The next morning Tori stood in front of the bathroom mirror, her makeup bag open on the counter as she tried to cover up the effects of a sleepless night. Shopping was the last thing she felt like doing today, but she had promised Ava, and it wasn’t the girl’s fault that Tori had pushed too far and ruined everything. Deciding she’d repaired as much as she could, she sighed, picked up her purse and headed downstairs.
Ava was practically dancing by the door, and had been ever since the town car had pulled up almost ten minutes ago. “Tori come on!”
“I’m coming sweetie, I’m coming.”
“You girls have fun.” Joan came out to see them off. “Are you okay?” She asked Tori quietly. “What happened last night?”
Tori shrugged. “I tried, but I think I pushed too far.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one word – well after asking me if I was trying to tell him how to raise his daughter.”
“Sometimes my son can be a stubborn fool!” Joan sighed. “Well try and have a good time and not think about it too much.”
Tori stared at her. “I’m spending the day with his daughter – the very subject of our…..discussion….. last night, but I shouldn’t think about it too much.”
Joan chuckled. “I know, but try. Nothing like a little retail therapy to clear out the doldrums – at least for a little while. You can deal with the rest of it when you get back.”
“Yes Ava, I’m coming!” She opened her purse to check that she had her wallet and found an envelope in it. Opening it she discovered a platinum credit card and a note: To be used at your discretion and lunch is on me. Just sign your own name, it’ll be fine. Have fun. I love you. R. She smiled and put the card in her wallet. She slid into the backseat and looked over at her companion. “Okay, where to first?” And they were off.
It was close to lunchtime before Joan saw her son – and he looked even worse than Tori had! She watched him slump onto the end of the couch nearest her chair, but waited for him to speak.
“Ma can I talk to you?”
“Sure son, what about?”
He frowned. “Am I a good father? Or am I too easy on Ava?”
She sent up a quick, silent prayer of thanks to God and to Tori for finally making him listen. “The two are not mutually exclusive. Yes, you are too easy on Ava, and yes, you are a good father – but you could be a better one. What brought this on?”
He gave her a run down of his conversation with Tori the night before.
“She’s right you know.” His mother told him quietly.
He sighed. “I know. It’s just…..”
“That you want your time with Ava to be happy time. You don’t want to fight with her or have her mad at you.” She finished for him. He nodded. “But Richie, that’s in your best interest, not Ava’s.” He nodded again. “I have to ask. Heather and I have been telling you this for about six years now and you ignored us. What made you listen this time?”
“Well, frankly, when Heather talks I generally tune her out. She’s not exactly the poster child for motherhood so I take her comments with a grain of salt. As for you….” His lips twisted wryly. “I guess I didn’t want to admit that maybe you knew more about being a parent than I did. I wanted to do it on my own…..and I didn’t want to admit that I was messing up.” He paused. “Tori basically told me that if I wasn’t willing to be a participating parent and discuss our views on child rearing then I wasn’t the type of man that she wanted to have children with.”
Joan drew in a sharp breath. That’s what she meant by pushing too far! She knew that her son wanted another child more than anything, and Tori’s comments must have been like a slap in the face. “And what did you say?”
“Nothing! What do you mean, nothing?! Richard! How could you? No wonder she looked like she hadn’t slept last night!”
He snorted. “I know the feeling.”
“Richie this is too important to just ignore! You need to sit down and talk to her – I mean really talk to her!”
“I know, I know. I just….I just needed to think first. Heather and I never really talked about it, We just sort of made it up as we went along. Tori made me look at the big picture, not just setting rules and discipline, but why, and how they affect a child’s development as a person.” He looked up at his mother. “To tell you the truth, she scared the hell out of me.”
“No one ever said being a parent was easy. It’s definitely not a job for sissies – not if you want to do it well.”
They spent the next couple hours discussing various aspects of parenting. By the time they finished Richie felt much better equipped to have the same type of conversation with Tori.
Dinner was almost ready by the time they heard Ava’s giggles and the rustle of bags at the front door. Richie strolled over to lean in the doorway and watch as the pile of bags grew with every trip the driver made between car and house.
“Did you leave anything for anyone else or did you buy out all of L.A.?”
