It was the first good night’s sleep she’d had in a week. She opened her eyes to find Richie still sleeping, a more relaxed, almost smiling expression on his face than had been there the last few days. A glance at the clock told her she needed to get moving – the kids would be arriving in a couple hours. With a yawn, she slipped out of the bed and headed for the shower. When she returned she was surprised to see Richie sitting on the side of the bed, and just hanging up the phone. She smiled softly at his obvious eagerness to see his daughter.
“Morning Angel. I just ordered breakfast. Omelet and fruit okay?”
“Sounds great. Thanks.”
A room had been reserved downstairs just off the lobby where the families could meet up and get organized out of the public eye. For once Richie was the first to arrive.
“Whoa! Was there an earthquake or did a bomb go off that I wasn’t aware of?” David asked as he entered the room.
“What are you talking about Shirley?” Tico followed him in .
“Sambora’s up and it’s still a long way from noon!”
Richie flipped him off.
“Ya know Bro, wearing a path in the rug isn’t going to get her here any faster.” Jon commented as he walked through the door.
“He’s not going to relax until he can see her and hold her.” Tori pointed out.
“Looks like he wasn’t the only eager Sambora.” Jon smiled.
Ava was a good hundred feet ahead of the everyone else.
“Hi baby girl!” Richie scooped her up into his arms. “Ooooh. I’ve missed you!”
“I missed you too Daddy. And Tori too.” When he set her on her feet she ran to Tori.
“I missed you too Bean.”
Within seconds she was surrounded by the Bongiovi children, Romeo tugging on her leg.
“Hi guys!” She picked Romeo up for a hug. “Did you have a fun trip Big Man?”
He nodded. “Me ‘n Jake got to see the room where the pirots steer the prane.”
She felt another tug on her leg. “Hola Tia Tori!”
“Hola mijo!” She crouched down. “Como esta?”
“Esta bien, gracias.” He kissed her cheek.
Tori glanced up to see three kids standing just outside the group surrounding her. She stood and motioned them forward with a smile. “You must be Gabrielle. Or do you prefer Gabi?”
The girl shrugged. “I answer to either.”
“Or any other name your dad comes up with?” Tori guessed.
Gabi laughed. “Yeah. Sometimes we all just answer when he calls. We’re never sure who it is he really wants.”
Tori turned to the blonde boy beside Gabi. “Colton, right?” He nodded. “I hear you’re following in your father’s footsteps in the Joker department and doing research for him online.” He nodded again. “Well, do us all a favour? Stop! The man doesn’t need any help.”
Colton grinned. “Oh I don’t know. You’re the one who helped Aunt Dot turn him green right?”
Tori’s brows rose. “He told you about that?”
“No, Aunt Dot did.” He held out his hand. “Nice one.”
She shook it and grinned. “Get him to show you his flying monkey! It’s got a four foot wing-span.”
Tori looked down. “And Miss Tyger Lily. Do they call you Tyger or Lily?”
The little girl smiled shyly. “Depends on Daddy’s mood. Usually Lily.”
The parents stood on the other side of the room and watched Tori talking animatedly with the kids.
“What are we? Chopped liver?” David groused. The others laughed.
“She has a way with kids.” Jon agreed.
“Uh oh. Looks like one of them’s getting a little jealous. “Alejandra nodded towards Ava who was frowning and trying to get next to Tori.
“She’s never had to share her attention before.” Richie noted.
When he would have stepped forward, Dorothea stopped him. “Watch.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Tori saw Ava and the expression on her face. Reaching out, she tugged the little girl in front of her and settled her hands on the slim shoulders. Ava smiled and leaned back against her.
Richie glanced at Dorothea and grinned. Dorothea nodded. “She’s a natural.”
“Speaking of which…” Jon gave Richie a pointed look.
Richie ignored him. “Dot I have a favour to ask you, but I need to talk to Ava first.”
She met his eyes for a long moment, then smiled. “Sure. Let me know.”
A little while later Tori was catching up with Dorothea and Alejandra while the kids were making the rounds with their ‘uncles’. Richie motioned Ava to him.
“What’s up Daddy?”
He sat down in a chair and pulled her onto his lap. “Sweetie, I want to talk to you about something important and I want you to be totally honest with me okay? I won’t be mad at your answer. I just want you to tell me how you feel. Do you understand?”
“Sure Daddy.” She looked wary.
“How would you feel about Tori and I getting married?” He held his breath.
He didn’t need to worry. Her whole face lit up. “For real? You mean it? You’re getting married?”
“Well, I haven’t asked her yet. I wanted to make sure you were okay with it first. So you think I should ask her then?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course you should! Then we can really be a family.”
