They arrived at Tori’s apartment mid afternoon. Even with boxes lining the bare walls Richie could see the similarities to the décor of the L.A. house. He smiled. Tori gave him a quick tour. Pausing in the bedroom he took in the colour scheme, then focused on the double bed – the very small double bed - his lips twisting wryly.
“This is going to be cozy.” As much as he prided himself on being a twenty-first century man, the caveman in him was pleased at the evidence that it had been a long time since Tori had had a man in her life – and her bed – for any length of time. “Good thing we cuddle when we sleep.”
She crooked a brow at him. “You can always sleep at my parents if you don’t think you’ll fit. Of course you’ll be sleeping by yourself, but it’s your choice.”
“Then I won’t sleep at all. I need you beside me.” He frowned. “Are you telling me that tomorrow night we’ll be in separate beds?” They were staying at her parents since her furniture would be on a truck.
She grimaced, but nodded. “No sleeping together in my parents’ house unless you’re married.”
“Wow!” He exclaimed softly, then had to admit. “It would be the same in my mother’s house.”
Back in the livingroom, Tori noticed the light on her answering machine flashing. She pushed the button and went to grab her suitcase as she listened to the message. It was from the store asking her to stop by if she could. They had a few questions and it would be easier to deal with in person.
“When are you going to go?”
She glanced at Richie. “I should go right away and get it done with. It’ll be a good chance to say goodbye to the girls. Do you want to come with me or wait here?”
“I’ll come with you. I’d like to see the store…and I’m sure they probably have some things they’d like to say to me for taking you away from them.”
She snorted. “Not likely. I’m not that special.”
“You are to me.” He stated quietly.
She smiled. “Thank you. I love you too. Give me a minute and we’ll go.”
Tori was in the bathroom when the phone rang. Richie hesitated, then shrugged and answered it. “Hello.”
There was silence for a moment at the other end. “Hi. Is Tori there please?” A female voice that sounded vaguely familiar to him.
“I’m sorry, she can’t come to the phone at the moment. Can I take a message?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Oh, hi. It’s Karin.”
“Hi Karin. How’s tricks?”
“SSDD. You? How long are you guys off now?”
“About three weeks before we head to Europe.”
“You can answer my question. When is Tori –and you I guess, leaving for L.A.? I’m trying to figure out when I can see her to say goodbye.”
“The trucks arrive tomorrow and we fly out on Friday. Hey, why don’t you come over here for dinner tonight? I’ll take you out to a nice restaurant, then we can come back to Tori’s apartment, I’ll make myself scarce and you two can have a good girlfriend session.”
“Are you sure? I know she’s probably really busy with packing….or maybe you should come here and I’ll cook.”
“Are you kidding? She’s got everything except the bed, a towel and a few clothes packed and labeled. I’d like to take you out. It’s the least I can do for dragging her off to the other side of the continent.”
Karin snorted. “You’re hardly dragging her. Once she was sure of where your head was at, she couldn’t move fast enough! If she didn’t take her responsibilities so seriously, I bet she would have been moved a month ago.She just about killed me trying to get the condo liveable!”
“It looks great, by the way. Thank you for all your help. I was afraid she was going to try and do it all by herself. I was very relieved to hear you were helping her. I kept telling her to slow down, that it could wait, but you know how stubborn she is.”
“Ya think?!” Karin laughed. “Anyway, you’re welcome. It did turn out pretty good. Try and get her to take a break before she tackles the L.A. house though, will you. She’s going to wear herself out.”
Now Richie snorted. “I’ll try, but in my experience, you can’t make a Bongiovi do anything they don’t want to do….and yes, I’ve tried. Although for the next few weeks, she’s going to be pretty busy unpacking and working on a couple songs Jon’s asked her to prepare for the next leg. I doubt she’ll have much time for decorating.”
“Did you plan that?” she chuckled.
“No, it was all Jon’s idea. But I am grateful for it. I’m really looking forward to some downtime together.”
“I’ll bet. Oops, there’s the boss. I’ve got to go. So, if you’re sure, I’ll come over after work.”
“I’m looking forward to it. See you later Karin.”
