Mike waited until she looked at him again, and then gave her a sign no one could misunderstand.
Beth’s eyes went to ice as she stepped toward him.
Kevin quickly stepped between them. “Stop.”
Beth laughed. “Still protecting him from the real world?”
“You’ve dropped Amber off, now go.”
Yeah, go back to the rock you crawled out from beneath, Mike signed.
Unable to catch the meaning, Beth narrowed her eyes. “What are you doing here anyway? You need more money from your brother? Or is it just that it’s too early to be hitting the bars and you’re wasting the time checking out cute underage girls?”
Kevin had to plant a hand in the middle of Mike’s chest to hold him back. He wrapped his other hand around Beth’s upper arm and escorted her to the door. “If you’re late to pick up Amber, I’m going to charge you by the minute.”
“Oooh.” She shivered, making sure to brush up against him. “You know I love it when you talk tough.” Before he knew what she meant to do, she slid her fingers in his hair, tugged his face forward, and planted her lips on his. “Mmm,” she purred when he jerked free. She licked her lips slowly and suggestively. “Still know how to kiss. Come on, have a drink with me tonight. For old times.”
He’d rather plow his bike into a cement freeway divider. “Six o’clock.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Actually, it’s a hell no.”
“Fine.” Her eyes frosted over. “You’re still impossible.” She straightened her purse on her shoulder, gave one last glare to Mike, who rolled his eyes, and stalked out.
What the fuck? Mike signed.
I mean you. Why didn’t you kick her ass out of here?
Were you not watching? That’s what I just did.
Mike shook his head. You kept Amber for her.
Amber is a kid dealt a crappy set of parents. I’m not going to penalize her for her mother being the queen of bitches.
Mike looked at him, shook his head, but let out a low sound that was meant to be a laugh. Whatever.
Why are you here this early? Kevin signed.
Thought I’d check things out. See how things run.
You’ve given the job a lot of thought then. Kevin felt a surge of hope. Dealing with Mike was tricky, like dealing with his teens. If Kevin appeared too eager, Mike would blow him off.
But Mike surprised him. Yeah, and you’d better get to it before I wise up to the low pay and nonexistent benefits and get the hell out of here.
Kevin bit back his impatient reply. That Mike was here was good. It showed promise. He needed to leave it at that.
But, damn, he was getting really tired of coercing the people in his life to live up to their potential.
Hope resented like hell being treated like a stupid little kid. Granted, she’d acted the part earlier, cranking the stereo to headbanging rap for the pleasure of watching Aunt Apple’s blood boil. She’d kept the music cranked as she applied her black eyeliner and lipstick. She’d actually not worn makeup until this year, when her best friend Amy-Ann dumped her for Sally, and then she was accused of stealing that lip gloss she hadn’t stolen, and then her mother started acting like she was such a burden…
Everyone treated her as the black sheep. So she’d decided to dress the part.
Mia balked at the makeup. “Whatever look you were going for,” she’d said earlier, “you missed.”
“If you’re worried I’m going to embarrass you,” Hope had responded, “I could just stay here.”
“I don’t think so.”
That burned, Hope admitted. Yet again being treated like a piranha or, worse, a common thief.
But truth was truth. She wasn’t wanted here any more than she’d been wanted anywhere else. The thought brought a heavy weight to her shoulders and a despair that might have been assuaged by chocolate donuts, but there weren’t any. There wasn’t any breakfast at all except coffee and dry toast—ick—but Aunt Apple had promised to buy her whatever she wanted at the grocery store, and Hope was going to hold her to that.
They passed by the Diplomat, and Hope gave a tire a kick. It wouldn’t start, but Kevin was going to look at it. She hoped he meant it.
She slid into Mia’s fancy car, then struggled to act cool when she nearly drooled. The leather seats were soft, squishy, wonderful. They made an expensive-sounding noise, and she tried not to gawk over how great they felt compared to her own ripped seats, which scratched her skin.
