“Did you f**k with the phones, Hope?”
“Wow, do they let you say f**k here at work? Cool.”
Mia could feel each and every individual hair on her head going gray, especially when Hope let out a little smirk as if to say Chaos, panic, and disorder, my work here is done. Mia drew a purposeful breath. “Fix it. Now!” She twirled on her heels and started to leave the bathroom, then whirled back, snatching Hope’s pack of cigarettes and lighter.
“You can thank me when you’re old and still have your lungs.” She stalked back into the conference room, pasting a smile on her face as she did. “Well,” she said to her waiting clients. “Where were we?”
They dug right back into media development and strategy for presenting their campaign until an hour later. Without warning, the speakers went from discreet soft jazz to off-the-charts, earsplitting…hip-hop?
Two of the reps from the Anderson company jerked, spilling their coffee over some of the files. Two others put their hands to their chest as if having a heart attack.
Everyone jumped up and started talking at once.
Not that anyone could hear a word over the unbelievable noise coming from the speakers.
Mia tried to tell everyone to relax, but no one could hear her. Finally she just lifted a finger, signaling she’d be right back, and hurried out into the hall.
Like this morning’s donut/phone incident, people were standing there in various stages of shock. Mia headed directly to Tess. “Where’s Hope?”
“She’s safe!” Tess yelled. “And, ohmigod, she’s just the sweetest thing ever! Did you know she helped fix the phones? Also, she helped Dick with his computer—”
Mia shook her head. “Where is she?”
“I gave her a break! She’s in the lounge!”
Which was next to the janitor’s closet, which was next to the sound system closet.
Mia went running. The sound system closet was open, all the equipment in it blinking like mad. Hands over her ears, she searched, searched…and finally found the POWER button and hit it.
Mia slumped against the door, exhausted. When Dick popped his head in and saw her, he frowned. “Where the hell is your niece?”
God, could it get any worse? Remembering the threat of layoffs, she decided it was never too late to do a little senior butt-kissing, so she smiled. “Working somewhere, you know, helping out. Why?”
“Because I think she’s lifted my wallet.”
After summer school ended, Kevin walked across the field toward the teen center, hoping against hope Mike would be there for his interview with the board members.
Unfortunately, Mike had a bad habit of “forgetting” appointments like this, even though Kevin knew that was just a self-defense mechanism. People could say they were politically correct all they wanted, but most had a problem hiring a handicapped man.
Mike knew this all too well; he’d lived it. And Kevin had lived it with him.
The day was a hot one, and Kevin swiped his forehead with his arm. He’d spent the morning teaching science to himself. The kids had been there plenty, but as a group of teens required to take this class to make up for a failing grade, not one of them had showed signs of life. He might as well have taught How to Scratch Your Ass Effectively, because no one gave a shit.
Science fascinated him, and he’d hoped to fascinate the kids. Turns out only his classroom did that, because as he’d discovered, thanks to the science burners lining the back of his classroom, it was the most popular place on campus for smoking weed.
When he’d caught Cole climbing out the window this morning, he had to admit he’d assumed the worst. He’d studied the files of the kids he had, so he knew Cole had a crappy home life, with no father and a mother who worked nights and slept days, paying her son less attention than she did the family cat. He knew that Cole had been beat up several times by the mother’s boyfriend and that when he graduated next year he planned on entering the military in order to get far, far away.
If he graduated.
He was in danger of failing several classes, hence the summer school program.
But he also knew that despite Cole’s rough home life and somber attitude, the kid had brains. He just didn’t know anyone cared. He was in need, and Kevin knew all too well what happened to kids who went unheard, and he didn’t intend to let that happen to Cole. He’d reach him. Somehow.
He entered his office. His empty office.
He tunneled his fingers through his hair. He couldn’t save the world, he knew that. But neither, apparently, could he stop trying.
By the time Mia drove them home, she had a pounding headache and not a little bit of indigestion. It hadn’t been anything she’d eaten. She tossed a glare in Hope’s direction.
The kid was hunched in the passenger seat, chewing on a black thumbnail, staring gloomily out the window.
They’d stopped at the cell phone shop, where Mia bought a cell phone for Hope so that the next time the little thief stole her car she’d be able to call her. They’d also gone to the grocery store because Mia had promised, and though they hadn’t spoken, Hope filled a cart with a bunch of crap like white bread, eggs, bacon, real butter…
“So that was a fun day, huh?” Mia asked as she pulled onto her street. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
Hope stared straight ahead. “You want me to go home.”
“Honey, that would be my fondest wish,” Mia said fervently.
Hope slumped farther into the seat.
“But you’re not driving yourself across the country again.”
“My car doesn’t work.”
“And I’m not putting you on a plane across the country all alone.”
“Ah, how sweet,” Hope said. “You’re worried about me.”
“I’m worried about the other passengers. Who knows what you’d come up with or where you’d decide to get off. Nope, we’re stuck together until Sugar comes this weekend.” Mia turned off the engine and got out of her car, stole a peek to the right—
And watched as Kevin pulled up, riding that bike. God, she loved the sleek, sexy lines…and the bike wasn’t bad, either. She locked gazes with him as he reached up and pulled off his helmet. He got off the bike, the material of his shirt stretching across his shoulders and back as he tucked the helmet beneath his arm. Looking just a little hot and a little bothered, he shoved his sunglasses to the top of his head and raised a brow.
Feeling a little hot, a little bothered herself, she raised one back.
Hope got out of the car, slammed the door, and headed up the walk. Halfway there, she whirled back and held out her hand. “Keys?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Hope sighed. “I can’t drive off with your house.”