“What was that all about?” Tori asked as she entered the room.
“Karin’s coming over after work. I thought we’d go out for a bite to eat and then you two could have a good girlfriend session. You okay with that?”
She nodded. “Sounds good.” She reached for her purse. “Let’s go.”
He stood and began to follow her out the door. Glancing at him she crooked a brow. “This may be just a small little hick town, but you will be recognized.” He’d left his hat and sunglasses inside.
He shrugged. “This is still your home, and it’s not like we won’t be back often. They might as well start getting used to seeing me around.”
They couldn’t get a parking spot in front of the store, and had to walk half a block. Several people recognized Tori and stopped them. After getting over their initial nervousness at meeting Richie, the universal sentiment was, ‘so you’re the one taking our Tori away’. Walking on after the fifth such encounter, Richie slanted Tori a look and smirked.
“Oh shut up!”
He was still chuckling when they entered the store. The girls greeted Tori enthusiastically, and Richie with a little more awe. He quickly put them at ease. While Tori answered their questions and explained how she had done things, Richie wandered around.
He glanced around. “Done?”
With a farewell that was only a little tearful, they headed back to Tori’s apartment. Richie watched T.V. while Tori sorted clothing and they waited for Karin to arrive. When the knock came, Richie got up to answer it, calling to Tori as he went.
The local restaurant was only about half full when they arrived, so they were mainly left alone and weren’t rushed. Richie exerted himself to make the girls laugh. He knew that this was going to be difficult for them, and felt a bit guilty.
Back at the apartment, as the girls settled on the couch, Richie opened a bottle of wine that Tori had stashed away and poured them each a glass before taking himself off to the bedroom to watch T.V.
“You don’t have to leave.” Karin assured him.
“Yeah, I do. Too much estrogen in here for me!” He chuckled. “Call me if you need me.”
For the next couple hours they reminisced about the past, caught each other up on the present, and discussed their hopes for the future.
“So where’s your head at now in regards to marriage?” Karin asked. She knew about Tori’s doubts and was glad that she finally had stopped hiding them from Richie.
“Cautiously optimistic.” Tori replied, and told her about Dorothea’s idea that she speak to a counselor herself.
“I think that’s a great idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that myself. If you want I could ask my colleague’s in the addiction division if they know anyone good in L.A.” As an employee at the Ministry of Health, Karin had access to a lot of contacts and information.
“That would be great. I don’t know if there’s a choice of who he sees for these education classes he has to take, but I would appreciate anything you can find out.”
Karin nodded. “Will do. He looks good.”
“It was a hell of a shock for him, especially when they threatened to charge him with child endangerment. I’m hoping it scared him sober.”
“How is Ava by the way?”
Tori smiled. “She’s great. She’s such a sweet, happy little girl, which, all things considered I find absolutely astounding!”
“Make you think about having one of your own?”
“Has Richie got you on the payroll?” Tori laughed. Then she turned serious. “Maybe. We’ll see how things go over the next few months.”
“Just remember to invite me to the wedding.”
“Oh, that’s a given. You might want to start preparing yourself to walk down the aisle with Jon.”
“Oh shit!” Karin breathed. “I’m never going to get used to your famous connections.”
“You’d better work on that too. I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”
Karin laughed and glanced at her watch. “They may not be, but I need to. I’ve got to work in the morning.”
They stood and headed for the door. “Richie! Karin’s leaving!”
There was silence as the two best friends stared at each other for a long moment.
“I’m going to miss our weekly dinners.” Tori tried to smile, despite the tears blurring her vision. “Who’s going to talk me out of eating a whole pint of double chocolate fudge ice cream when I lose the Survivor pool – again? Who’s going to sit and drool with me over Grey’s Anatomy?”
“I still will, it’ll just be long distance.”
They were hugging and crying when Richie joined them. Stepping back, Karin tried to glare at him, but failed. “I should hate you for taking my best friend so far away from me, but I can’t. You are her dream come true.”
Richie pulled her close for a hug. “And she’s everything I ever hoped for and more than I deserve. You’re welcome in L.A., or Philly, anytime.”
Karin blinked back tears. “Thanks.” She pointed a finger at him. “Hurt her and I’ll break your fingers!”