“Oh Daddy wait until you see what we got! – Well except what we got for you. You can’t see that. We had so much fun! Didn’t we Tori?” Ava ran up to give her father a hug and he grinned at her obvious joy.
“We certainly did.” Tori smiled at her partner in retail. “Got a good chunk of my shopping done too….although I’m not sure how I’m going to fit it all into my suitcase. I’m definitely going to be over the weight allowance. I wonder if Jon would send the private plane.” She looked around at the bags. “Come on Ava, let’s take these in and show Daddy and Nana what we got.”
“Really?” Any time she’d been shopping with her mother, she hadn’t been able to show her purchases to anyone. She’d just taken them up to her room.
“Sure! A shopping trip isn’t finished until you show off what you bought. That’s the rules.”
Ava grinned and grabbed a double handful of bags and half carried, half dragged them into the living room. “Nana, look what we got!”
Tori found herself alone with Richie and nervous for the first time since she’d met him. She was afraid that her almost ultimatum issued in frustration and anger last night had been that one step too far, that she’d really over stepped the bounds and driven him away. Stomach churning, she reached for more bags.
“Let me help you.” Richie stepped forward.
“Thanks.” She handed him some packages and reached for more, keeping her head bowed.
Frowning when she wouldn’t look at him he stopped her from passing him. “Tori…”
“Richie, about last night…” She cut him off, wanting to apologize before he said whatever it was he was going to say.
“No.” He stopped her. “We’ll talk about it later.”
She forced herself to meet his eyes, trying to determine his mood. She couldn’t identify what she saw in the chocolate depths. She frowned. “But…”
“Tori, please. You must be tired and hungry after your long day. Let’s have a look at what you brought home, have some dinner, then after we get Ava to bed, you and I will have a long talk.”
Swallowing hard she nodded her agreement, although with her stomach in knots dinner held no appeal. Some of what she was feeling must have showed in her face, because he put down the bags he was holding and pulled her close.
“Relax Angel, everything’s going to be fine.” He promised. “I love you.”
Releasing a relieved breath she leaned her forehead against his chest. “I love you too.”
“Daddy, Tori, come on!”
Tori sighed. “I wish I had her energy.”
Richie chuckled and pressed a kiss to her hair. “Yeah, if we could bottle it, we could make a fortune.”
The shoppers showed their treasures – except for those destined for the people present of course and headed in for dinner. Afterward they once again settled in the living room watching the first of the Christmas programs, discussing which were the best, and which should be turned off.
“I like Frosty!” Ava announced.
“Yeah, that’s a good one, but my favorite is the Grinch – the cartoon one with Boris Karloff doing the voice, not Jim Carrey’s version.” Tori stated.
“I like Rudolph…the one with the elf that wants to be a dentist.” Richie revealed his choice.
Tori laughed. “But what does the Abominable Snowman have to do with Christmas?”
“He’s a misfit, just like the elf and the toys that don’t work right.”
“And he’s magical, just like Santa!” Ava added.
“See?!” Richie grinned, winking at his daughter.
“I like the Charlie Brown one.” Joan spoke up. “That sad looking little tree always makes me smile.”
“Okay, what about non-cartoons?” Tori asked them. “I like It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Richie smirked. “Why am I not surprised, Clarence?”
“Good Lord, don’t let David hear you say that! I’d rather deal with Bela!” Tori looked horrified.
Joan laughed. Ava looked confused for a moment then smiled. “Oh I get it! Daddy calls you Angel, and Clarence is the angel in that movie! But what’s that got to do with Uncle David?”
“You know how Uncle David likes to tease people and call them by nicknames?” Tori asked her.
Ava nodded then laughed. “I get it! He’d call you Clarence just ‘cause he knows it bugs you!”
“You got it!”
Half an hour later, Tori saw Ava’s eyes droop. “Sweetie, I think it’s bedtime.”
“But I’m not tired.” Came the typical ten year old response.
“Tori’s right. You’ve had a big day. Besides, you can hardly keep your eyes open. Come on Baby Girl, I’ll tuck you in.” Richie spoke up.
The silence in the room was deafening as all three females just stared at him – Tori and Ava in shock, Joan in approval.
