Tessa Ever After

Tessa Ever After

by Brighton Walsh

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425276495
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 780,725
Product dimensions: 5.44(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.74(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Brighton Walsh, author of Caged in WinterPlus One and Season of Second Chances, spent nearly a decade as a professional photographer before deciding to take her storytelling in a different direction and reconnect with her first love: writing. When she’s not pounding away at the keyboard, she’s probably either reading or shopping—maybe even both at once. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and two children, and, yes, she considers forty degrees to be hoodie weather. Her home is the setting for frequent dance parties, Lego battles, and more laughter than she thought possible.

Read an Excerpt

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ONE

tessa

Some days I feel like I’m running forever on a treadmill that won’t get me anywhere. Constantly behind, yet always moving.

I glance at my phone, noting the time, and try to rush my client out the door without being obvious about the fact that I’m doing it. It’s not that I don’t love her, because I do. She’s a regular, someone who took a chance on a girl barely out of cosmetology school, and has stuck with me for the last three years, referring dozens upon dozens of friends my way while she was at it. But tonight, when I’m already running late getting Haley from day care, I just want her to stop talking and leave. I stayed late as a favor to her, and I’m paying for it now. I should’ve known I could never squeeze her in, not when she likes to stick around to chat after her appointment.

Once I’ve finally ushered her out the door and I’ve cleaned up my station, I wave good-bye to the other girls working tonight and head out into the bitter fall air. I stuff my hands in my pockets and rush to the car, not waiting for it to warm up before I’m speeding down the streets, hoping to get to Haley before her day care officially closes for the day. But as the clock creeps toward six and then slowly ticks past, I know that hope is futile.

I pull in the driveway at quarter after and jog up the front walk, opening the handle to the door and pushing through the threshold.

“Mama!” Haley runs at me full force, her smile as bright as the sun, and I squat to catch her in my arms.

“Hey, baby. How was your day?”

“Good! Miss Melinda had us make our own turkeys for crafts today. Lookit! Mine has all kinds of colored feathers and one of those gobbler things.”

I laugh at her description. “I love it! We’ll have to put him on the fridge when we get home. Why don’t you go grab your coat so we can go.”

She spins and runs off without a second glance, and I stand to my full height and see Melinda leaning against the wall next to the door Haley just disappeared behind. “Hi, Tessa.”

“Hey. I’m sorry I’m late again, but I ran behind with a client.”

“Tessa . . .” And from the look on her face and the soft tone of her words, I know what’s coming. I’ve been bracing for it for the last five months, wondering when it would finally come. “You know how much I love Haley, and I realize what an adjustment period this has been since your brother moved away. These last few months can’t have been easy for you. But I have a family, too, and six o’clock is the start of their time.”

“I know. God, I’m so sorry, Melinda.” I glance to the door Haley is hidden behind and lower my voice so she doesn’t overhear. “It’s taking me longer to get into the swing of things than I thought it would since Cade left. I can’t apologize enough.”

“I know you don’t do it on purpose, honey, but the fact remains that it keeps happening. I think I’ve been more than understanding, considering how long it’s been. I wanted to give you some leeway, since Cade helped so much with pickups. I haven’t implemented the tardy fees, but going forward, I’m going to have to.”

I nod my head, my lips pressed in a thin line. It’s not the fees—while they’re exorbitant to dissuade parents from being late, I could swing it if I needed to—it’s the fact that she even has to have this conversation with me. I feel like a kid in the principal’s office, and whether or not I’m barely twenty-two, I haven’t been a child in a long, long time.

“I understand.”

She pauses and shifts her weight from foot to foot. “I hate to even suggest this, but maybe you can find something closer to your work? Make it a bit easier to get there before closing? I could give you some referrals . . .”

I’m shaking my head before she can even finish, knowing I will do anything—anything—to keep Haley here. It’s the only day care she’s been in since she started going when she was only a baby. And after all the upheaval—her uncle leaving in the summer, and then starting pre-K this year—I don’t want to force any other changes on her.

“I’m not going to do that. I’ll make it work.”

Just then, Haley comes running out of the walk-in coat closet where all the kids’ cubbies and coat hooks are, her long, dark hair flying behind her, her eyes sparkling as she smiles. She’s . . . remarkable. The best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, and ever since Cade left, ever since I’ve been truly on my own, I feel like I’m failing her.

I always thought I had a good grip on the majority of things in her life, shouldered the bulk of it, but since my brother moved away, I’ve become blatantly aware of exactly how much he was helping, how much slack he was picking up. It sent me into a tailspin.

And I’m still trying to find my way out.

jason

It’s nights like these that make me want to shoot myself in the face.

Smells from the kitchen waft into the formal dining room where my mother, father, and I sit, our conversation stilted as it is every Tuesday evening. The clank of silverware on dishes is the only sound in this too-big room, filled with knickknacks you can’t touch, paintings that cost more than some people make in a year, and furniture you feel like you shouldn’t even sit on. My childhood home. If you can call a museum a home.

As if my mother has a bell under the table signaling when we’re finished with the first course, the newest maid comes sweeping into the room to clear our soup bowls, only to return moments later with salad plates. I hate Tuesday nights. Having to come back here and listen to the two people who view me as merely a means to an end . . . well, I think I’d rather get kicked in the balls repeatedly than be forced to suffer through this week after week.

Alas, they pay the bills . . .

“I saw Sheila at the club yesterday,” my mother says, her voice dripping with disdain.

Dad hums, briefly looking up from the Wall Street Journal spread out in front of him. Bastard can’t even spare twenty minutes without his attention focused elsewhere. No wonder my mom had a fling with the gardener.

My father doesn’t say anything, but Mom takes it as a cue to continue. “It’s obvious she got Botox. And, if I’m not mistaken, she got those saline lip injections, too. Honestly, if you’re going to have work done, at least be a little more discreet about it. She could—”

And just like that, I zone out, filling my mind with a hundred different things, just so I can get through the next half hour with my sanity intact.

It’s not until the main dish is in front of me—duck confit, I’m told—that I register my father clearing his throat, the room otherwise silent. I glance up, finding both my parents staring at me.

“What?”

My mom tsks, shaking her head. “Hardly the way to speak to your parents, Jason.”

I roll my eyes, because they’ve been a lot of things to me in my twenty-four years, but parents haven’t been one of them, despite how desperately I crave them to be—though I’d never admit that aloud.

“Your mother’s right. You’d think you’ve forgotten just who pays your bills.”

“Oh, believe me, I haven’t forgotten. How can I when you remind me every week?”

My father’s eyes don’t leave mine as he takes a sip of his bourbon before placing the glass back on the table. That stare has been known to make both women and men weep. Having been on the receiving end of it more times than I can fathom, I’m unmoved, so I simply stare back.