His heart hurt at the longing in her voice. He would forever feel guilty for his part in the break up of their family. Creating a new one for her would go a long way to assuaging that guilt. The fact that they loved Tori and she loved them didn’t hurt either.
“So how are you going to ask her Daddy? It’s got to be really romantic. She’ll like that.”
He chuckled. “You think so do you? Well, I was thinking about taking her to Paris on our next off day – just overnight. But I don’t want to leave you, so maybe we should wait until we get home.”
“No Daddy don’t wait! Paris is sooooo romantic! And it’s one of Tori’s favorite places. She told me so. Don’t worry about me. Aunt Dot will keep an eye out.”
“Aunt Dot will keep an eye out for what?” Dorothea asked, having heard her name as she was walking by.
“Daddy wants to take Tori to Paris on their next off day, but he’s worried about leaving me.” She started to say more, then stopped.
Dorothea looked at Richie and raised a brow. He grinned. She smiled and nodded. “Nice. She’ll love it. I’ll keep an eye on Ava for you.”
“Thanks Dot. I owe you.”
She shrugged. “That’s what family’s for…..brother.”
The families were separating for the day so that the kids could spend some time with their dads. Dorothea, Alejandra and Tori made plans to meet the next day to go shopping with the girls and the little ones, leaving Jesse and Colton under the men’s supervision. Tori saw Jon’s frown.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for sound check.” Tori assured him. She started to turn away and stopped. “Tell whoever you’re sending to babysit to wear walking shoes and meet us in the lobby at ten.” She crooked a brow. “Does that about cover everything you’re frowning about?”
Jon smiled wryly. “I’m just trying to figure out how many we can spare to send with you……and who won’t quit when I give them their assignment.”
“Well, I think that Mike deserves a break. He’s let me drag him all over Europe for a month now, and hasn’t complained a bit.”
“Okay, Bean, what do you want to do today?” Richie asked when they’d taken Ava’s luggage up to the suite.
“Go for a swim, then after lunch, maybe wander around town a bit, then have a nice dinner, then maybe another swim before bed.”
Richie and Tori exchanged an amused look. She’d obviously thought about this a lot.
“Anything you want to add angel?”
“Well,….are we very far from Kenilworth Castle?”
He snorted. “Honey, this is England. Nothing’s very far…at least from a North American perspective.” He sighed. “What is it with women and castles?”
She shrugged. “I’m not interested in all castles. I read a lot of historical romance novels and quite a few of them involve Kenilworth. I’m just curious. Anything you want to do?”
“Maybe a ride on the canal. We’ll see how it goes.”
They did all of those things and a few others, including strolling through Millenium Place and, of course, stopping by Lady Godiva’s Statue. When Richie smirked up at the mounted lady, Tori rolled her eyes and snapped a picture.
A couple times during the day, she turned from whatever she was looking at to find Richie a distance away on the phone. When he saw her watching him, he hung up. Before she could question him, Ava distracted her and she forgot about it.
After dinner, they opted for a movie instead of a swim and headed for bed early. Ava was still on North American time, Richie had been up early and they’d walked for miles that afternoon.
The next morning it was a large group that exited the hotel – three women, seven kids, and not one, but three security guards. Tori rolled her eyes when she entered the lobby and saw Tom, Steve, and –to her surprise – Mike.
“I told Jon to give you a break today.”
He grinned. “I know. I volunteered.”
“Really? Why? I would have thought you’d had enough of following me through stores.”
“Yeah, well I figured that trying to keep an eye on you ladies and the rug rats would challenge my skills more than sitting around a hotel room while the guys do interviews. Besides you find the coolest stores.”
She chuckled. “Well Dot’s leading the way today, but I have it on good authority that she knows the best spots.”
And she did. They spent several hours browsing through the Lower Precinct and the Upper Precinct before ending up at the Coventry Retail Market.
“Tori! Look at this. Daddy would love it!” Ava held up a t-shirt. On the front was a picture of John Lennon and Paul McCartney with the words Let it Be above the picture.
“You’re right. And look at this.” Tori held up the necklace she’d been looking at. The pendant was the peace symbol. “What do you think?”
“Oooh. He has a shirt with that on it. Can we buy them for him?”
“Tell you what. Why don’t we hide them and you can give them to him for his birthday?”
Ava’s face lit up. “That’s a great idea!”
Half an hour later, Mike got Tori’s attention and pointed at his watch. She looked at hers, sighed and nodded. “Sorry folks, but I’ve got to head over for sound check. Bean, are you coming with me or staying with the rest?”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Okay. See everyone later.”