“Can I have a piggy back ride upstairs?”
“Sure sweetie, hop on.”
He turned towards the door, stopped at glanced at Tori. “You must be exhausted too. Why don’t you go have a hot bath and relax?” The look in his eye promised it would be worth her while.
Still stunned she merely nodded.
“’Nite Nana, ‘Nite Tori. Thank you for everything today.”
“’Nite Sweetie. You’re welcome. I had a great time.” Tori replied.
“’Nite honey.” Joan added.
When they had left, Tori turned to Joan. “What just happened there?”
Joan grinned. “He’s decided he’s ready to be a father.”
Yawning Tori stood up. “I think I’m going to take Richie’s suggestion and go have a good soak in a hot bath. My feet are killing me!”
Joan nodded. “Actually that sounds like a great idea. I think I’ll go have one myself.” She hesitated. “Don’t let him off the hook. Make him talk to you. I think you’ll find that you’re singing from the same songbook – a duet even.” She smirked at her own choice of words.
Tori groaned. “Oh Joan, that’s bad.”
The older woman chuckled. “I thought I’d use terminology that you would appreciate. Have a good night Tori.”
“Good night Joan.”
Upstairs in her room, she filled the tub, adding a healthy dollop of her favorite bubble bath, and sank down into the sea of bubbles. She had just leaned her head back against the rim of the tub and closed her eyes, allowing the heat enveloping her body to soothe her tired muscles when she heard the door open. Briefly cracking open one eye she smiled at him standing there in his robe.
“Coming to join me?”
“I thought I might. Is that an invitation?”
“Is that an mmmm yes or an mmmmm no?”
Her smile widened. “Would it matter?” He was already untying the robe.
“Is that an mmmmm yes or an mmmmmmm no?” She laughed.
“I asked you first. Sit up for a minute and scooch up a bit.” When she obliged he stepped in behind her and sat down, his legs sliding along the outside of hers.
She leaned back against his hard chest. “Mmmmmmm”
“We must belong together.” She murmured.
“Not that I’m disagreeing, but what makes you say that?” He ran his hands up over her shoulders, spreading bubbles in his wake.
“Because that…conversation….actually made sense to me.”
He chuckled and bent his head to nuzzle her ear, taking the lobe between his teeth, and sucking lightly.
She shivered and caught his hands which were gliding over her collarbone and heading south. “Uh, Rich?”
She fought her instant reaction to his touch. “Can we talk first?”
He released her ear, sighed and kissed her temple. “Yeah, I guess we should.”
He bent his knees up, providing her with arm rests, and placed his own on the edges of the tub. “I owe you an apology for last night.” He began. When she would have interrupted him he squeezed her with his thighs. “No! It’s my turn.” He waited to see if she would interrupt him again. When she didn’t, he continued. “I should have talked to you – or at least explained that I needed to think about everything you said.” He went on to explain like he had to his mother where his head had been at – with regards to the past and his disregarding advice from both Joan and Heather, and also with regards to the present and possible future with Tori.
When he finished she felt safe in speaking. “Ok. I can understand that. Are you ready to talk about specific issues now?”
He took a deep breath. “Yes. Bring it on.”
Tori was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn’t take them very long to sort through everything. Joan had been right – they were very much in sync. The hard part had been in getting Richie to think about it, talk about it and agree to implement the changes that he needed to.
“So we’re agreed. Bedtime is flexible, depending on circumstances, clothes and food aren’t worth going to war over, but issues around safety, politeness and respect are non-negotiable, and we try our best to be supportive, and we don’t give in to every wish.”
“And anything else or anything we’re not sure about we discuss before making a decision.” He added. She nodded.
They were silent for a few minutes, then Richie ran his hands up and down her arms “Are we done talking now?” He murmured in her ear.
She smiled and tilted her head to the side to give him greater access. “Mmmmm.” She could feel his lips curve against her neck and his chuckle rumble in his chest.
“Is that an mmmmmm yes or an mmmmmm no?”
“You figure it out.” She invited, leaning more heavily against him and stroking her hands over his legs.