“I think we’ve been very lenient and understanding about your . . . education.” The way he says it, the way the word almost seems to get stuck in his throat, like he has to spit it out, makes my shoulders tense. He doesn’t believe an art school—despite its being one of the top art schools in the country—could ever provide me with the kind of education I walked away from when I left his alma mater, a well-regarded university I had absolutely no desire to attend. Not that he had much of a choice . . . I left after less than a semester, ready to get loans if I needed to, when my grandfather stepped in and paid for my first year at the art institute. He always told me I should do what I loved, despite what my father wanted. Despite what my parents wanted for me.

One could say he and my parents had slightly different outlooks on life. And family.

Unaware, or just uncaring, of my stiffened posture, he continues, “We allowed you to take a year off after high school to do God knows what while living off our money. And since that little break, we’ve given you five years to complete your degree, which is laughable, quite frankly, especially for someone who ranked in the top five percent of their high school graduating class. We’ve allowed you to switch schools from a prominent and distinguished university to something . . . better suited to your tastes. And in doing so, we’ve been on the receiving end of judgmental whispers at the club.”

“Oh Jesus. Not the club. How did you survive?” After my grandpa passed away a few years ago, those judgmental whispers at the club were the exact reason my parents decided to foot the bill for the rest of my education at the school they deemed inappropriate. How would it look to have a Montgomery taking out loans for school?

“Jason Daniel, that’s enough,” my mother snaps.

As if I never spoke, my father continues, “We’re done, Jason. You’ve screwed around long enough.”

I wait for a moment for him to say something more, to clue me in on what he’s threatening this time. We’ve been here before, too many times to count, and I’m not in the mood to play games. “You’re going to have to spell it out for me, Dad, because I’m not sure what, exactly, you mean.”

“What I mean is we will allow you this semester. I had our lawyer do some digging and check your records at school—”

“Oh, that’s nice. Who’d you pay off to do that?”

“—and you have more than enough credits to graduate, if you’d just declare your major and apply for graduation.” He sits back, dropping his napkin on the table before he folds his hands over his stomach. He’s like an older version of me—dark hair with only a hint of gray at the temples, dark eyes that can turn cold in an instant, and enough height to feel prominent when walking into a room. I can only hope our similarities end at our appearance.

I’m doing everything I can to make sure of it. To make sure I turn out more like the man my grandfather was than the man my father is. And the fact that I’m striving to be as good of a man as the one my father loathed is just icing on the cake, really.

I try to see him through the eyes of someone else, someone who might look up to him, might even fear him, but no matter what I do, he’s still the same guy I’ve known my whole life. The same guy who paid more attention to the newspaper or his phone or his computer than he did to his only son. The same guy who was always too busy to attend even one of his son’s Little League games. The same guy who pushed for only the best out of his child—not for his happiness, but for how it would be perceived by others.

And the sad thing is, I forgave him for all of it. I looked past it all and accepted it. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it. And then after my grandpa passed away, my father shut down the foundation my grandfather built from the ground up—one that provided homes for lower-class families—just so he could pocket more money, and that was it for me. I knew then he’d never be someone I could look up to.

When he’s sure I’m not going to say anything, he puts it bluntly, “Tuition will be paid through this semester. Your allowance for rent and necessities will continue until you’ve earned your master’s in architectural design. The paperwork has already been submitted; the . . . persuasions needed to admit you without a portfolio have been taken care of. While you’re completing your degree, I expect you to be at the firm, shadowing me and learning the ropes. I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to retire sometime in the next decade. God knows it’ll take that long just for you to figure out what the hell you’re doing and not fuck everything up.”

“Lawrence . . .”

With a careless hand, my father waves off my mother’s rebuke, not sparing her a glance. “January second, Jason. Not a day longer. I’m tired of waiting for you to come around and stop this bullshit of playing computer games or whatever the hell it is they have you do at that arts and crafts school. It’s time you stopped acting like a spoiled child and stepped up to take your place at the company.”

TWO

jason

I stalk out the front door of my parents’ house, letting it slam shut behind me, muttering every swear word I can think of as I head straight to my car. Really, their ultimatum doesn’t come as a shock. In fact, I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to institute some sort of deadline. After all, it doesn’t look good in their circles to have a twenty-four-year-old son still in college—not unless he’s getting his MBA or doctorate.

And even now, even with them pushing me to get my master’s, they’ll still be embarrassed of everything I’ve done . . . of the path I’ve taken to get where I am.

While I know I’ve got it good—parents paying for my degree, as well as all my bills—it’s not what I’d pick if I were given a choice. Growing up, I’d have given anything to be part of either of my best friends’ families. Both Cade’s and Adam’s parents made it a point to be involved in the lives of their kids. Made it a point to talk about more than getting straight A’s, college prep courses, what the stock of the company was doing . . . I can’t even remember the last time either one of my parents asked me a question that actually gave them insight into my life. Or asked a question and waited for an honest reply. The only time I got even a semblance of that kind of affection was with my grandfather before he passed away—a man my father couldn’t stand because he thought he was weak. Weak because he wasn’t running a multimillion-dollar firm. Because he “threw away” his profits to help others. Because he was an honest and decent man, something my father knows nothing about.

I peel out of my parents’ long, circular drive, uncaring of the tire marks I no doubt left, and I don’t even realize where I’m heading until I see the familiar streets. For as long as I can remember, this place has always felt like home, much more than mine ever did. It’s different now that Cade’s gone, but a sense of relief still settles over me whenever I walk through the door.

It’s not too late—the clock on my dash showing just before eight—and I hope I’m early enough to catch Haley before she goes to bed. If anyone can make me smile, it’s that little girl. While it’s a bit jarring to realize just how much I’ve grown attached to her in the months since Cade left, I can’t argue with the truth.

Tessa’s car is out front, and I head for the back door, twisting the knob like always, only to find it’s locked. Since Cade’s been gone, Tessa’s been more diligent about locking up—something her brother probably beat into her head before he went. I knock softly in case Haley is sleeping, but after a few minutes with no answer, I dig out my keys, using the spare I’ve had for years to let myself in.

The scent of fried food greets me, and a glance in the kitchen shows leftover chicken nuggets and a few fries on a small princess plate. Definitely a change of pace from the days when Cade was living here. He’d have a coronary if he knew what Tess has been feeding his niece.

I walk through the dark hallway to get to the living room, stopping short at what I see. Haley’s in front of the TV, markers spread out around her as she draws some pictures. When she turns around to look at me, I jolt in surprise at the state of her face, but I don’t have time to say anything before she rushes me.

“Jay!” Her mouth splits into a full smile as she hops up from the floor and barrels straight into me. I catch her and scoop her into my arms, careful to not get whatever the hell she has all over her face on my clothes.

“Hey, shorty. What’s, uh, what’s all this?” I ask, gesturing to her eyelids and cheeks and lips painted in too many colors to count.

Instead of answering, she looks down, avoiding my eyes.

“Haley . . .”

She leans in and whispers in my ear, “I found Mama’s makeup.”

