The next day as they settled into the car Richie turned to Tori. “So where to now milady?”
She considered for a moment then smiled. “Home please Richard.”
He grinned. “Yes ma’am.” He pointed the car towards the closest airport.
They were somewhere over the Midwest when her phone chimed. She looked down at the message and frowned in confusion.
Richie saw. “Something wrong?”
“I’m not sure. It’s from Matt.” She showed him the message. Hope you enjoyed your ice cream.
“What does that mean?”
“I have no idea.” She debated her response to her brother when the phone chimed again. This time he sent pictures. Richie leaned closer to see as she scrolled through the images of the two of them walking down the street, sharing an ice cream cone. One close up showed Tori feeding Richie, the cone held in her left hand, her ring prominent.
“Where’d those come from?” While he didn’t have the sixth sense for it that Jon did, he was usually aware of people taking pictures of him.
She shrugged. “It’s obviously from last night. Must be from those fans.” She quickly typed out a message for Matt. Where did you find those? The response was immediate. Showed up on Backstage this am. Word’s out. Talk is all about the wedding. Tori tensed, took a deep breath and asked the question she was almost afraid to. How are they taking it? Matt took a long time to respond – or maybe it just seemed long to Tori because the answer was so important to her. A little disappointement, but generally happy for him. Cracks about keeping it in the family. Threats if you hurt him. Breathe sis, it’s all good..
“Told ya.” Richie reminded her smugly. He chuckled at Matt’s last comment. “Seems like baby brother knows you better than you think.”
She wrinkled her nose at him and made a mental note to check out Backstage – and a few of the other boards - herself when she got home. Luckily she was still anonymous there and she knew enough people there to get an honest read of the situation. Not that she didn’t trust Matt, but she wouldn’t really relax until she’d seen for herself that the fans weren’t too upset about their marriage. She was sure they would be happy for him over time, she just hoped that came sooner rather than later.
“When are we getting Ava?” She asked as the car pulled up to the house.
“I’ll pick her up tomorrow afternoon.”
Tomorrow was Friday. She hesitated. It was a bit of a touchy subject, but they needed to be able to talk about it reasonably. “How is Heather doing?”
“I haven’t talked to her.” He assured her quickly. “Her mother says that she’s doing much better and they hope she’ll be home in a couple weeks.”
She nodded. “Good.”
Tori spent the rest of the day getting unpacked, the dry cleaning sorted out and the laundry started. Then she sat down with her binder, made a list of what still had to be done and planned a girls day with Ava to make up for the one she missed in New York. Not being very familiar with the businesses here yet she called Gail for advice and made yet more phone calls to set everything up. She looked up as Rosa entered the living room.
“I thought you might be hungry and dinner no be ready for a bit.” Rosa explained as she set the bowls of guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips on the coffee table.
“Thank you Rosa. That looks good.”
Rosa smiled. “Mister Richie say that Miss Ava was coming tomorrow, but he no say how long she’s staying.”
“At least until her mother comes home if I have my way. A couple weeks or so. I thought we’d have Richie’s birthday dinner on Sunday.”
“Good. Let me know know if there is something special you want added to the grocery list for your baking. Everything you need for Mister Richie’s cookies is already there whenever you want.”
“That’ll be tonight if I have my way.” Richie responded as he entered the room, took a seat beside Tori and reached for the chips and salsa. “Mmmmm. I’ve missed your cooking Rosa.” She blushed with pleasure and left to check on dinner.
Tori walked into the living room the next day after spending an hour with the gardener discussing the landscaping and making plans for the next year. She found Richie hanging up the phone and reaching for a cookie from the pile on the table in front of him. She shook her head.
“Just make sure you can still fit in your tux come September.”
“No problem. You can help me work them off later.” He grinned and took a bite, ignoring her unladylike snort. “Oh, by the way, Paul just called. Matt had given him the heads up that our news was out and he wanted to know how we wanted to handle it.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That he could confirm if asked, but that we didn’t want to put out an announcement. The longer we can keep this low key, the less time the vultures will have to find out our plans and try to crash the wedding.”
She nodded. “Makes sense.”
“So what’s the plan for the weekend?” Ava asked as they sat around the dinner table.