“You’d find a way,” Mia muttered and tossed the keys, managing to spill her Chanel silk clutch purse to the ground as she did.
Contents spilled: Lancôme lipstick, gold fountain pen, her Sidekick, a tampon, and…three condoms.
Hope looked at them and smirked. “So people your age actually do it.”
Hope grabbed the groceries she was carrying and headed toward the house.
Mia began to pick up her things, wondering how much damage Hope could do.
“I take it the two of you had a great day.” Kevin hunkered down at her side. He picked up the condoms and looked at her in a way that made her feel…hungry. He dropped the cell back in her purse and let out a low laugh, which upped her status from hungry to starving. “For what it’s worth,” he said, “I’m glad people our age actually ‘do’ it.”
“Yeah, my ex-wife told me the same thing just today.”
She stared at him.
He shrugged. “Old news. I was very young and stupid when she broke my heart.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“But you wanted to.”
Damn it, she had wanted to. “If you know you’re impossible, maybe you should do something about it.”
“Nah, it’s part of my charm.” He handed over her pen. “I was only eighteen, the same age when she divorced me for not kissing her ass enough.”
“I didn’t ask that, either.”
“You were wondering.”
She looked at him and he laughed softly, a sound she was beginning to react to like Pavlov’s dog.
“What about you? Ever been married?” he asked.
Now she laughed. “Do I look like the marrying type?”
His gaze ran over her face, her body, heating every single inch. “You look like the type to do whatever she pleases.”
“Yeah, well, it’s never pleased me to be married.” Because that seemed incredibly revealing, she distanced herself. “I’ve got to go check on the crazy kid.”
“Trust me.” She stood up. “Crazy.” She soaked in his extremely pleasing-on-the-eyes face. “See you?”
“See me, or do me?”
And she sighed. “Right.” He didn’t want just sex, he liked more, and she didn’t. “Bye.” Feeling a little like Alice down the rabbit hole, she grabbed the last bag of groceries and went into the house.
Hope was heading for the stairs.
“We have to talk,” Mia said.
Hope slowly turned back, her eyes filled with misery.
Ah, hell. She was waiting to be rejected, sent away, and much of Mia’s anger melted away in spite of herself.
The girl had been made to feel unimportant for most of her life, and Mia knew that feeling all too well. Damn if she’d add to it.
So how to do this? Right up front, she decided. She might be a bitch in her world, but she wouldn’t be one in Hope’s. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s just talk.”
“No good ever came out of talking,” Hope said. “Trust me, I know. My mom does that. ‘We have to talk, Hope.’” She said this in a perfect imitation of Sugar. “‘About your attitude toward the men I date. About your grades. About your stealing.’” The kid put her hands on her hips. “Well, the men she dates are assholes, the teachers all hate me because she slept with the principal, and then his wife found out and he quit. Some jerk took his place and he’s awful, but that’s not my fault. And I don’t steal!”
Mia stared at the kid’s stiff spine, her shoulders thin and narrow and seemingly weighted with the world. Mia’s early fury was still firmly in place, but now it was mixed with something that felt like sorrow and guilt and regret, and, damn it, she hated when something got in the way of her righteous anger. “Hope—”
“Look, I’m sorry I screwed up your day, okay? I know I’m going home. I’ll go pack.”
And with that, she took her heavy-soled boots up the stairs, probably leaving scuff marks with each step.
Hope stopped but didn’t turn around.
Fine. She’d talk to the girl’s back. “I know what it’s like to grow up feeling as if you don’t matter. As if nothing you do or say makes any difference in this world. I know what it’s like to have hopes and dreams and be afraid you won’t get a chance to live them. I know, Hope.”
Slowly the girl turned around.
“I’m sorry you were dealt those cards, that you had to run far and fast to get what you think you want. I, more than anyone else, understand. But you have to understand me in return. I don’t know anything about raising a teenager, about being a role model, about making your world right for you. Nothing.” She drew a deep breath. “But I’m willing to see this through until the end of the week if you are.”
“Because you’re so sweet and kind?”
Hope smiled. Smiled.
Mia covered up the unexpected emotion eased by that and pointed a finger in Hope’s face. “But no more joyriding in my car.”
Hope shook her head.
“No more messing with my work.”
Another shake of her head.
“No more cracks about me being old.”
“All right then,” Mia said.
“All right then,” Hope repeated in the same exact tone, though Mia would have sworn there was a light of excitement and hope in her eyes that hadn’t been there before as she turned and went up the stairs.
Watching her, Mia let out a slow breath, then sat on the bottom step, wondering what the hell she’d just gotten herself into.
Kevin watched Mia vanish into her house and shook his head. “Way to keep your distance there, stud,” he said and, with a disgusted shake of his head, headed toward the basketball court.
Mike was already there because of course he didn’t flake out on the good stuff.
Mike didn’t look at Kevin, so Kevin merely walked onto the court and got in Mike’s way as he came down for a warm-up layup.
And checked him.
Mike bounced back and glared at him.
“Oh, would you like to know my problem?” Kevin asked politely, forcing him to read his lips even though he knew Mike didn’t like to.
Mike shook his head.
“Too bad. They would have hired you today, you dumb-ass.”
Oh, so now I’m a dumb-ass?
“Hey, if the shoe fits.”
Mike snatched the ball from Kevin and drove it down the court, executing a perfect layup. He could have played basketball for college, and possibly even the pros, but not a single college would recruit him because of his handicap.