“Tell Jon we’ll be there for the boys to say goodnight before the show.” Dorothea commented.
Tori nodded, held a hand out for Ava and followed Mike outside where he flagged down a cab for her. “You should be safe enough. I’ll call and let them know you’re on your way. Someone will meet you at the door.”
“We’ll be fine. Thanks Mike.”
The next day was Bristol. It was also Tori’s birthday. She hadn’t said anything to anyone and she hoped that no one would make a big deal of it. The only ones that even knew were Richie, Jon, Dorothea and of course the kids. While she didn’t expect them to forget, she wanted to keep it low key.
The women took the kids – including Jesse and Colton this time - to Explore-At-Bristol, an interactive science centre in the morning and early afternoon. They did a little bit of shopping after grabbing a quick lunch, then everyone headed to the stadium.
The kids ran around the stadium, staff in tow while the band worked. Tori smiled as she watched Romeo and Jake playing tag with Tom. The boys’ giggles echoed around the stadium.
“Boys. BOYS!” Jon interrupted the song. “Watch where you’re going and don’t bother Obie please. And stay down on the floor level. I don’t need you falling down concrete steps.” He pointed a finger at Romeo, who just grinned.
Sound check over, Jon draped his arm around Tori’s shoulders. “Come on birthday girl. Let’s go have some dinner.”
She groaned. “Please don’t make a big deal of this.”
“Just a nice quiet family dinner.”
She snorted. “With this family, it’s never quiet.” He laughed, but didn’t disagree.
Everything started off calm – well at least as calm as dinner with nine kids can be. As the waiters cleared the entrée dishes, another one appeared carrying a cake complete with glowing candles. Jon lead the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ with Richie singing harmony. She shook her head. Little things like that still struck her as surreal sometimes.
“Aunt Tori, open your presents now!” Romeo encouraged her.
“Oh, oh, open mine first.” Ava thrust a package at her.
Inside were two items. One was a beaded bracelet that Tori suspected Ava had made. This type of beading was all the rage with her friends – at least for this week. The other was a cookbook devoted entirely to cookies. Tori grinned.
“I marked which ones I thought Daddy would like. Maybe we can try them when you get home.”
“Let me see that.” Richie held out his hand for the book.
“Absolutely. Thank you Bean. I love the bracelet, and I’m sure we can find a few Daddy will like.”
Richie was flipping pages, pointing and nodding. Jon asked for it next.
The next package was from Hugh. It was a guitar strap with her name on it. The ends of the letters scrolled into roses. “Hugh, thank you! It’s beautiful!”
A large box was placed in front of her. The card just said ‘from the family’. Lifting the lid she found several photograph albums. She could feel her throat start to tighten as her mind anticipated what she would see in those albums. The table got quiet as all heads turned to watch her. She lifted out the first album, set it on the table in front of her and wiped her suddenly sweaty hands on her jeans. Taking a deep breath she opened it. The air stuck in her chest. Staring back at her was a picture of a young John Sr. As she turned pages the Bongiovi family introduced themselves to her. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents….every branch of the tree. The next book was of John, Carol and the boys from the time Jon was a baby until she met them. The last book was of Jon, Dorothea and the kids with plenty of empty pages at the back to continue the story. Her hands were shaking as she reached for the envelope that had been stuck in by a picture of Tori and Steph sitting by the pool last summer. Unfolding the piece of paper that was inside it, Tori smiled despite the tears gathering in her eyes.
“I thought it was kind of lame, but Mom said you’d appreciate it.” Steph explained.
Tori nodded and had to clear her throat before she could speak. “She was right. I do.” It was a clean bill of health on Steph’s one year check up.
She looked up at Jon and Dorothea. “I…I…I have no words to tell you how much this means to me. Thank you.” Her voice was barely above a whisper as tears rolled slowly down her face. Richie handed her a napkin. Jon just stood and opened his arms. She flowed into them and held on tight for long minutes before finally releasing him and hugging Dorothea and the kids.
Sitting down again she blew out a breath. “Give me Shirley’s next before I flood the place.” Richie rubbed her back comfortingly.
David grinned and passed it down. When the lid came off the box, she started to laugh. Richie peeked in and chuckled. She lifted out the stuffed Tigger and cuddled it. It was dressed in pajamas.
“The pajamas glow in the dark!” Lily informed her.
“Just a little something to keep you company at night. I know you must get lonely with just Sambora to cuddle with.” David quipped.
Richie ignored the taunt and reached in for the other item. He studied the piece of plastic with pieces of material attached, not sure what it was. It looked like ears of some sort. “What’s this?”