“Well, since you weren’t able to be with us in New York when we went dress shopping, I thought maybe we could go get your dress and you could help me with a few more jobs I have. We could make a girls’ day of it. Just the two of us. What do you think?” Tori suggested.
The sad expression that had started to settle on Ava’s face at the reminder of the missed shopping expedition, turned into excited eagerness at the idea of them spending the day together. “Really? Do you mean it? Can we?”
“Absolutely. I still need to get the topper for the cake and shoes and gifts for the wedding party and I really need your help.” Tori smiled at Ava’s obvious enthusiasm. “Then I thought we could celebrate Daddy’s birthday on Sunday.”
“Oh. Yeah. That would be good.”
Richie frowned at his daughter. “What do you mean, ‘Oh. Yeah’? Did you forget my birthday?”
“No Daddy, of course not! I’ve had your present for a looong time.” She assured him. Tori bit back a smile.
“Hmpf! Well I guess my birthday isn’t as exciting as a shopping trip then.”
“I’m sorry Daddy!” Ava hopped off her chair to rush to her father’s side for a hug and a kiss. “I love you!”
“I love you too Baby Girl.” He grinned.
Tori gave him a chiding glance and rolled her eyes. “What about you Daddy? Do you think you can find some thing to keep you busy while we’re away for a day?”
“Oh don’t worry about Daddy Tori. He’s coming off tour. He’ll just sleep all day.” Ava assured her.
Early the next morning the girls climbed into Tori’s car and headed out. Tori glanced at Gail’s directions, grateful for the GPS system that Richie had insisted be installed in her car. He’d told her that it had taken him a long time to find her and he wasn’t going to risk losing her to the twisting, turning, confusing, busy streets that formed the greater Los Angeles area.
First up was the search for a cake topper. Tori was looking over several traditional toppers in a store that Gail had recommended when Ava shook her head. “Those are too….boring. You need something different.”
Tori’s brows rose. For a ten year old, Ava had very definite opinions on style. She’s going to be real fun to shop with in a couple years! “Like what? I don’t want anything too ‘out there’.”
Ava walked slowly down the aisle a little further and suddenly stopped. “Like that one.”
Tori joined her and was pleasantly surprised. The bride and groom were traditional looking except that instead of standing side by side the groom was carrying the bride.
“That’s more Daddy’s style.”
Tori had to agree. “You’re right. It is. I like it. Thanks Bean. Nice job.”
The rest of the morning was spent shopping for Ava’s dress – Tori was thankful that they found the same one as the other girls and that Ava liked it – shoes and little keepsake gifts for the wedding party – necklace and earring sets for the girls and cufflinks and personalized money clips for the men.
Stopping in a quaint little restaurant for lunch Tori checked their latest purchases off her list.
“What’s next?” Ava asked.
“Well, it looks like we’ve got everything on my list.” Tori glanced at her watch. “We made good time. After we eat I think we deserve a reward.”
“Well, we need to decide how to wear our hair for the wedding. I was thinking we should go to Gail’s salon for make-overs. What do you think?”
Dark eyes so like her father’s sparkled. “Really? Can we?” Then she sighed. “Daddy won’t let me wear makeup.”
Tori smiled. “You have such beautiful skin you really don’t need any. We could get our nails done though….and a little lip gloss never hurt anyone.” She winked at Ava.
“Daddy! We’re home!” Ava ran into the living room and climbed on his lap on the couch.
“I can hear that. Whoa! Who are you and what have you done with my baby girl?” Richie gazed down at his daughter, a stunned expression on his face.
“Oh Daddy! This is how I’m going to wear my hair for the wedding. Don’t you like it?” She tossed her head a little, sending the fat curls that were pinned up on the sides and hanging down her back, swinging.
“Your hair is beautiful, but what’s this?” He lifted her chin with his finger and scanned her face. “And this?” He raised one hand to study her nails.
“My toes too.” Kicking off her sandal she stuck her foot out so that he could see.
“Bean you’d better take your dress upstairs and hang it up please.” Tori could see he was less than pleased.
He watched her bounce out of the room, a frown creasing his forehead.
“She’s a girl Rich. It’s what we do.” Tori reminded him gently.