He chuckled. “I hear ya.”
Taking each of their hands in hers, Karin looked back and forth between them. “Be happy. Both of you.”
The tears were flowing freely as the girls hugged one last time before Karin turned and walked out the door. She looked back once to see Tori wrapped in Richie’s arms as he comforted her while she cried.
The next day was a hectic one. The movers arrived mid morning, and by mid afternoon, Tori and Richie were standing outside her building watching the trucks and her car drive away.
“I hope they don’t wreck my car.”
Richie chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fine. These guys are good.”
A few minutes later, her mother arrived to give them a ride to her parents’ house. Tori noticed that her mother’s greeting to Richie was a little more reserved than usual. Suspecting she knew why, she sighed and hoped this evening wasn’t going to turn into a big lecture.
Helen caught her daughter’s eye. “Everyone’s coming for dinner. Jim thought the family should all get together before you leave.”
“It’s not like I’m never coming back!” Tori reminded her in exasperation. Mother and daughter exchanged a long look and Tori knew that her hopes were going to be in vain. She guessed she should have known that her very protective and unconvinced brothers wouldn’t let something like this slide with some assurances on Richie’s part. Now she needed to find a moment to warn him.
She showed Richie upstairs and where to put their bags. Setting his on the bed, he turned to her. “What’s wrong?” He could feel the tension coming off her in waves.
She sighed. “I think you’re in for a bit of the third degree tonight – maybe more than a bit.” She didn’t mention the topic, she didn’t have to.
He smiled wryly. “I’d be surprised if they didn’t question me on it. They’re looking out for you. It’s okay. I’d be the same way if Ava was moving in with someone with….issues.”
The evening started off pleasant enough, with a fabulous dinner. Afterwards, the kids headed downstairs to watch a movie or play a game and Tori braced herself.
Jim started the ball rolling. “I think we need to have a family meeting.” He looked at his sister. “Are you sure this is what you want? I mean, I’m sure Richie’s a great guy.” He shot an almost apologetic glance at Richie. “But let’s not sugar coat the situation. What happens the next time he slips?”
“We’ll deal with it. Leave it alone, Jim, it’s not your business.” Tori held tight to the leash she had on her temper.
Jim’s brows rose. “You’re my sister.” He pointed his finger for emphasis. “He’s got a problem that could have gotten you killed! I’m making it my business.”
Richie stepped in before Tori’s temper exploded. “I understand your concern, and you have every right to know what’s going on.” He briefly filled them in on what he’d been through, and what was happening now, his voice breaking only slightly when he talked about losing his father. Tori reached out to grip his hand. He smiled weakly at her and squeezed her hand. “I know that’s not an excuse for what happened last month - there isn’t one. I made a stupid decision and it almost cost me everything I love the most. I’d like to be able to promise that I won’t slip again, but I can’t. I’m going to do my very best, but I’m only human, and humans make mistakes.”
Michael nodded curtly. “I appreciate your honesty. We don’t mean to disrespect or doubt you, but we know how hard a fight you have ahead of you, and we don’t want to see Tori hurt.”
“Neither do I.” Richie assured him. “I want a future with her, but I know I have to prove myself to her - and to myself – before she’ll agree to that.”
“So you’re not letting your feelings for him blind you to the difficulties facing you?” Bill asked his daughter.
She shook her head. “No, but I’m not about to run away because of one incident either.” She looked at her brothers. “Would you leave Louise or Sue if they contracted a disease?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, then why would you think that I would – or should - walk away from Richie?”
Michael frowned. “But you’re not married.”
“Oh, so are you saying that if Sue had say…leukemia – the kind with long periods of remission - when you met her, you wouldn’t have married her?”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Well, it’s the same thing. Alcoholism is a disease. One you fight everyday, just like cancer. And we’re going to fight it together. I’m not rushing into anything.” She assured her family. “And I won’t set myself up for a lifetime of heartache either. He knows how I feel. But the bottom line is I love him. He’s wonderful and treats me like a queen. For the man that he is….I have to give him a chance.”