“It’s for you. If she starts neglecting you it might help get her attention.” David explained.
Tori was now crying tears of laughter, especially when Richie put them on. “Tigger ears! That’s priceless. I love it! Thank you.”
The entire table roared. Jesse snapped a couple pictures.
Finally, there was just Richie’s present left. Or rather presents. The first was a smallish box, obviously from a jeweler. It was a gold and diamond watch. “Oh! Richie. It’s gorgeous! Thank you!” She leaned over to kiss him.
He handed her an envelope. “This is sort of an anniversary present, except that to be honest I’m not sure which day you would call our anniversary.” He shrugged. “I figured we’re close anyway.”
She frowned in thought. “You know, I’m not sure either. That whole time was such an emotional roller coaster for me, that I couldn’t pick the exact date when we became a couple.” She opened the envelope and pulled out what looked like a plane ticket. “Paris?! You’re taking me to Paris?” She continued reading. “TOMORROW?!!” She looked at him for confirmation. He nodded. “But,….what about Ava? She just got here.”
“Aunt Dot’s going to look after me. Don’t worry Tori, I’ll be fine. It’s only for one night. I don’t mind. Honest. It’s your anniversary. Daddy should take you someplace romantic. And you told me how much you liked Paris.” Ava assured her.
“You’re sure?” She glanced between Ava and Dot. They both nodded. She gazed at Richie, seeing the warm twinkle in his eyes. “Thank you.” She kissed him warmly.
Early the next morning Richie found her in the sitting room surrounded by the photo albums, studying Tico’s gift which he had brought to their room after the show. He hadn’t given it to her at supper because he’d needed one of the pictures Dorothea had brought to finish it and he’d wanted to make sure it was perfect before he gave it to her. It was a sketch of Jon, Tony, Tori and Matt. Seeing the four of them together like that the family resemblance was very noticeable.
“How long have you been up?” He asked from the doorway.
Her head jerked towards him and she glanced at her watch in alarm, thinking she was running late, then relaxed. “Awhile. Why are you awake so early?”
He shrugged. He was more than a little nervous about what the day would bring – more so than he had ever anticipated. “Couldn’t sleep. Bean not up yet?” She shook her head. He watched her face as she turned back to Tico’s sketch, walked over and sat down beside her. “What do you see when you look at that?”
She struggled to find words to explain it. “Shared features, shared lineage, shared blood.” She hesitated. “Knowledge that no matter what happens in my life regardless of the fact that we weren’t raised together, I will never be alone. There will always be a piece of me out there. Intellectually I knew that with Jim and Michael, but this is different. It feels different. This is blood. No matter how hard I look at Jim and Michael’s kids, I will never see even the smallest bit of me.” She waved at the books. “Here I don’t need to look any further than Steph’s eyes, or Jake’s smile or the shape of Matt’s mouth or cousin Tony’s nose. This is what I was missing most of my life. This is the other part of me.”
“I envy you.” It was what he’d missed most, being an only child. Sure there were relatives, but none real close. He could see the joy in her eyes, and sense the peace in her soul. It made him more determined than ever to do his best to see that Ava didn’t share his fate.
“Morning Tori.” Ava greeted her then froze, her eyes wide. She glanced at the clock. “Uh, morning Daddy. You’re up awful early.”
“Morning Bean.” Tori responded, shooting an amused glance at Richie.
“Morning sweetie. Yeah, I couldn’t sleep.”
“You must be excited about going to Paris.” Ava gave her father a surprisingly mature, knowing look.
He blinked. “Yeah. That must be it. Who wants breakfast?” He changed the subject before Tori got curious.
They were in Jon and Dorothea’s suite, dropping Ava off when Richie’s phone rang with the message that the car was there to take them to the airport.
“Bye Bean. See you tomorrow. Be good for Aunt Dot.” Tori hugged her.
“I will. Have fun.” The Sambora grin appeared. “Bring me something from Paris.”
Richie and Dorothea choked. “Only if you’re a good girl sweetie.” Her father admonished her, crouching down to hug her.
“Remember Daddy, be romantic. Tell her how much you love her and how much we want her to stay with us forever and ever and ever.” She murmured in his ear.
He squeezed her tight. “Got it.”
The seatbelt sign went off and Tori reached for her bag, rummaging in it until she found what she was looking for. She handed the box to Richie. “Happy anniversary.”
He grinned, tore off the paper, and flipped up the lid. “Niiice.” The ring had a small gold cross sitting on a bed of diamond chips ringed with amethyst and set in gold. It fit perfectly. He hid his smirk at the irony of her giving him a ring today. “Thank you. I love it.” He leaned over to kiss her.