This time when his hands slid over her collarbone she didn’t stop him. Instead, she closed her eyes and gave herself up to the sensations evoked by his hands caressing her body. No matter how many times they made love she never got used to how he could make her feel with just a look, a touch, a taste. Her blood heated, her pulse raced, her skin felt electrified, and deep inside she could feel her body melt and dilate, preparing itself for his possession. The last few days abstinence had heightened her senses even more.
His mouth explored her neck, teeth grazing the sensitive spot where neck met shoulder causing her to shiver in response. At the same time his hands cupped her breasts, holding the firm mounds out of the water, and he watched the droplets slide down and gather at the peaks, grown taut with her rising arousal. Using thumbs and forefingers, he squeezed and tugged her nipples, smiling in satisfaction when her back arched, a mewling cry on her lips.
Reaching up she threaded the fingers of one hand through his hair, cupping the back of his head, tilting and twisting her head until she could reach his mouth with her own. Her other hand grasped one of his and pulled it slowly down her torso to the juncture of her thighs.
“Baby, touch me…please!” She whispered against his lips.
With a growl, he obliged, sliding his tongue between one set of lips and a finger between the other, and stroked.
Gasping through their kiss, she tilted her pelvis into his touch and pressed him harder against her. She moaned as she felt one finger invade her. Her hips started to undulate involuntarily, driving him deeper while caressing his stiffening erection that she could feel rubbing against her back.
He continued to torture her for long minutes, one hand squeezing and kneading a breast, the other exploring her depths. Finally, her teasing movements against him brought him to flashpoint, and sliding his fingers free, he lifted her hips, slid down slightly and slowly drew her down his hard shaft, inhaling her sigh of relief. Buried to the hilt, he held still, enjoying the feel of her tight sheath engulfing him. “God baby. You feel so good. Being inside you is like being encased in warm honey.”
When after several moments he still hadn’t moved, she started rocking against him. With one hand still anchored in his hair, she braced herself against the side of the tub with the other and was able to lift her hips slightly to increase the intensity of her rhythm.
Letting her move as she wished, he remained motionless except for his hands which constantly stroked her body from collarbone to waist, down over her hips and back up again, pausing periodically to minister to her breasts.
So they continued for long minutes until she couldn’t take any more. Frustrated at his lack of movement, and unable to push events along in her current position, she broke from the kiss and his hold with a growl. Lifting off of him she turned to face him, slid her knees passed his hips and impaling herself, started rocking again. Her hands traced his chest muscles, nails raking lightly over his hard nipples, making his breath hiss through his teeth. Smiling, her breath coming in pants, she pressed her mouth to his, tangling her tongue with his when he opened for her. Hands shifting to grip his shoulders she settled in to ride him – hard.
He devoured her mouth, his hands now caressing her back, but he continued to hold still beneath her, determined to hold back as long as he could.
She tore her mouth away. “Richie, please!”
“Please what? What do you need baby?” His voice was a raspy growl that slid over her nerve endings like sand paper.
“I...I need…more…deeper….harder….help me!”
Unable to ignore her pleas, he filled his hands with her hips, pressed down and holding her still thrust up with his – hard.
“YES! Oh God! Yes, there. Again, baby, please!” She was sobbing now.
Water sloshed over the rim as he obliged her, flexing his hips and thrusting over and over, harder and harder, feeling her take him deeper, then holding him tightly.
She screamed his name as she felt him reach her very depths and lift her to the heights of ecstasy, and quickly follow her into paradise.
As he emptied himself inside of her, for the first time in several years he contemplated the failure rate of birth control and felt a pang that the odds were not in his favour. He held her close, stroked her back and pondered his reaction and what it meant.
Shivering as the water cooled, she kissed him gently, reluctantly lifted off of him and stepped from the tub. She was just drying off when they heard a noise coming from the bedroom.
“Tori? Where are you?” Ava’s voice came clearly through the door.
“Didn’t you lock the door?” Tori whispered.
He shook his head. “No, I thought she was asleep.”
“Shit!” Dropping the towel, she grabbed his robe and tightening the sash around her waist set off to avert their discovery, pulling the door almost closed behind her. “Hey sweetie, what’s the matter, I thought you were asleep?”