Jim wasn’t convinced. “But…”
“Let her be Jim.” Louise spoke up. “She’s obviously thought this through. She’s not going into this blindly – her eyes are wide open. Trust her to make the right decision – the right decision for her, not you.”
Tori smiled her thanks at her sister-in-law.
“I agree.” Helen spoke for the first time.
“So do I. Meeting adjourned.” Bill ended the discussion.
Rising from the table, Tori headed outside to get some fresh air. Richie followed her.
“Are you okay?” She nodded. “I thought for a minute you were going to cut loose on Jim.” He snickered.
Her lips twisted. “I almost did. I’ve been around Jon so much I forgot who I was dealing with. That approach doesn’t work with them. If I blow up at them I’m being emotional and irrational. If I blow up at Jon I’m just making myself heard.”
“It’s the Italian in you.”
She snorted and looked at him. “So, Mr. Calm and Cool, your Polish side mellows out the Italian side that much?”
He laughed. “Pretty much. But the Italian side has better jokes.”
When it was time for the family to leave, the adults were a little subdued, the boys seemed unaffected, and the girls were in tears.
“Do you have to go?” Leanne asked, two fat tears rolling down her face.
“Yes, sweetie, I do.” Tori hugged her. “But I’ll be back.”
“We’ll still see you right?” Jenny’s bottom lip quivered.
“Of course you will!” Tori assured her. “We’ll still visit.”
“And you can come visit us too.” Richie crouched down and wiped the tears from the girls’ cheeks.
“Really?” Jenny’s brown eyes searched his.
“Absolutely. My daughter is just a year younger than you. You’ll have a great time.”
“Do we get to meet your daughter?” Helen asked.
Tori actually blushed. She’d never thought about that. “Um…yeah…I guess we should arrange something there. Maybe after the tour we’ll bring her up for a visit.” She glanced at Richie.
He nodded. “We’ll figure something out.” He had something in mind, but it wasn’t the time to mention it.
The next morning, Tori awoke early and went downstairs to make some coffee. When it was ready she poured a cup, and started planning her day.
“Got a cup of that for me?” Richie asked from the doorway.
Surprised, Tori spun around and glanced at the clock. “Sure. How come you’re up so early?” She reached for another mug.
His lips twisted. “I don’t sleep well without you to cuddle with.” He walked up behind her, slid his arms around her waist, bent and kissed her neck. “I missed you last night.”
She turned in his arms, slid hers around his neck. “I missed you too.” Their lips met in a gentle, clinging kiss.
Footsteps on the stairs had them pulling apart, feeling like teenagers again. He took the cup of coffee she offered him with a wink. She smiled.
“Morning.” Helen greeted them as she entered the kitchen.
“Morning.” They answered in unison.
“Yes.” Again, in unison.
“Liars.” Helen smirked as they both blushed. “Breakfast?”
Several hours later, they were packed up and off to the airport. Bill and Helen drove them. Pausing at the security gate, Tori hugged her parents.
“I love you. I’ll call you when we get home.”
Helen nodded. “We love you too. Don’t be a stranger now.”
Bill shook Richie’s hand. “Take care of my little girl.”
“I will. You should think about coming out for a visit, especially next winter.”
Bill nodded. “And we’ll definitely talk about those football games.” Richie had offered to take them all to a few Soul games.
Helen hugged Richie, then glanced back and forth between them. “Be happy. Take care of each other.”
“Call if you need anything.” Bill added.
They both nodded, Tori fighting back tears. They got through security and walked to the gate in near silence. Tori moved to stand in front of the wall of windows and watched the planes. Richie came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She leaned back against him.
“You doing okay?” He murmured. She nodded. He squeezed her. “Really?”
She turned her head to smile at him. “Really.” She rubbed her hands over his arms at her waist. “It’s not like I’ll never see them again.This is just the end of one chapter of my life and the beginning of another – our chapter. And before you ask, yes I’m happy, and yes I’m sure.”
He chuckled. “Just checking.”
The flight passed relatively quickly – they both slept for a good chunk of it. Customs took less time than Tori had expected. She was surprised that they didn’t hassle her about not having her work permit with her – it was probably waiting at the house for her. Once they realized that she was with Richie, they just asked for his address and contact information and said that if they had any questions they would be in touch. She was still chuckling and shaking her head when they climbed into the car that was waiting to take them home.