When they landed, they found a car waiting to take them to their hotel. Tori walked into the room and gasped in delight. “Richie! It’s beautiful!”
The décor was turn of the century, with a large four poster bed made of dark wood. The window treatments and bedspread were a floral print in shades of blue. And there was a balcony.
He set their bags down on the bed and held out his hand. “Come on. Let’s go explore.” He needed to keep moving, to find distractions before his nerves got the best of him. He had everything planned and he wanted it to be perfect…..and he wanted it to be a surprise.
They grabbed lunch at a café on the Champs Elysees, then browsed the shops there. Tori found a bright pink beret for Ava.
Richie put it on to model it. “Vat do you zink?”
Tori chuckled. “I think that the sales girls think that you’re nuts!” A glance at the two girls snickering behind the counter confirmed it. She tilted her head to consider him. “Sorry babe, but I don’t think pink is your colour.”
“I know, but they don’t have it in purple.” He pouted.
She raised on tiptoe to touch her lips to his. “Don’t worry honey. I’m sure we’ll find something you’ll like.”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “I already have.”
She smiled softly up into his dark eyes and pulled him down for longer kiss. “Aren’t you the smooth one today?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been a little lax in that area lately. I need to make up for it.”
She stroked his cheek. “No you don’t. Although if you insist, who am I to argue?”
He grinned and dropped another kiss on her lips. “Exactly. Just go with the flow angel. I promise you’ll like the ride.”
They wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries, and Notre Dame and spent an hour or so in the Louvre before they started looking for a restaurant for dinner. The one they finally settled on was elegant, yet casual. They were seated at a table in a corner by a window where they could see people walking by and the Eiffel tower a few blocks down.
Richie glanced at the menu and set it aside with a shake of his head. “I put my stomach in your capable hands.” At her surprised look he gestured towards the menu. “It might as well be in hieroglyphics for all the sense I can make of it.”
She grinned. “What do you feel like? Chicken or beef?”
“What I want isn’t on the menu. At least, not on the dinner menu.” He waggled his brows.
“Cool your jets big boy. All your appetites will be sated before the night is over.”
“Promise.” She shook her head at him. He just grinned.
By the time they finished, darkness had descended. “What do you want to do now?” He asked as they left the restaurant. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he could take them back. He hoped her answer was the one he was anticipating, or his great plan was going to go down in flames. He held his breath.
She glanced up. “Well, this may sound a little cliché, but I’d really like to go up the Tower and look over the lights of the city.”
He tried not to show how relieved he was. “Your wish is my command milady.” He bowed. Straightening, he offered her his arm.
“You’re crazy.” She linked her arm with his.
“But you love me anyway.” He pursed his lips, asking for a kiss.
“Yes, I do.” Chuckling, she obliged.
Reaching the highest observation level, Tori walked to the railing and surveyed the city. She could see the Arch de Triomphe all lit up from where they were standing. Richie stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her.
“It’s beautiful.” She murmured.
“Mmmhmmm. But not as beautiful as the sight I’m looking at.”
She glanced up to find him staring down at her. Turning in his arms to face him she slid her arms around his neck and urged him down to her, raising on tiptoe to meet him. His lips brushed hers gently, then returned for a firmer, longer taste. Her lips parted at the first touch of his tongue, encouraging him to take possession. Accepting her invitation, he plunged his tongue deep, swirling it around her mouth, urging her to join the play. With a soft moan, she sent her tongue to twine with his, and pressed closer. His arms tightened, squeezing her gently, and lifting her against him. For long minutes they let the heat rise between them.
Voices approaching them finally forced them to end the embrace. Tori slid her arms around his waist and leaned against him, face pressed to his chest, while she waited for her heartrate and breathing to return to normal. He stroked her back soothingly.
“Let’s go.” He murmured in her ear. She nodded.
When they reached the bottom, she expected him to head for the hotel. He had a different idea.
“Let’s take a walk along the river.”
They strolled slowly, arm in arm, stopping periodically to check out the stands of postcards and pictures that were set up along the stone wall. They were walking across one of the bridges when Richie stopped at the mid point. The lights from the street lamps were reflected in the water, the pyramid at the Louvre could be seen a few blocks away, as well the Tower, lit up in the distance. Music drifted on the air from some unseen source. He glanced around, then nodded, satisfied.
“Tori, I want to talk to you about something.”
Something in his voice had her searching his eyes. The twinkle that had been there all day was gone. She noted with relief that there were no dark shadows either, just a very serious expression. Her heart starting beating faster as her mind swirled with possibilities.