“I was, but something woke me up. It sounded like a scream.”
Tori hoped that her face wasn’t as red as it felt and that Ava wouldn’t notice. “Come on, I’ll take you back to bed.”
Richie had been reaching for a towel when he heard what had awakened Ava. Smirking, he envisioned the current shade of Tori’s face and his face split into a wide grin. When he was sure they had left the room he climbed from the tub and dried himself off. Leaning against the vanity he debated whether to wait until Tori returned with his robe, or take the chance of making it down the hallway to his room wrapped in a towel.
The next day at lunch they were discussing Christmas and different traditions and treats.
“Are you going to be here for Christmas Tori?” Ava asked.
“I don’t know sweetie, I have a lot of places I need to be and I haven’t worked it all out yet.”
“It’s looking like the 27th sweetie.” Richie told his daughter.
“Oh? How do you figure?” Tori arched a brow at him.
“Canada on the 25th, Jersey on the 26th, then here on the 27th, then back to Jersey for New Years.” Seeing the look in her eyes, he held his hands up defensively. “Before you gear up to take a strip off of me about planning your life, this is Jon’s idea, not mine. I told him he should talk to you first, but you know how he is.” The pleading four year old look was back. “Is it going to work for you? Can you come out for a few days? Please?”
“Oh please say you’ll come Tori!” Ava added her plea to her father’s with the same facial expression, although she added a little chair bouncing to emphasize her point.
Tori looked from one to the other, then glanced at Joan who was shaking her head, but trying to hide a smile. She sighed. “Are we talking commercial flights here, or do I get to fly Jovi Air?”
Richie grinned, knowing he’d won this round. “Jon’s already booked the jet.”
Tori grunted. “Obviously trying to suck up.” She took a bite of her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “Well, if I have to spend most of the holidays criss-crossing the country, at least it will be in comfort.” She shot a look at Richie. “Remind me to call my ever so helpful brother later.”
“Yay!” Ava clapped her hands and bounced some more.
“Take it easy Bean, before you fall off the chair!” Tori laughed.
“Why Bean?” She stopped bouncing.
“Because you bounce around more than a Mexican Jumping Bean – doesn’t she Rosa.”
“Si, Miss Tori. The nina has much energy.” The cook replied with a wink at Ava as she set a plate of cookies on the table.
“Rosa, please, just call me Tori.” She tried for the umpteenth time since she’d walked into the house.
The cook just smiled and headed back to the kitchen. Tori sighed.
“Good luck with that.” Richie chuckled, reaching for a cookie. “We’ve been trying to get her to quit with the ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ or whatever for the better part of a year. Let me know if you ever find something that works.”
“Tori, when you come for Christmas, will you bring some of your cookies with you?” Ava asked. “Please?” She added at a look from her father.
“Sure. Or we could make some tomorrow if you like and put them in the freezer.”
“Really?” The young girl’s face lit up, then fell. “Oh, but I have to go back to Mommy’s tomorrow.”
Tori looked at Richie. “Why don’t I call Mommy and see what I can do. Maybe you can stay here and I’ll take you to school on Monday.” He offered.
“She probably won’t let me. I didn’t bring the right clothes for school.”
“Let’s just wait and see.” His mouth flattened to a thin line at the sight of his daughter’s dejected face.”
There was silence around the table for a few minutes. Then Ava’s head snapped up.
“Daddy I think you need to get those ghost hunter people to come check out this house.”
“Oh? Why is that? You think we have ghosts?” He asked, amused.
“Well, last night a noise woke me up. It sounded like a scream. I went to your room, but you weren’t there. Nana wasn’t in her room either. Tori was the only one upstairs and she was in the bathtub. I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
Tori felt her face go up in flames and stared down at her plate.
“I came down to the kitchen for a drink, but I didn’t hear anything.” Joan commented, not looking at Tori, a small smile making her lips twitch.
Richie was fighting laughter, which earned him a kick under the table when Tori noticed. He winced. “I was down in the studio playing around with an electric guitar and the voice box, maybe it was me you heard.” He improvised.
“Maybe.” Ava shrugged. “You need to buy Tori a robe. Yours is too big for her.”