Oh shit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the many years I’ve known Tessa, it’s that her makeup and whatever hair product shit she brings home are off-limits. And anyone who touches them is taking their lives into their own hands. She’s been like that since she was a teenager, and it’s only gotten worse since she went to cosmetology school. Haley clearly did this without permission.

“Okay,” I say, my voice even. “And where is your mom?”

She twists in my arms and points to the couch. I walk to it and peer over the back, finding a passed-out Tessa lying there, still in her all-black clothes from the salon, one arm covering her eyes, the other hanging off the side of the couch.

“How long’s your mom been asleep?”

“Since Doc McStuffins started.” Her eyes well up as she looks at me, her bottom lip quivering. Her voice is shaky as she asks, “You’re not gonna tell her, are ya?”

I probably should. Grown-up solidarity and all that, but I have a soft spot for Haley. And I’m not much for being a grown-up. “Nah, it can be our little secret. Let’s get you cleaned up and to bed. It’s late and you have school tomorrow.”

If Tessa fell asleep and managed to stay that way through the blare of some of the most obnoxious cartoons known to man, as well as Haley’s and my conversation, she must be tired. I’ll let her catch a bit more sleep while I get the munchkin ready for bed. I carry Haley down the hall, grabbing a washcloth out of the linen closet before heading into the bathroom. When she’s perched on the counter, I turn on the water to warm it up, then start the daunting task of getting this shit off her face. She looks like a goddamn clown, her cheeks bright pink, her lips covered in red lipstick spread down to her chin, green crap all around her eyes.

I shake my head. “How long did this take you?”

“I dunno.”

“You know you’re not supposed to get into your mom’s stuff, right?”

Head hanging, she pouts. “Yeah.”

“Have you ever done this before?”

“Just once.”

“I bet you got in trouble, too, didn’t you?”

“Please don’t tell her, Jay.” Her bottom lip quivers, and this time the tears roll, fat and plentiful, down her rosy cheeks. One look into those dark brown eyes and I’m a goner. I always thought she was a cool kid, but that was about it—a cool kid I saw every once in a while. Ever since Cade left, though, she’s clung to me, and in the process gotten me wrapped around her little finger.

“I won’t, but only if you promise me something.”

“I promise.”

I laugh, wiping at the mess over her eyes. “I haven’t even told you what it is yet.”

“I still promise.”

“Are you sure? Because I was going to make you promise to play Transformers with me every day for a week instead of your tea parties.”

Her mouth drops open, her eyes comically wide.

“Just kidding. But you can’t do this again.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it, shorty. Not again.”

“Promise.” She holds out her pinky for me to shake—some girlie thing that apparently means it’s serious business—and I hook mine in hers.

“All right. Now, let’s get you changed and then I’ll read a story.”

Two stories.”

“One, but nice try.”

She looks off to the side, clearly thinking about how she can get something extra out of me. “’Kay, one, but with funny voices.”

“Deal.”

•   •   •

ONCE HALEY IS in her pajamas and I’ve read a story and tucked her into bed, I head back into the living room, finding a still-sleeping Tessa curled up on the couch. Her mouth is parted, her lower lip pouty and full and taunting the hell out of me. Her breaths are even and deep and, though I try to stop it, though I try to tell myself not to look, the movement draws my eyes right to her chest. I glance away quickly, though not before getting an eyeful, frustrated and irritated with myself that I can’t seem to get past this sudden, overwhelming attraction to her. Though sudden isn’t entirely accurate. It’s been building for longer than I’d care to admit, even before Cade left. And in the months since he’s been gone, it’s only grown, as much as I’ve tried to stop it.

Feeling guilty that this is Cade’s little sister—the same girl I’ve known since I was nine years old . . . the same girl Cade asked me to look after like she was my sister—I force myself to turn around and then start cleaning up the small mess Haley left, capping her markers and putting her drawing station where it belongs. Once that’s done, I go into the kitchen and put the leftovers away. I see only Haley’s plate and wonder if Tessa got anything to eat. And then I wonder why I’m even thinking about it in the first place.

When everything’s put away, I make my way over to the couch to try and rouse Tessa. She sleeps like the dead—always has. I should be ashamed of some of the shit Cade, Adam, and I did to her when we were younger. Basically every practical joke you could play on a sleeping person was in our weekend repertoires for too many years to count. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven us for making her wet the bed when she was fourteen. And thinking that only reiterates how much more like a sister she should be to me than a girl I fantasize about when I jack off.

I squat beside the couch so I’m eye-level with her. Once I’m close enough, I notice the faint bruises under her eyes, the exhaustion cloaking her face, even in sleep. Her short, dark hair is falling over one of her eyes, and I have to physically restrain myself from reaching out and pushing it behind her ear. I scrub a hand over my face, forcing myself to get a fucking grip. What in the hell is wrong with me?

Dropping my hand, I grab hers and give it a little squeeze. She doesn’t move, her eyelids not even fluttering. Knowing I won’t be able to wake her, short of tossing ice water on her face, I bend and lift her easily from the couch. As I walk down the hallway toward her bedroom, I force myself to think of a thousand different things other than how her body feels pressed against mine. How her thighs feel under my arm, under my hand. How sweet the scent of her shampoo is and how she presses her face into my chest, trying to get closer.

Though it’s not me she’s trying to get closer to. She’s subconsciously reaching for something—or someone—and it’s definitely not me.

Once I get her set on the bed, I turn on her bedside lamp, then take her shoes off and toss them to the side. Even that simple act has me thinking of all the other items I’d like to remove from her body, and just like that I’m hard as a rock. Closing my eyes, I hiss out a curse and shake my head, pissed at myself for thinking this shit and pissed at my dick for being happy about it.

When I’ve talked my cock down and have myself under control, I try to shift her so I can get the covers out from underneath her. I jostle her enough that she finally rouses and turns toward me, her eyes fluttering once before she bolts upright, her forehead knocking me right in the chin.

“Jesusfuck!”

“Ow!” she groans as she presses her fingers to her forehead. “Jason? God, you scared the shit out of me! What are you doing in here?” She glances around the room, then down at her clothes before she checks the time. “It’s almost nine? Shit, I have to get Haley ready for bed. I must’ve fallen asleep.” She moves to get up, but I stop her, dropping on the end of her bed as I rub my chin where she whacked me.

“It’s all right. I took care of it.”

She snaps her head toward me, her eyebrows raised. “You did?” At my nod, she asks, “How long have you been here?”

“About an hour.”

Her mouth drops open. “An hour? Why didn’t you wake me up?”

Could I have woken you up? Besides, I figured there was a reason you were passed out on the couch, so I thought I’d let you sleep. It wasn’t a big deal.”

“God, I am failing left and right today,” she says as she falls back on the bed, her head on her pillow. The defeat bleeding into her voice is unmistakable.

“What do you mean you’re failing left and right today?”

“It’s nothing.”

I raise an eyebrow, staying silent as I stare her down. We’ve played this game before, and I always win.