“She’s only ten years old.” He protested.
Tori nodded. “Yes, and that’s why the nail polish is a pale pink and the lip gloss is colourless and flavoured. It’s better to let her have a little bit now and control it, than forbid it and have her rebel and end up looking like a twenty-five year old tramp.” She hesitated, walked up behind him, and set her hands on his shoulders. “She’s growing up Rich. You have to let her. I promise to keep an eye on her and keep it age appropriate. She wants to be treated like a young lady, not a baby. She wants to feel included in our wedding plans. It’s a special occasion. Please don’t ruin her excitement. Trust me to act in her – and your – best interest.”
He sighed heavily and leaned his head back to look up at her. “Okay. I do trust you, it’s just…..she’s my baby girl.”
“I know. And I know it’s going to be hard for you. Maybe you should talk to Jon about how he copes.”
He snorted. “He leaves Steph to Dot and lives in denial.”
She chuckled. He was probably right. “Well, don’t worry. We’ll get you through it.” She squeezed his shoulders.
He smiled up at her. “You look beautiful by the way.”
“Thank you.” She bent to kiss him.
“So how do you want to celebrate your birthday?” Tori asked him over dinner.
“Honestly? I just want to spend the day at home, relaxing with my girls.”
Tori’s brows rose in surprise. Normally he had grand plans for their ‘family’ days.
“Tour hangover.” Ava explained.
“Ah. I see.” Tori glanced at Richie who wrinkled his nose at his daughter, but didn’t disagree.
The next morning Ava and Tori consulted with Rosa over the menu for the birthday dinner, the cake and the decorations. When they had been wrapping their gifts for him, they realized they had a theme going, and Ava thought it would be fun to carry that into their party plans.
They spent the afternoon around the pool, alternating swimming with card games and guitar lessons. As dinner time approached they headed in to clean up and get dressed. Since it was a special occasion they would be eating in the dining room.
Tori rushed down ahead of Richie to make sure everything was in place. A large Union Jack flag hung on one wall and pictures of the Fab Four dotted the others.
“Are we back in Jolly Old England then?” Richie asked with a heavy British accent as he entered the room.
“It’s a Beatles’ birthday, Daddy!” Ava announced.
He grinned. “Well, give me a Ticket to Ride there Lucy love.” Tori groaned. “What’s the matter Lovely Rita?”
She shook her head and looked at Ava in horror. “We’ve let loose a monster!”
Ava giggled. “Daddy, you’re a goof!”
Luckily, Rosa brought dinner in just then and Richie was distracted. Looking over the various dishes he grabbed Rosa’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Thank you love.This looks splendid.”
Rosa ignored his antics. “Happy birthday Mr. Richie.” With a smile she headed back to the kitchen.
Dinner finished, Ava brought out the presents and set them in front of her father.
“Aw, you didn’t need to Sweetie. All I Need is Love.”
“Let it Be Rich.” Tori couldn’t resist.
He grinned at her and opened Ava’s presents. Stripping off his t-shirt, he pulled on the Lennon-McCartney one and the peace symbol necklace that they had found for him on their shopping trip in Manchester. “Thank you Long Tall Sally. I love it.”
“You’re welcome Daddy. I found them With A Little Help From My Friends.”
Tori closed her eyes and bit back a sigh. This was going to be a long evening.
Richie reached over to pat her hand consolingly, then reached for her gifts. The paper was ripped away to reveal a Help! Necktie, a Magical Mystery Tour watch, a Sgt. Pepper cookie jar and a Beatles’ Monopoly game.
“Oooh can we play that after?” Ava moved to look over the game.
Richie strapped on the watch, tied the tie around his neck, lifted the lid of the cookie jar and pouted when he found it empty. She rolled her eyes. He leaned over to kiss her. “Thank you love. Baby You Can Drive My Car.”
She snorted. “That’ll Be The Day.”
Rosa walked in with the topper – a Yellow Submarine cake. Even Richie had to laugh at that. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da!”
Later that evening, Ava was in bed but he was still at it, and it was starting to get on Tori’s nerves. “How long are you going to keep this up?”
“Eight Days a Week.”
“When are you going to stop?”