“This is one time when you being recognized was actually a good thing.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, I’m sure that if I had been on my own, or with someone else, they would have demanded to see my work permit and put me through a big interrogation. I guess they figure if I’m living with you, I’m not going to be a drain on the American economy. You can afford to keep me.”
He snorted. “Yeah, I think I can manage. Although my accountant called a couple days ago in a bit of a panic. The bills came in for the condo.”
She winced. “Was it really bad?”
“No. He just wasn’t expecting it all at once and just wanted to verify that it was you, and that you actually did it all in that short a time.” He grinned. “Then he asked me to introduce you to his wife. He’s hoping you could teach her how to decorate a room in less than a year, and without it costing an arm and a leg.”
“I guess I should sit down with him sometime soon and go over the household budget.” She watched him closely for his reaction. This would tell her where the trust level was, and how involved he wanted her in the day to day stuff, especially the financial aspect.
“Whatever you want. I’ll let the two of you work out how best to manage things.”
She nodded and let out a relieved breath. He was going to treat her as a partner, not just a companion.
As they neared the house she glanced at her watch. “When are we getting Ava?”
“Since we weren’t entirely sure when we’d get here, Heather agreed to drop her off tomorrow morning.” They turned into the driveway and cruised through the gate. Coming around the bend a car was visible parked in front of the door. “Or maybe today.”
Tori frowned. “Ava better be with her this time.” Richie crooked a brow at her. “I don’t like the idea of her roaming around our house when we’re not here.”
When the car came to a stop they climbed out and waited while the driver unloaded their luggage. They turned towards the house just as the door flew open.
“Daddy! Tori! Finally!” Ava came running down the steps.
“Hi baby girl!” Richie scooped her up in his arms, kissed her and hugged her close. “How have you been? How’s school?”
“Good. I missed you though.”
“I missed you too sweetie.” He set her down so that she could greet Tori.
“Hi Bean.” Tori returned Ava’s hug.
“Are you living here for good now?”
“Yup. The trucks are on their way and should be here in a few days….along with my car.”
“Yay! Can I help you put everything away?”
“Sure. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
“Why don’t you let Daddy and Tori get into the house Ava.” Heather spoke from the doorway.
“Hello Heather.” Tori was determined to try to start off on the right foot.
“Hi. Welcome to L.A.”
“Thank you.” Turning to grab a suitcase she raised a brow at Richie. He just shrugged.
Inside, they dropped the bags in the foyer, thanked the driver and sent him on his way.
“Tori, can we bake something this weekend?”
“Sure Bean. What do you want to make?”
“Cookies?” Richie asked hopefully.
Tori chuckled and nodded. “Anything else?”
Ava frowned. “I don’t know. What about a pie or a cake or something?”
“Tell you what. See that black bag by Daddy’s feet? If you look in it you’ll find my cook books. Why don’t you take a look through them and see if anything looks good?”
“Okay.” She dropped to her knees beside the bag and was soon surrounded by books.
“Tori, I’ve put you on the contact list for Ava’s school. If you could stop in sometime when you’re dropping her off, they need a sample signature and the information about your car.” Heather informed her.
“Okay. Thanks. I’ll do that next week.” Tori was stunned.
Heather nodded. “Well, I’ve got to get going. Give me a call when you know what time you’re dropping Ava off. I’ll be away for the next couple weeks, but I’ll be back before you leave for Europe.”
“Will do. Taking a vacation?” Tori asked. The pleasant and welcoming attitude suddenly made sense.
Heather nodded. “Jack and I are going to down to Cabo.”
“Have a nice time.”
“Thanks. Bye Ava, I’m leaving.”
“Bye Mom.” She didn’t even look up from the recipe for a caramel chocolate layer cake that she was studying.
Tori bit back a smile at the chagrined look on Heather’s face at her daughter’s lack of interest in her mother’s activities.
“See you later.” Richie walked her to the door, and closed it behind her, before looking at ‘his girls’ and smiling gently. This is how his life should be.