With a huff, she says, “I was late getting Haley from day care . . . again. Melinda says if it happens anymore, she’s going to start charging me the tardy fees. And it’s not even the money, you know? It’s that I can’t even get there to pick Haley up in the first place.” She shakes her head, her arm going over her eyes. “I just feel like such a failure since Cade left. And I love that he went—hell, I pushed him to go. I didn’t want him here anymore, not when he had that amazing opportunity. But . . . it’s hard. I mean, I fed Haley frozen chicken nuggets for dinner tonight because I didn’t have time to cook anything decent. Last night was boxed mac and cheese. The night before, Spaghettios. Meanwhile, Cade always had dinner worthy of a five-star restaurant ready for us every night.”

“Cade’s a chef, Tess.”

She drops her arm to the bed as she looks at me again. “Doesn’t matter. Every day, I feel a little worse about how I’ve been handling—or not handling—everything since he left. One of these days I’m going to wake up with a World’s Shittiest Mom trophy next to my bed.”

“Oh Jesus.”

“Don’t ‘oh Jesus’ me.” She shoves her foot into my thigh, kicking me lightly. “I’m telling you how I feel. You don’t get to poke and prod and push me to open up and then roll your eyes when I finally do. You wanted it, so you get the full brunt of it now.”

I concede with a nod. “Fine. What else?”

She blows out a deep breath, her eyes on the ceiling. “I was just blind to everything he did for us, I guess. Which makes me a shitty sister on top of everything else. I feel like such an ass.”

I roll my eyes—can’t help it. She always was one for dramatics. “You’re not an ass, Tess, or a shitty sister. And you’re sure as hell not a shitty mom. Yeah, Cade did a lot when he was here, but you had one hundred percent of the responsibility heaped on you in a week when he was suddenly gone. Give yourself some time to acclimate.”

“I maybe could’ve bought that back in June or even July, but it’s been five months, Jason. Five months. I should have my shit together by now.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You do a hell of a lot more than I ever could. It took me forty-five damn minutes just to get Haley in her pajamas and get her teeth brushed.”

That finally pulls a smile from her. “Yeah, she needs a lot of direction at bedtime,” she says with a laugh. “Thanks, by the way. She didn’t give you any trouble, did she?”

“Nah, she’s a good kid.”

Her smile grows into the kind that lights up her whole face, and once again I’m struck by how fucking gorgeous she is. I don’t know when she went from being annoying Tess, younger sister to my best friend, to being this . . . hot, amazing woman who I’d prefer wasn’t related to any of my friends. It would sure make these near-constant and almost always inappropriate thoughts easier to handle.

“Thanks, I think so, too.” She yawns, stretching out as she tucks her feet between my thigh and the mattress, and the easy physical affection between us is just another reminder of why I need to get my shit together and stop thinking about her under me in my bed. “Why’d you come over, anyway?”

The reminder of what happened before I came here is like a bucket of ice water down my pants. Closing my eyes, I groan and scrub a hand over my face.

“Uh-oh . . . only one thing gets the always-unshakable Jason that frustrated. Dinner at your parents’, huh?”

“Yep.”

“What happened now?”

I lie back on the bed and prop myself up on my elbows, turning my head to her. “They gave me an ultimatum. I have till the end of the semester to finish up my undergrad, then it’s off to get my master’s in architecture or they’re cutting me off.”

Her mouth pops open as she stares at me. “Seriously?”

I nod. “They found out I’ve got enough credits to graduate if I’d just declare a major, so they’re not buying my bullshit anymore. No more putting off the inevitable. But, hey, I had a good solid five years of avoidance. Time to pay my dues, right?”

She’s quiet long enough for me to raise my eyebrow at her in question. When she still doesn’t say anything, I ask, “What’s with the silence?”

“I don’t know . . .” she says, hesitancy in her voice, then waves her hand while shaking her head. “Nothing, never mind.”

“Jesus, Tess, just spit it out.”

“I just . . . I don’t get you. I mean, you’ve got this amazing job waiting for you after graduation, one most people fresh out of college—even after getting their master’s—would kill for, where you’ll probably make three times what I could ever even hope to make, and you’re moping around like a petulant child. And it was your grandpa’s firm . . . I thought working there would make you happy. What gives?”

I snap my mouth shut, clenching my jaw and blowing a deep breath through my nose. “Look, I know how good I have it, okay? And I feel like a selfish asshole for not being grateful for it. But how would you like it if your whole future had already been mapped out for you from before you could even walk? It’s a lot of pressure. And not only that . . . Yeah, working for my grandpa’s firm would be awesome, if I could do it on my terms, but my dad won’t be satisfied with that. He won’t accept me working in their web division. More than that, though, the firm stopped being my grandpa’s when my dad got his claws in it, added a bunch of partners to boost revenue, and conveniently forgot about ethics. My grandpa is probably turning over in his grave at the shitshow my father has turned Montgomery International into.”

“Have you actually talked to your dad about doing a different job within the company? Maybe he’d be okay with you taking on a lesser role in another department.”

I shake my head. “Nope. No way he’d go for it. It’s all or nothing with him. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word compromise.”

“So you’re total opposites, then, huh?”

“When you start comparing me to my father, that’s my cue to leave.” I move to get up, but Tessa laughs, pressing both her feet on top of my thigh to get me to stay put.

“I’m just kidding; don’t be so touchy. You’re nothing like him, not really. But you are stubborn. Which is why I’m so surprised you’re taking this lying down. Just try it. What have you got to lose? He might surprise you.”

Or he might prove every thought I’ve ever had of him right, and I’d be back at square one.

THREE

tessa

Being on top of everything is exhausting. I got up thirty minutes earlier than usual just so I could have Haley’s clothes set out for her and be able to make her something for breakfast other than cold cereal. It was only oatmeal, but hey . . . it’s a step. I diligently stayed on schedule all day, moving faster when my clients showed up late, working my ass off to make sure I was out of the door of the salon by five thirty so I could get to Melinda’s with time to spare.

Dinner still isn’t up to Cade’s standards, but I figure with everything else I managed to do today, I’d cut myself a little slack. I pick at the broiled chicken breast and salad I made for myself while Haley retells every second of her day in between bites of her food.

“. . . then we had snack. Apples and peanut butter. That’s my favorite, huh?”

“Mhmm, I know, baby.”

“And then we practiced our letters. We’re on j this week. Like jump and jelly bean and jog and Jay! And then—”

And I try so hard to pay attention. To listen to her and stay involved, but the fact is I’ve been up since five o’clock this morning, and after getting Haley and myself ready, rushing her to preschool then myself to work, followed by eight hours on my feet at the salon, and another hour standing at the stove prepping dinner when I got home, I’m bone-deep tired. I want to fall face-first into my bed and not move for twelve hours. In reality, I’ll get to bed at nearly eleven and barely manage to squeak in six hours of sleep.

“Mama!”

Haley’s voice snaps me back to attention, and I lift my eyes to her. “What?”

“Can I have a treat?”