Before Richie could respond – and by the grin on his face she was sure she didn’t want him to – Tori spoke up. “I have one at home, I just forgot to bring it, so your daddy let me borrow his.” She consoled herself with the fact that she was the only adult at the table who hadn’t lied.
After lunch, Richie went to call Heather….and returned looking grim, but triumphant. “You’re stuck with us until Monday, Bean.”
“Really? Thank you, thank you, thank you Daddy! I love you!”
“I love you too.” He lifted her for a hug and a kiss.
“Guess we better go check out the pantry and see what supplies we need to stock before tomorrow then.” Tori commented. “Why don’t you go tell Rosa that you’ll be here an extra day? I’ll meet you in the kitchen in a few minutes.”
When Ava had gone, Tori took her spot in her father’s arms. “How bad was it?”
He sighed and buried his face in her hair. “I don’t think she really cared whether I brought Ava back tomorrow, although she asked if I had checked with you and whether you wanted her taking up more of our time here, but because I wanted her she had to lecture me about being away and coming home and just expecting her to change all her plans to suit me. Then she went on about how I get Ava all worked up and then take off again and it’s up to her to get Ava settled down and back to the routine again. And I better make sure that she gets enough sleep tomorrow night, and that she gets to school on time. Why does she have to be like that? I just want to spend time with my daughter!” He wasn’t about to tell her Heather’s comments about playing house and scaring off his latest ‘bedmate’.
Tori hugged him tighter. “She wants to hurt you and knows that Ava’s the chink in your armor.” Leaning back she framed his face with her hands and kissed him. “Don’t let her ruin your time with your daughter, honey. Don’t let her win.”
He sighed and nodded and kissed her again. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Now come on, you can drive us to the grocery store.”
That evening they were settled around the living room. Tori was curled up on the couch with Richie, Joan was in her favorite armchair and Ava was on the floor with her dolls. She had been unusually quiet that afternoon and Tori had caught her watching her and Richie. She wondered what was going on in the young girl’s mind, but she didn’t want to push her way into Ava’s confidence. She figured if she wanted to talk about it she would. She didn’t seem to be a secretive girl.
“Tori? Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure sweetie.” The frown on Ava’s face and the shadows in her dark eyes made Tori suspect that she was about to find out what was bothering her.
“You’re Daddy’s girlfriend right?”
“Yes.” She smiled as she felt Richie’s arm tighten around her.
“Do you love him?”
“Yes.” She answered honestly.
“Daddy, do you love Tori?”
“Yes sweetie, I do.” He kissed Tori’s temple.
Ava’s frown deepened. “But you don’t sleep together.”
“Do you think we should?” Tori asked, surprised.
Ava shrugged. “Mommy’s boyfriend sleeps with her when he comes over.”
Tori could feel Richie tense beside her. She placed a restraining hand on his leg. “And does that bother you?”
Another shrug. “Not really. It’s just that…..”
“Just what sweetie?” Richie kept his voice soft.
“Is he mean to you? Does he hurt you?”
“No. He’s nice enough I guess. He brings me toys a lot.”
“Then what’s the problem?” His voice turned coaxing.
Ava hesitated, then shrugged yet again. “I’m not allowed to have friends over and I have to stay in my room or the playroom when he’s there.” She saw Richie’s frown. “But it’s okay, I have Julie to play with.”
Tori raised a brow at Richie. “Nanny.” He murmured.
She blinked back tears as her heart went out to this lonely little girl. Then a thought struck and she groaned and slapped her hand to her forehead. “I’m sorry Bean, I never thought….did you want to invite a friend over this weekend?”
“Oh no.” Ava assured her. “I’m having fun hanging out with you and Daddy and Nana.”
She nodded. “You talk to me instead of acting like I’m not here. I like to cook, but I never get to at home. Mommy doesn’t cook and doesn’t want me bothering Carmelita.” She turned to look at Tori. “So what are we going to make first tomorrow?”
Realizing that Ava didn’t want to talk about her home life anymore, and finding it hard to hide her own reaction to it, Tori accepted the change of subject and let herself be drawn into formulating a plan of attack for the next day. Richie volunteered to be the official taste tester.