“When I’m Sixty-four.”
“Richie, enough! Why’d they write so many songs? I’m going to bed.” Rising from the couch, she headed for the stairs.
“I’ll just lock up and join you. Maybe we can Come Together.”
“Aw, come on. Love Me Do.”
“Remind me never to do theme birthdays for you again! You’re more annoying than Shirley!”
A chuckle followed her up the stairs. Stepping into their bedroom he opened his arms wide. “Here Comes The Sun.”
“More like The Fool on The Hill!” But she couldn’t help laughing. He really was like a big kid sometimes.
Two days later she wasn’t amused. She had been walking through the living room heading for the kitchen to get a drink when she felt it. She froze, trying to deny what her brain – and her feet – were telling her was happening. The rattling of vases and figurines had her glancing towards the shelves on the opposite wall in time to see two picture frames fall to the floor, the rug thankfully preventing them from breaking. The earth heaved again.
“RICHIE!!!” She screamed.
Richie ran in and found her standing in the middle of the room, looking around almost wildly, like she couldn’t decide whether to stay there or run. Rushing to her side he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, grunting lightly when she returned the favour – fear lent strength to her grip. “It’s okay angel, I’m here. It’s okay. Everything’s okay. It’s over now. Ssh, sweetheart, it’s okay.” He repeated the litany soothingly as he rocked her gently. He could feel her trembling. Knowing there could be aftershocks, as soon as she’d calmed a little he scooped her up and sat on the couch, cradling her on his lap.
She leaned against him and let the rhythmic sound of his heart beat beneath her ear, and the slow, repeated stroking of her hair by his hand banish the last of her fear. She blew out a shaky breath. “THAT was NOT fun!”
“I thought you liked rollercoasters.” He tried to lighten the mood.
“NOT in my living room, thank you very much!” She grumbled, annoyed as much at her reaction as the earthquake. She’d always thought that she was stronger than that. It hadn’t even been a very big one, but she’d frozen in fear and her common sense had deserted her.
Feeling her relax against him he tried to get her to smile. “You know honey, we need to work on your earthquake preparedness skills. Standing in the middle of the room is not really the safest place to be. You need to practise until your reaction becomes habit.”
She raised her head to stare at him in disbelief. “Babe, if THAT becomes habit, I’m moving to Philly!”
He raised a brow. “And what about us?”
“We’ll sue for full custody based on an unsafe living environment and ship everything east.” She was only half joking. She didn’t understand how Californians could be so blasé about feeling the earth try to rip itself apart while you were standing on the cracks. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to it, and hoped it didn’t happen often enough that she’d even have to try.
He chuckled and kissed her forehead. “If it makes you feel any better, for all the years I’ve lived here I can count the number of quakes I’ve experienced on one hand, and none of them have done anything more than rattle the china..”
Cathy, one of the staff, came in looking around for damage, Ava following her. “Everybody okay in here?” She walked over to pick up the picture frames and return them to their shelf.
“Yeah. Anything damaged?” Richie asked.
“No. Just a few items shifted a little bit. You okay Tori? The first one’s the scariest. You’ll get used to them.” Cathy assured her.
“You weren’t scared were you Tori? It was just a little shaker.” Ava climbed up on the couch beside them.
Tori looked at her and shook her head. “You’re all nuts. You know that right? Get used to it! Hmpf!” She scoffed.
Rosa entered from the kitchen with a cup in her hand, which she handed to Tori. “Here. I make you a nice cup of tea. It will help.”
“Thanks Rosa.” Taking a sip, she sighed, stood up and headed outside to stroll around the yard.
A few minutes later, Richie followed her. “What’s the matter angel –besides the earthquake I mean.”
“I feel like such an idiot. When I agreed to move out here and people back home teased me about the quakes, I laughed it off. I was always good in a crisis, I’d lived through two tornados. I could handle it.” She snorted. “Look what happens. A minor quake that doesn’t even last half a minute and I fall apart. I end up unable to move and screaming for you like a small child. Even Ava handled better than I did!”