I should say no. She doesn’t need a treat, especially after the shit I’ve been feeding her, but the truth is, I don’t have the fight in me tonight. With a sigh, I relent. “Eat your green beans first.”

She scoops up a giant bite on her fork and shoves it in her mouth, like there’s a time limit on my offer. And for a minute, I let myself just watch her, get lost in her deep, dark eyes as she tells me more stories from her day, in the way she purses her lips when she’s thinking of what to say next. Her hair is tangled, and she keeps pushing it out of her face. I’ve needed to give her a trim for a month but haven’t found the time. She’s amazing and gorgeous, and she’s mine. And no matter what happens, what goes on in my life, I know at the end of the day, she’s there with me.

She’s a force of nature, this wild, crazy, vivacious little girl, and I love her more than anything in the world. She makes me laugh harder than anyone in my life. She’s kind and compassionate and the best part of my life.

But sometimes . . . sometimes on nights like tonight when I’ve had a rough and exhausting day, I wish it weren’t just the two of us. That there was someone else here to take some of the burden from my shoulders. To help in the mornings, to take her to the park, to read her bedtime stories in funny voices. Someone to keep me company while I’m cooking dinner. To have a glass of wine with me after Haley’s in bed. To warm me up during the cold winter nights.

And just like every time I have this thought—every single time—a crushing wave of guilt immediately follows it, and I regret thinking about it in the first place. Because what we have is pretty great, and thinking about filling our lives with something else, something more, feels like I don’t think she’s enough. Like we’re not enough, together.

But that’s not it at all. I love her and would give my life for her. The times we spend together are my favorite in the world. But at the end of the day, when she’s in bed, it’s just me.

It’s just me, and I can’t help but want something more.

jason

I should’ve gone out tonight. Should’ve called up Sean or Kyle and had them meet me at Shooters or, hell, anywhere. At least then I’d have the interference of noise and people to distract me from what my brain won’t stop gravitating toward, what it won’t stop focusing on—namely a girl with dark brown hair and a personality too large for her petite frame.

But I’m just lying to myself if I think any of that would help. Because in the last nine months, I’ve done everything in my power to try and get Tessa out of my head, to stop this interest before it even started, and she just keeps working her way back in.

I’ve tried to distract myself with women who are the exact opposite of her—leggy and blond and reserved. Hell, I’ve tried to distract myself with women who are seemingly just like her. Same build, same hair, same eyes. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help. Because, at the end of the night, they’re not her, and my mind still snaps right back to her every single time.

Every. Single. Fucking. Time.

Groaning, I grab the remote and flip through the channels until I get to the football game on tonight. Taking a pull of my beer, I lean back on the couch, the leather creaking under me, and try to focus on the game, but my mind’s going a million miles an hour. Where Tessa’s not overwhelming my thoughts, the shit from my parents fills the void. There’s no avoiding it. No getting out of it. Nothing I can say or do to stop my future from plowing into me like a freight train.

Maybe I wouldn’t feel the way I do about it if they’d just asked. Just asked what I wanted to do. If I wanted that. But of course they didn’t. Because it was a family business, they assumed I wanted to be a part of it. And I might have, if not for my dad. The firm was something my grandfather built from the ground up, but something my father turned so ugly I didn’t even recognize it anymore. It’s no longer the small firm with a soft spot for philanthropy my grandfather started. Now it’s all about the profits. In the years since my father’s taken control, he’s laid off good people only a couple years from getting their pension and hired recent grads for half the salary. He’s found every possible shortcut he can take so he can pocket more profits. And the thing that cuts the most is when he closed the foundation Grandpa created, building homes for low-income families—the only thing I was able to look forward to. The one thing I’d have so I could get past having to work for my dad. He told me he shut it down because it wasn’t good for the bottom line.

In other words, it wasn’t satisfactory for him to be bringing in less than a small fortune every year, despite the reason for that being helping others in need. All that matters to him—to both my parents—is the next dollar that comes into the bank, the next brand-new car, the next vacation to Paris or Saint-Tropez or Tahiti. It’s always about the quality of what they have, how fancy it is, and to whom they can show it off.

And that includes their one and only child.

It’s on nights like this I miss my grandpa the most. My grandma died when I was young, in elementary school, so my memories of her are faded, but he talked about her like she hung the moon. And the stories he shared sounded like fairy tales to me, because the life I lived, the love I saw between my parents wasn’t love at all. It was a commitment built on mutual benefits . . . on what they could both gain. When my dad aligned himself with my mother’s family—the very epitome of old money—he married into the life he always wanted.

The life my grandpa tried to show me there was so much more than.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I take the welcome distraction, fishing it out. Tessa’s name flashes across the screen, and I close my eyes, blowing out a deep breath. Guess it won’t be much of a distraction at all.

Bringing the phone up to my ear, I answer, “Hey.”

“Jason?” Tessa’s voice is higher pitched than usual, panic seeping through, and I bolt upright.

“Tess? What’s wrong?”

“Oh, um, nothing much. It’s just—oh shit. Haley! Bring me another bucket from under the kitchen sink!” Her voice is loud and frantic as she yells to Haley, before she speaks into the phone again. “Yeah, um, do you happen to know anything about pipes?”

“Like . . . water pipes?”

“Yeah . . .”

“Tess, what’s going on?”

“I just . . . I forgot to leave a trickle of water running in the bathroom, and it was so cold today, the pipes froze. And . . . burst. There’s water everywhere. I don’t . . . I don’t know what to do.” Where it was frantic before, her voice has softened, wavering just slightly, and I don’t care that I know jack shit about plumbing. I set my beer down, thankful I’d managed to have only a couple swallows, and get up from the couch, grabbing my coat and slipping on my shoes before I’m out the door, phone still at my ear.

“I’ll be there in ten,” I say, then hang up, rushing out into the cold November night to help a girl I’m trying my hardest not to think about.

tessa

There is so much water. Buckets upon buckets, and with every emptying of them, it’s another reminder of how I screwed up. Again. Of how this never would’ve happened if Cade had been here. He never would’ve let it happen.

The pipes froze once, when I was nine. Though we’d been in the house for a few years by then, the previous winters had all been mild, so we’d never had to deal with it before. But that particular winter was harsh and brutal, colder than it’d been in a long time. It was after my dad had passed away, so it was just me, my mom, and Cade. And even though he was only eleven, Cade still stepped in and took charge. Like he just knew what needed to be done.

Then every year after that, he or my mom were diligent in making sure to always leave the tiniest trickle of water running on days it got well below freezing. Every freaking year, they remembered to do that. And the one year I’m here by myself, I can’t even manage to turn on a fucking water faucet.

I’m biting back a fresh wave of frustrated tears—which serve only to piss me off more—when the back door opens, and Haley calls out for Jason. He murmurs something to her, then the floors creak as he makes his way toward me.

