairs with his father.
When Jon returned from tucking the boys in, he found that Veronica had left the living room. Glancing around once more to make sure, he crooked a brow at Richie, who gestured towards the kitchen, then grabbed his arm when he would have followed.
“Give her a few minutes bro. She’ll come back when she’s ready.”
Jon really wanted to go check that she was alright, but he wasn’t making any headway with her his way so maybe he’d better listen to Richie.
Ten minutes later Veronica returned with snacks for everyone. She played a few more games, and smiled, but her eyes were shadowed. She headed up to bed not long after Steph and Jesse.
The men continued to sit and talk. After a while, Jon noticed that Tico was quieter than usual. “What’s up Teek?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re awful quiet. Something bothering you?”
Tico grimaced. “Feeling a bit like Judas.”
Jon’s brows rose. “Who’d you betray?”
“Ronnie.” Tico pinned Jon with a dark look. “Your plan better work Kidd. It would be too bad if we had to cancel the rest of the tour.”
“Why would we have to do that?”
“Well, it would be kind of hard for you to sing without teeth.” His eyes narrowed. “I won’t stand by and see her hurt, and so far this weekend, all I’ve seen is her getting her face rubbed in what she can never have.”
Jon looked like he had indeed been punched. “Is that what she thinks I’m doing?”
Tico shrugged. “I don’t know, but you have to know that seeing you playing with the kids can’t be easy for her.”
Jon lay in bed, Tico’s words echoing in his head. He hoped that his friend was wrong. The last thing he wanted to do was cause her more pain and give her even more reason to push him away. He tossed and turned for an hour, thinking about everything that happened over the last couple days, trying to see it from her perspective. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“FUCK!” Throwing back the covers he yanked on a pair of sweats and went to see how bad the damage was.
But she wasn’t in her room.
Cursing softly, he headed downstairs. He found her in the living room, wearing only a thin nightgown, standing in front of the windows staring blindly out into the night, hugging herself against the chill in the room. A glance at the fireplace showed only glowing embers. He quickly moved to stoke the fire and added more wood until he had a nice blaze going. Turning from the dancing flames, he started towards her, hesitating briefly when the moonlight revealed the silver tracks of tears down her cheeks. He stood close behind her and rubbed his hands up and down her arms, trying to warm her. “Honey, what the matter? Can’t sleep?”
Veronica closed her eyes and fought the urge to lean back against his hard chest. He was so close she could feel the heat of his body against her back. “Why did you bring me here this weekend Jon?”
“Because I thought it would be a nice change from hotel rooms for you.,,,,and I wanted to spend some time with you away from the tour.”
Something told him that this wasn’t the time to be coy. “And I wanted you to get to know the kids, for them to get to know you.”
She’d suspected it, but hearing him actually say it made the longing, the...aching... worse and lit the fire of her temper. She pulled away from him and stalked to the fireplace. “Jon, stop it! Stop trying to make this something it’s not! This isn’t my family, and never will be!”
“It could be, if you’d let it.” He argued. Veronica just shook her head. “Damn it Ronnie! Why not? Why are you fighting this? There is still something between us, I can feel it! Can you stand there and tell me that you have no feelings for me at all?”
More tears flowed. “Don’t you get it?! Whatever I may or may not feel for you doesn’t matter! This weekend just brought that home for me more than ever. Everywhere I looked I saw you.... playing with your kids, laughing with your kids, cuddling with your kids....kids that should have been MINE! They’re great kids, but I can’t look at them without seeing what I lost and can never get back. I can’t look at Romeo without wanting to throw up.” She sniffed and sucked in a ragged breath. “And it makes me resent you that you got the family that I can never have!” Silent tears turned into sobs. “It’s not fair Jon! It’s not fair!”
Jon rushed to take her in his arms, tears filling his own eyes, holding tight when she would have pulled away. “Oh honey! No, it’s not fair. If I could go back and change things I would. But I can’t. I’m sorry if I made it worse by bringing you here. Please believe that wasn’t my intention.” Feeling her trembling, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her to a large armchair close to the fire where he sat and settled her on his lap. He rubbed her back and arm with long strokes, trying to calm her.
Despite the little voice in her head – and scarred heart – telling her that she shouldn’t, Veronica couldn’t resist the urge to lean against him. Every breath was filled with the familiar scent of him. The heat from his bare chest and caressing hands seeped into her chilled skin. Craving the warmth and comfort he was offering, she snuggled closer, one hand rising to rest on his chest, fingers clenching in his thick fur.
The room was silent except for the crackling of the fire for long minutes as Veronica struggled to bring herself under control and Jon tried to think of what to say or do to help her. Finally she blew out a shaking breath. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be falling apart like this. I thought I was way past this a long time ago.”
He pressed a kiss to her head. “Ssh. Don’t apologize. You’ve been through a hell I can’t even imagine – and I don’t care how long ago it was, it’s not something that you just forget. You don’t need to be strong all the time Nica. It’s okay to lean on someone once in awhile.” He hesitated. “Does being around all kids make you feel like this, or just mine?”
She had to think about that. “Babies are always a little rough for me, especially the blonde, blue-eyed boys, but....yeah...it’s worse with yours.”
“How often have you been around young kids in the last nineteen years?” He hated to push, but he needed to know if his suspicions were right.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. A few times.”
“But not a lot?” She shrugged again. He let out a relieved breath. “Sweetheart, I think it’s just going to take some time. You need to just relax and don’t beat yourself up.”
She didn’t believe him, but she was too tired to argue anymore. Staring into the flames, she let the warmth of the fire and Jon lull her to sleep.