“Aw, sweetheart, come here.” He pulled her into his arms. “You did just fine. Cathy was right when she said that the first one’s the scariest. My first earthquake I almost pissed myself. There was no warning, just all of a sudden the earth moved. I’d felt that before, but never when I was alone!” He jerked and grinned when that comment earned him a poke in the ribs. “As for Ava….well she’s experienced them before. Plus children have no fear. They have no concept of imminent death.” He ran his hands up and down her back. “I kinda liked it when you screamed for me. It made me feel needed.”
She leaned back enough to see his face. “I always need you. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. You are my life. You and Ava.”
He bent and pressed his lips to hers. “Good, then that makes us even. I love you angel.” He smirked. “It’s kind of nice to know that there’s something that scares you a little. My armor’s getting a little rusty.”
She chuckled and reached up to kiss him again. “I love you too and you will always be my knight in shining armor.”
A week later they were just settling into their hotel room in New Orleans when Richie’s cell rang. He glanced at the display. “Hey man.”
“Hey. Are you guys here yet?” Jon asked.
“Yeah. We just checked in.”
“Okay, so we’ve got the gala tonight, game tomorrow and brunch on Sunday. There’ll probably be interviews in there somewhere, especially if we win. Mom and Dad are already here and Obie’s coming in tomorrow morning. Meet us in the lobby at five-thirty. We can decide later what time to meet tomorrow depending on if we want to have lunch together. Maybe I should be talking to Tori about all of this.” Jon was almost babbling.
“Calm down bro, and fuck you, I got it. Meet in the lobby at five-thirty. Man, are you even going to make it until the game or are you just going to explode into a ball of nervous energy?”
“I don’t know, it’s going to be a close call.” Jon admitted. He blew out a breath. “Do you know what it’ll mean if we can actually win this?”
“Yeah man. I do. It’ll be an incredible achievement in a short time, and a fulfillment of a promise you made when you bought into the team. Donations to the Foundation will increase and you’ll be able to help even more people. You done good bro.” He finished quietly.
“Thanks man. See you later.”
Tori glanced at her watch. “Don’t hang up!”
“Hang on man, Tori wants to talk to you.” Richie handed over the phone.
“Hi Tori, what’s up?”
“Actually I wanted to talk to Dot. Is she there?”
“Yeah, just a sec.”
“Hi Tori.” Dorothea came on the line.
“Hi. Since we have a couple hours to kill do you feel like roaming around the Quarter a little?”
“Sounds great. If I stay around Jon much longer he’s going to make me a nervous wreck! I’ll meet you in the lobby in, say, ten minutes?”
“Great. See you in a bit. Bye.” Tori handed the phone back to Richie and noticed his slight frown. “What’s the matter? Do you want me to do something else?”
He shook his head. “No, just….be careful, will you please? You’re not just another face in the crowd anymore, remember. And the fans know that Jon’s in town and will be on the lookout for all of us.”
She nodded. “I’ve got my phone, and I’m sure Dot will too.” She raised up on her toes to kiss him. “I’ll be careful. I promise.” Scooping up her purse and a room key she kissed him again and headed out the door.
When she reached the lobby she glanced around for her sister-in-law, snorted softly and shook her head. “Hey Dot.” She turned to the man standing beside her. “Hi Kevin. Fancy a stroll around the Quarter do you?”
He grinned. “Hi Tori. Mike kept raving about what great shops you two find, so I thought I’d see for myself.”
She snorted. “That’s putting a nice face on guard duty.”
Dot chuckled. “Plus Jon’s driving everyone nuts. Even Carol pleaded a headache and went to lay down. When he started muttering about sending security with us, Kevin didn’t even let him finish getting the words out before he volunteered.”
Tori laughed. “Well, let’s see if we can have a couple hours of calm before the madness starts.”
They spent the next two hours wandering around the shops of the Quarter, including the Voodoo Museum, and one shop that specialized in Mardi Gras masks, beads, and various other accessories. A large bin of feathers of all type, sizes and colours caught Tori’s eye. A slow smile twisted her lips as several deliciously carnal ideas ran through her mind. She picked up a long, fluffy, purple one. Dorothea raised a brow at her, exchanged a look and grinned. Kevin didn’t know what was going on, and based on the look the two women shared he wasn’t sure if he should be afraid for Richie….or envious.