“Tess, what—” He stops in his tracks in the doorway, freezing as he takes stock of the situation in front of him. His eyes dart around—to the puddles of water on the floor, the bucket I’m holding under the vanity in front of the pipes, and finally to me and what a hot mess I’m sure I look like. I’m soaked from head to toe, and I don’t even want to imagine what my makeup is doing right now.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Caged in Winter
 
“This is why I love New Adult!”—Jennifer L. Armentrout, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
 
“Pure, sweet, hot romance…a must read.”—M. Leighton, New York Times Bestselling Author

“The slow build of Winter and Cade’s relationship is satisfying and real. Walsh’s debut raises the bar for NA books and will leave readers hungry for more.”—Booklist (starred review)

Customer Reviews

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Tessa Ever After 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Under_The_Covers_BookBlog More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Francesca and posted at Under The Covers Book Blog After reading CAGED IN WINTER I was left wanting more between Jason and Tessa.  Jason is Tessa’s brothers’ best friend.  He’s older than her, he’s a bit of an unreformed playboy, and he has always seen her as a little sister.  Right?  I just LOVE those stories!  So when Cade moves away and Tessa needs someone to step up and fill in Cade’s shoes and help watch out for her and her daughter.  And of course, Cade leaves his best friend Jason in charge of that task. But Jason quickly figures out that his feelings for Tessa have changed and take him by surprise.  He’s attracted to the woman she’s become, that strong and determined woman who has struggled and persevered to make something of herself, even after getting pregnant at 17 and being a single mother.  In so many ways, Tessa is the opposite of Jason.  And he is left feeling inadequate and undeserving of someone like her.  But that doesn’t stop him from pursuing her. I loved both main characters!  I often read books where I want to throttle one or the other, but I didn’t in this one and I just enjoyed the story!   Despite their young age, this was a more mature story.  In parts because of the fact that Tessa has had to grow up fast and her life is already leaps ahead from her someone her age.  Jason had to catch up quick to fit in and I think he did a great job at that.  We see him grow throughout the book, from the carefree spoiled rich playboy into a responsible man who wants to take care of his family.  I especially loved seeing his interactions with Tessa’s daughter! If you liked CAGED IN WINTER, you will love TESSA EVER AFTER.   And if you enjoy a sweet friends to lovers romance, then this will hit the mark for you.  
Anonymous 19 days ago
Love the series.
jenn_jenn0 More than 1 year ago
JASOOOOONNNN. Sigh. Jason Jason Jason. This book is SO good. I think it might even be my favorite from Brighton's work and Jason is a big part of it. I've always been a fan of Brighton's but she certainly blew me away with Tessa Ever After. Tessa Ever After is a companion to Caged in Winter and it picks up a few months from where CiW left us. Tessa, Cade's younger sister, is a single mom and after having Cade always around, is now juggling to keep everything going smoothly. She feels like a big failure since she has been, repeatedly, late in picking up her daughter, Haley, and having trouble attending to little surprises at home. Thankfully, Jason, Cade's best friend, is around to help her after Cade asked him to keep an eye on Tessa. Of course, what happens next is how neither of them were planning on falling for the other. I loved all the characters in this book. Brighton always manage to create characters so real that you can just picture them in real life. Tessa is such a great character and I just loved being in her head. There were so many times where insecurities and fears came up but it never felt overboard or wrong for her to have them. In fact, I felt all of her emotions at the same time she did. Haley is the cutest thing ever and I'm definitely in love with her. It also help that my niece is named Haley as well and I can just picture being just like Haley in the book. Paige, Tessa's best friend, oh my gosh, I love her and her straight up honesty. She is such a good balance for Tessa and I just hope that we can get a book on her. Now, about Jason. JASONNNNN. Oh God. What can I say about Jason? Um....well, he's a hot, sweet, swoony, and a dirty talker and he know how good he is. That's not to say he is not serious or real. He has his reasons for being a playboy but despite that, he is aware of everything he needs to do. Once he realized that he might have feelings for Tessa, he knew he just couldn't mess around with her considering he is Cade's best friend and how attached he is to Haley. He also knew he couldn't just push Tessa and when to give her her space. So even though he is a cocky playboy, he has the perfect balance when to push and when to be serious. He is definitely my favorite from Brighton's heroes. Tessa Ever After was such a quick read and I devoured it in a couple of days. It probably would have been even faster if I didn't have that pesky issue of work/school/wedding planning to deal with. Brighton Walsh has done it again and given us a great story, sexy times, laughter, and character development. I've said this before but I'll say it again, I'll read anything Brighton writes and this book proves why I'll do so. So go forth and read this!
skizzles22 More than 1 year ago
Actual Rating: 4.5 Stars! The best friend’s sister/sister’s best friend romance trope is one of my FAVORITES. And after reading Caged in Winter, I was dying to get my hands on Tessa’s and Jason’s story. Two characters I grew to love in the few scenes they were in during CiW, ones whose happy ending I wanted to read so badly. Because they both deserved that happy ending.  Tessa, who is so strong and selfless and hard-working, a girl who just wants to do right by her daughter. She’s worked extremely hard to become the woman she is now, and she feels like she’s failing. With Cade gone, she’s left on her own and she never realized how much he helped out. And she’s floundering, trying so hard to be the best mother she can be, putting so much pressure and expectations on herself. I loved Tessa’s strength, even when she was struggling. I loved that she kept fighting for more, for herself and her daughter. She’s her own worst enemy, and she’s better than what she thinks of herself, but she doesn’t see that. All she can see is a failure.  But Jason doesn’t see a failure when he looks at her. He sees a woman who had to grow up too fast, one who took control of her life and made something for herself. He can’t say the same for himself. He’s been in school for five years, wasting away his time because he knows that once he graduates, he has to work for his father. And that’s not what he wants. But he won’t let himself want anything else, won’t let himself dream of possibilities. And that almost stops him from losing the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Jason could be so clueless, so narrow-minded, but he had wonderful growth like Tess. He found something worth fighting for, a dream, and two girls who made his life infinitely better. The romance between the two of them was HOT. Their chemistry is off-the-charts. Jason is a smooth, confident dirty-talker who knows what he wants and is not afraid to go after it. He’s a total Alpha, but one who cares so deeply for Tess and one who just wants to prove himself to her. *fans self* Tessa is more cautious, a little insecure. Her past relationships have given her a less than stellar opinion on sex and romance. She wants a little more for herself, something that she struggles with because how could she think she needs more than her little girl? But she wants love. Someone to share in the load, someone who will hold her at night and play in the snow with Haley. Is it selfish? I say hell no. And Tessa didn’t realize all along that the man who was perfect for them was right there the whole time. I adored reading about them falling in love. It was a passionate, steamy affair that made the two main characters better. In each other, they found a partner, and a love that had a strong foundation built in friendship, mutual respect, and understanding. I have to say, I’m usually not a fan of kids in books, or main characters who are parents. Not that there is anything wrong with them, not at all. And I KNOW