Mia pulled out. Hope felt her glancing over, and finally she rolled her eyes. “What? Am I breathing wrong or something?”
“I thought teenagers were supposed to talk nonstop.”
“And I thought adults weren’t.”
Mia sighed and slid on her fancy sunglasses, and they drove in silence until they pulled up to the biggest high school Hope had ever seen. The teen center was next to it, a building that looked like a fast-food joint without any signs.
“It used to be a drive-through burger place,” Mia said. “Then an ice cream shop. But the students kept ripping the place off, and both folded. It’s a teen center now, at least until the building sells again.”
They got out of the car. Hope suddenly felt like dragging her feet. It was one thing to go to her school and stick out like a sore thumb. Another entirely to do it in front of countless strangers.
“What’s the matter?” Mia asked.
What if the kids didn’t like her here either? “Nothing.”
“Well, then pick it up. I’m late—Damn it!” One of her fancy high heels got caught on the asphalt and she nearly fell on her ass.
Hope’s mouth twitched.
Mia straightened and glared at her. “I’m ruining my Manolos.”
Hope glanced down at the admittedly gorgeous four-inch, strappy, satin-cork wedges and secretly drooled. “I’d be more worried about your ankles.” Someday she was going to wear shoes just like that, in black, ankles be damned.
“I’ve been walking in heels for years, my ankles are—Argh!” She nearly went down again, but this time when she straightened she was lopsided.
She’d broken off the heel. “Shit.”
“I hope you got those on sale,” Hope said.
“Now what am I supposed to do?”
Hope lifted her heavy-soled black boots. “Payless specials, $15.99,” she said, but truthfully they didn’t look anywhere as sweet as the Manolos. “Want to borrow ’em?”
“No, thank you.” Mia grated her teeth and hobbled into the building.
Hope followed more reluctantly. The inside of the building had been painted a different primary color on each wall, each with tons of Polaroids of the kids tacked up. In the front room, clearly once a dining area, were two huge L-shaped couches, a Ping-Pong table, and a TV with PlayStation 2 running.
There was an older girl, maybe a college student, running the show, checking kids in, assigning them to stations like Ping-Pong, PlayStation, basketball, etc. It must have been someone’s birthday, because there was a balloon bouquet on the counter and confetti everywhere.
Watching Apple limp up to the sign-in area was fun. There was something to be said for Aunt Mia’s confidence. Her shoulders never slumped, her chin was always high, and her clothes screamed I paid a fortune so back off, sucker.
Hope wanted to be just like her when she grew up.
The girl at the counter was reading an Us Weekly magazine with Paris Hilton on the cover, who wore some silly pink froufrou dress and was hoisting up her tiny little dog, who wore a matching outfit. The girl didn’t even look at Mia.
“Excuse me,” Mia said.
The girl kept reading but lifted a sign that said FULL TODAY.
“I’d like to get my niece into the program for this week,” Mia said.
Still reading, the girl shook her head. “Sorry.” She waved the sign. “Full today. It’s horseback riding day, and we fill up fast.”
Hope had no problem missing the horseback riding.
Mia opened her mouth, probably to blast the girl, but Hope tapped her aunt on the shoulder. “Um, I can go with you to work.”
“No.” Still looking cool as rain despite the early-morning heat and the fact that she’d broken her sandal, Mia shook her head. “You cannot come with me to work. Listen,” she said to the college girl. “Where’s Kevin McKnight?”
“He’s in his office, but—”
“Great. I’ll talk to him.”
“He’s getting ready to head over to the high school. He’s teaching—”
Mia simply walked around the counter, pulling Hope along with her.
“Hey,” the girl called. “You can’t—”
“Watch me,” Mia muttered.
Hope sure did. She watched Mia look like a woman on a mission, watched the younger woman cave, watched Mia get what she wanted.
God, to be like that.