that they are sorely underrepresented in books, especially in NA ones. I’m in this age range, and let me tell you, so many of my fellow high school graduates have kids. It’s extremely common. So I don’t know why I don’t like reading them that much, but maybe it’s because I haven’t read enough good ones (and also could probably be because I don't like kids that much in real life). Being a mom was such an integral part of Tessa’s life and her development as a character. I love how awesome she is to her Haley, how patient and understanding, and you can see how much she loves her little girl. And Haley was such a great secondary character; she’s so freaking adorable. I especially loved the scenes with Jason and her (he dressed up for a tea party for her BRB MELTING FROM SWOONS), or all three of them together. They’re the cutest damn trio. I also loved the additions of Paige and Adam, and of course, Cade (even though he needed to mind his own business and let Tess live her life the way she wanted to). Paige is the greatest best friend. She’s cool, confident, and so very different from Tessa’s more quiet demeanor. I want this woman to get her own book! GET ON THAT, BRIGHTON. Also, I’ve always loved the bromance between the three guys--Adam, Cade, and Jason. I want more of that, too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Incredible writing, amazing character development, and the swooniest of swoony book boyfriends. Brighton Walsh is forever an auto-buy for me!
LovinLosLibros More than 1 year ago
Last year I chose Cade as my book boyfriend of the year. As much as I love Cade, this year it's all about his best friend Jason. Holy swoons. That boy is something else. He absolutely took my breath away and I especially loved seeing him interact with Tessa's daughter, Haley. They were precious together and I love how much he cares for her and she for him. Falling for the sibling's best friend is absolutely one of my favorite romance tropes and so I was over the moon reading this one. Jason and Tessa have known each other since they were kids, but it's only lately that both of them have starting seeing one another in a different light. Sure, Tessa crushed on Jason as a teen, but nothing ever came of it. Jason has always been good-looking and getting girls to fall and swoon all over him is no hardship. With Cade having left for Chicago to pursue his dream as a chef, Tessa finds herself relying on Jason more than she ever thought she would. She's been having trouble adjusting to life without her brother there to help her and raising a four year old by yourself is no walk in the park. My heart ached for Tessa because she feels so defeated when this book begins. She feels like she's failing and that kills her because she is fiercely independent. She loves her daughter unconditionally, but it's been hard finding her own groove. Jason has been seeking comfort from Tessa and Haley, as his family situation isn't the greatest. His parents are putting the pressure on and have now given him an ultimatum in regards to his future. He knows he shouldn't be entertaining these feelings for Tessa, considering they are for his best friend's sister. Who is very clearly off-limits. Cade was quite the ass to Jason about Tessa and it really bothered me he was being such a jerk when HE was the one that asked Jason to keep an eye out for them while he was away. To be fair, Jason has always been a bit of a player, so I can understand Cade's feelings, as he doesn't want his sister to be hurt again. Cade isn't there to see Jason changing, and as much as Jason knows he shouldn't go after her, he can't help himself. He sees her dating these boring, nice guys who don't spark her to life and as much as he tries to talk himself out of wanting her, he just can't. I loved Jason and Tessa's chemistry. Whew. Talk about hot! Once these two give in to their attraction to one another, it's explosive. But we knew it would be, especially after the first time he swept her out onto the dance floor at a bar. Walsh did a great job with the build up and I like that she kept their relationship relatively low angst. Sure, there's a bit of a conflict and miscommunication that throws a wrench in their burgeoning relationship, but Jason melted my heart with how he resolved it. He's the perfect complement to Tessa and his love for Haley is just beautiful to witness. I really liked Paige, Tessa's best friend, and I really hope Walsh is planning to write her story. She's fun, flirty, and has no filter, which I loved about her! She's been hurt before and hasn't let herself settle down, choosing to bounce from guy to guy, but never really finding what she's liking for to fill the void. Personally, I would love to see her with Adam, Cade and Jason's friend. Overall, this book completely rocked my socks. When I finished reading, there was no contemplation necessary- it was a 5 star read for me. I love Brighton's books so I can't wait to read what she gives us next!
TeresaMaryRose More than 1 year ago
Last year I read Caged In Winter and in one fell swoop I fell in love with the book and discovered a new great author. I had really high hopes for Tessa Ever After and this book did not disappoint. I would even go as far to say that this is my favorite Brighton book to date. I devoured this story and I fell in love with the characters, the main ones and the secondary ones. Tessa is an incredible woman and I give her all the credit in the world. I can’t even imagine balancing all of the responsibility she does and I admire her so much for it. She puts her daughter first in everything and it really takes a toll on her when she feels like she can’t keep up anymore. She is so strong and so brave and a wonderful mom. And then we had Jason who I absolutely adored. Gahh I loved him so much. He fit in so well with Tessa and Hayley. The scenes with him and Hayley absolutely melted my heart… nail polish and hats and feather boas galore. Not only did he fall for Tessa but he fell for Hayley too and that was so important. Both of them were incredibly important to him and they came as a package deal. Hayley had Jason wrapped around her little finger and he loved it. Now I wanna talk about that little cutie Hayley because she was such a sweetheart and so funny. She stole the show on so many occasions. I will never call lipstick anything other than blipstick again. I also absolutely adored Paige! She was such a great friend to Tessa and I loved that! I always love it when a book portrays a positive and strong female friendship. So many times books use the friendship and twists it and makes drama, but I love when a book shows that a friendship can be just that, a friendship. I think Paige needs a book next. Adam could also use a book… possibly together? *puppy dog eyes* Tessa Ever After is everything I want from a new adult book but it doesn’t follow the typical formula. It has its own distinct feel and flair to it. Tessa and Jason together are so incredible and I loved them so much. Their chemistry is amazing and I love that they are such good friends as well. They both deserved to finally find this happiness together. And it is even sweeter because it came along when neither one was really expecting it. All in all, Tessa Ever After was such a great read and I absolutely loved Jason and Tessa. New adult fans, you do not want to miss this series!
Sandy-thereadingcafe More than 1 year ago
4.25 stars--TESSA EVER AFTER is the second installment in Brighton Walsh’s contemporary, new adult Caged in Winter romance series. This is graduate student Jason Montgomery, and Tessa Maxwell’s storyline. Jason is Cade Maxwell’s best friend; Tessa is Cade’s sister; Cade we met in book one Caged in Winter. Although TESSA EVER AFTER is the second installment in the series, it can be read as a stand alone without any difficulty. The premise follows the friends to lovers relationship between single mother (to Haley) Tessa Maxwell, and Jason Montgomery. Following Cade’s move to Chicago, Jason became Tessa’s protector and guardian which soon escalated into something more. Jason doesn’t do relationships –he is more of the one night stand variety- and Tessa rarely dates as she is responsible for her five year old daughter. When Jason spies Tessa on one of her rare date nights out, he knows it is time to claim Tessa as his own. The relationship between Tessa and Jason is one of immediate attraction; there is plenty of sexual chemistry between our leading couple, and the push and pull of ‘do we or don’t we’. Tessa has loved Jason for as long as she can remember but Jason is her big brother’s best friend and Jason considers Tessa off limits. The more Jason insists on friendship, the more their attraction to one another grows but Tessa has watched Jason’s parade of women for years, and in this, she doesn’t want to be another statistic. Our hero Jason has fallen in love with Tessa, and with it comes the love of a five year old girl who likes playing princess and tea parties. Cade’s over protective big brother complex takes over when he threatens Jason if any harm comes to his little sister, but Tessa reassures her brother, that she is no longer the naïve little girl who needs protection. The $ex scenes are intimate and erotic-Jason likes to talk dirty in the bedroom. The colorful cast of secondary and supporting characters include Tessa’s best friend Paige; Cade and Winter from book one; as well as their mutual friend Adam, whose own life is about to implode. We are introduced to Jason’s parents- a couple whose control over their son’s life matches Jason’s need to escape his ascribed future-there is no fun when your entire life has been mapped out by those in charge. TESSA EVER AFTER is a delightful and intoxicating storyline. There are moments of heartbreak and misunderstanding; passion and love. Brighton Walsh has the ability to seduce the reader into a compelling and addicting storyline with a happily ever after. The premise is engaging; the characters charismatic and real. If you are a fan of the new adult genre, you will not be disappointed.
kimberlyfaye More than 1 year ago
As the ending approached, I wanted to find a way to stop time and keep living inside this book. Everything from the characters and their stories to the writing left me hopelessly addicted and unable to think about anything else once I started. (And long after I finished, too.) This book was chock full o' feels and I'm not sure I can adequately express how much I loved it.  Tessa Ever After truly is the best of new adult. This is one of my top five reads of the year so far, and I'm pretty sure it'll end the year high on that list. I didn't think I could love anyone more than Cade and Winter. I couldn't have been more wrong. In reality, I actually loved Tessa and Jason even more. (Shhh… don't tell… I don't like to play favorites.) I don't know what the plan is for this series, but I hope there's more. Like, maybe a book about Paige and Adam? (hint hint) I think they could be incredible together. In this book, single mom Tessa is feeling overwhelmed by life. Her brother Cade has left to chase his dreams – and she's happy for him – but she's struggling to raise her daughter Haley without his help. He's always been there for them and she's having a difficult time balancing everything without his help. Tessa's a great mom, but she's feeling the pressure of doing it all on her own. Cade's best friend, Jason, keeps popping in when she needed him most – even if she didn't actually ask for the help.  Jason promised Cade he wouldn't ever pursue his sister, but that's a promise he's finding more and more difficult to keep as he spends time with her and her daughter, Haley. He definitely feels a connection to both of them and it comes through in all his actions. I loved watching things develop between him and Tessa because it felt so real and right. But even more than that, I loved the scenes in which he spent time with Haley. You want to talk about things that will make you melt? OMG. My heart melted and I swooned big time. I swear, I'll never be the same.  I probably don't need to tell you I loved Tessa and Jason together, but I'm going to anyhow. As much as I adored these characters on their own, something special happened when they were together. They had tons of chemistry and a long history of friendship and supporting the other. It was natural that feelings would start to shift into something more than friendship once Cade was no longer there to police them. (Don't get me wrong, I LOVED Cade, but I think he was wrong in this situation… though I can't entirely fault him for wanting to save his sister from becoming simply a notch on Jason's bedpost. Which is exactly what I think probably would've happened had they tried anything before now. Jason wasn't ready for more before.) I loved watching Tessa, Jason and Haley become a sort of family on their own. I get all smiley just even thinking about it now.  There's not an abundance of angsty drama in this book – something I'm grateful for – but there is a little bit. Jason's family pissed me off from the start, but it only got worse. His mother. Ugh. Without getting spoilery, the biggest situation happens late in the book and it broke my heart (more than) just a little. I knew Jason's motivations were honorable, but Tessa didn't and I hated seeing her hurt. But holy grand gesture. I melt into a puddle just thinking about it… and, of course, I was in tears while reading it. *squees* Even if you're not a huge new adult fan, you should take a chance on this book this series. You won't be disappointed. If anything, you'll fall in love and be anxiously awaiting the next book as much as I am. I wish I could give it more than five stars.
Kristas_Dust_Jacket More than 1 year ago
We met Tessa, her daughter Haley and Jason in Caged in Winter. Tessa is Cage's sister and Jason is one of Cage's best friends. When Cage and Winter left for a life in Chicago, you might remember that he was concerned about leaving Tessa and Haley behind since they relied on him for a lot of support and help. So, he asked Jason to step in and help. I'm sure you can see where this is going. And, it's every bit as awesome as you would think. Tessa, Cage and Jason have been friends forever, but Tessa has often wanted to be more than that with Jason. For Jason, these feelings of more are a recent development, but no less real. The problem is... families. Cage isn't too thrilled about his manwhore BFF dating his sister. And, Jason's awful, overbearing and distant parents want nothing more than to make Tessa and Haley into Jason's trophy family in an effort to make them look better. In addition, Haley is the most important person in Tessa's life, and the person she always has to think of first. Given Jason's noncommittal past, Tessa has a very real concern that if she lets him into hers and Haley's life, and he bails on them when things get too real, that it won't be just Tessa that gets hurt. I get her concern, and I respect it a lot. A little girl wouldn't understand if a man who had become entrenched in her life suddenly just disappeared without a word. Tessa's lost her way a bit, though. She seems to have forgotten that the key to a happy life isn't just one thing, like stability or money. She's out there looking for what she thinks is the "perfect man" - one who has a good job and a house and a car and a 401K. These guys bore her to tears. They're not Jason. But, she dates them anyway because they fit in her image of the right guy. And, she's really feeling the burden of being a single mom and sees the benefit of having a steady someone in her life to help her out. And, in the process of her overthinking, she misses what's right in front of her. Jason may be a manwhore, but Tessa seems to have missed the fact that he's been reformed, thanks to her and Haley. Jason, in doing what Cage asked of him and hanging around more to help out, sees all the wonderful qualities in Tessa that most people overlook. And he sees what a joy Haley is to his life, which is otherwise devoid of happiness and light. Jason starts to imagine a life with her in it, and he can't shake that image. It starts a slippery slope of wants and dreams that encourage him to go after what he really wants. I seriously loved this book. Hard. I think I liked it more than Caged in Winter. Maybe that's because I'm a mom and Tessa is a mom. Maybe it's because there's just something about a big, sexy man who willingly dons a feather boa and has a tea party with a little girl just to see her smile. Yeah - I think that's it. Jason just took my breath away with his sheer awesomeness. They way he cared for Tessa and Haley was the stuff heroes are made of. That and the hard choices he had to make. There is no way you will not finish this book and not love Jason. Thank goodness for the dual POV. Jason's chapters were my favorite. There was a lot to his thoughts on his relationship with his parents that factored into how he grew up to be the kind of man he is now. It lent a lot to this story. The pacing was perfect. The chemistry was smoking. The ending was all I needed it to be. I need more from Brighton Walsh like this.