They entered a hallway. There was a huge kitchen on the right, empty. The first door on the left opened wide and a woman sauntered out. She had perfect hair, perfect makeup, a perfect bright red suit and looked like she belonged on TV with a microphone, talking about an incoming tornado or something. Hope stared at her thinking Wow, a Mia double, except Mia was prettier and had nicer makeup. Were all the women in California totally put together and perfect?
And where did she sign up for being-perfect lessons?
The woman narrowed her eyes at Hope. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you it’s rude to stare?”
Mia stopped on the spot, one heel and all, drawing herself up even taller as she put her hand on Hope’s arm. “And didn’t your momma ever teach you it’s rude to talk to a kid that way?”
Hope stopped staring at Barbie Doll and looked in shock at Mia. Had she just heard that right? Had Mia just…stood up for her?
Blondie looked Mia up and down, clearly assessing the clothes, the shoes, the one heel. A smirk crossed her face, but before she could put words with it, the office door opened again and out poked a head. Dark hair, matching dark eyes.
He looked just like Kevin.
He immediately turned to someone behind him and made a series of motions with his hands in an oddly graceful, beautiful way, signifying he was deaf.
Before Hope could digest that, Kevin appeared. Apparently possessing that adult ability to take in an entire situation with one glance, he sighed the sigh of a man greatly vexed. “Perfect,” she thought she heard him mutter.
In Hope’s world, a tense man meant things were going to start flying, so she took a big step back.
The Kevin look-alike joined them all in the hallway, smiling, though Hope had no idea what was so funny.
“If you charged all the people in designer clothes extra to babysit their brats,” Blondie said to Kevin, “you’d be able to buy this place yourself.”
“Six o’clock,” Kevin said to her.
“Yeah, yeah.” Blondie moved off, brushing her shoulder against Hope’s as she went, knocking her back a few feet.
Mia reached for her and pulled her forward. “Forget her.”
Hope wasn’t worried about Blondie—she could have taken that skinny know-it-all—but Mia’s concern did something odd: it sort of warmed her.
“Look,” Mia said to Kevin. “I need to get Hope into your program today.”
Kevin stood back and held open his office door for them to enter.
Mia hobbled past him, growling when Kevin took in her missing heel with a smile. “Zip it,” she warned.
“I didn’t say a word.” The office was the size of Hope’s car, but Kevin had a cool beanbag chair in the corner, red with white polka dots, and Hope sank into it. Next to her was a low shelving unit filled with books that had been on her high school reading list. Between two books was a jar filled with mini chocolate bars.
Her mouth watered. Just as good as donuts…
Her stomach rumbled hopefully. A quick glance at Kevin and Mia assured her they were still busy with their standoff. Jeez, those two needed to just knock it out or something, she thought. Anyway, she let her hand run over the books.
Then the jar.
She palmed two chocolate bars, and had already popped one into her mouth—heaven—when she felt someone’s eyes on her. Shit. She turned her head and met Kevin’s brother’s steady gaze, and suddenly the chocolate tasted like sand.
She tightened her palm around the one chocolate she hadn’t yet eaten and tried to pretend she didn’t have anything in her mouth.
He lifted a brow.
She turned away and began to frantically chew so that she could swallow, but it wouldn’t go down. Now everyone would really think she was a thief.
She’d deny it. And to that end, she slipped the second candy bar into her pocket and hoped it didn’t melt, but since she was already sweating, that seemed unlikely. She looked anywhere else but at the brother: at Mia and Kevin arguing, at the ceiling and the two spitballs on the light box, then at the floor and the stacks of files next to Kevin’s desk. She looked at…oh, God. There was nothing else. Slowly, inevitably, her gaze was drawn back to the dark eyes.
He reached out.
She shrank back.
His smile faded and he slowly opened his palm, showing her another chocolate. Offering it.
He knew. She shook her head.
He arched a brow that said I know you want it.
Again she vehemently shook her head. No. Don’t look at me. She closed her eyes. When she finally got up the nerve to look at him again, he was moving toward the door.
Mia stopped arguing with Kevin.
Kevin’s brother signed something, and Hope’s chest went tight. He was telling on her.