Hope nodded, giving no sign of whether this was a good or bad thing.
“She said next week,” Mia said.
Hope nodded again. “So can we have hot dogs again tomorrow?”
“Do they make them low-fat?”
Hope snorted but still didn’t give any indication of how she felt about staying.
“So…you okay?” Mia asked.
Sarcasm and wit. A mechanism Mia herself had perfected and understood all too well.
“I’m going to take a shower.” Hope left the room, and Mia looked out the window, feeling…she didn’t know. Worried. Stressed. Strung too damn tight.
Kevin’s bike sat parked in front of his house, looking sleek and sexy, like the man. Mia heard the shower turn on upstairs, and then she headed for the back door.
Her sandals slapped on the concrete, the heat from the day rising up through her feet. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Kevin opened his door.
Wearing only a pair of loose basketball shorts hanging to his knees and his chest bare, he looked better than the dessert she hadn’t allowed herself.
His gaze went wary. “Mia—”
Not wanting to hear why this was a bad idea, she stepped over the threshold and into his personal space, winding her arms around his neck and sighing in pleasure even before their mouths met. “Are we alone?” she murmured.
She kicked the door shut, slid her hands into his hair and brought his mouth back to hers, his delicious, talented, gorgeous mouth.
Seemingly just as hungry, he lifted her up against him, his mouth trailing hot kisses down her neck, his hands snaking beneath her skirt. When his fingers found her thong, he let out a rough “Fuck” in a strained voice.
She knew she had him then, that he would take her hard and fast and help her forget.
Despite Mia’s intentions of making sure the next week was an improvement over the shockingly bad previous one, somehow the shit kept hitting the fan. She was in the middle of a handful of accounts, all in different phases but none more exciting than the highly secret Runner account. The good news: she put together a fabulous campaign.
The bad news: Tess’s computer crashed and her files vanished.
All of them. Poof, gone.
It meant many hours of stress, trying to re-create everything, and as a result she felt strung tight. Making it worse, Dickhead started asking a bunch of questions about the Anderson account, about her team’s creative strategies, the production of planned ads, the media blitz, and the execution of all of the above. He was suddenly extremely interested in exactly how she’d gone about getting the account, and finally admitted that Ted had complained about her.
One morning she came into her office and found a sign leaning against her potted plant that said RESCUE ME.
To top off things nicely, Sugar claimed she needed another few weeks “kid-free,” leaving Mia not sure how to explain to Hope that even if she’d wanted to go home, no one wanted her.
Halfway through the week, Mia and Hope were eating bagels and bacon—Mia was going to have to pick up an extra few yoga classes every week just to keep up—when from outside came the rumbling of Kevin’s motorcycle starting up. Casually, Mia moved to the window to peer out at him.
“You think he’s hot.” Hope came up beside her and grinned. “Admit it.”
“Do—” Mia broke off and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Get ready to go.”
“I am ready.” Hope spread out her hands, revealing her black trousers—three sizes too big and staying in place by some random act of fate—and her black tank top, ripped in several spots and showing glimpses of a black bra. Her makeup was also black, and she’d filled in the chipped black nail polish with what smelled like a permanent Sharpie marker.
“Aren’t you guys going to the movies this afternoon?” Mia asked her.
“So I’ll give you one thousand dollars to wear something bright pink today.”
Hope chewed on her wad of gum, then blew a big bubble.
“Yeah. I was thinking something Chanel,” Mia said.
For this, she got an eye roll.
After she dropped Hope off at the teen center and got to work, the fun began. Layoffs had hit close to home. Half her creative team had to go. It didn’t help that Margot and Ted faced the same cuts, not when saying good-bye to Tami and Steven.
That afternoon, the Anderson people started asking her about Ted, wanting to know if he could join her in handling their account. When Mia went to Dick about it, she realized the good-old-boy network had gone into effect when she hadn’t been paying attention, because he just said, “Do what you have to do to keep the Anderson people happy.”
Afraid to say anything because she was seriously peeved, and when she was seriously peeved, her Southern accent buttered her every word, she simply bit her tongue and stalked out of the office, where she ran into Margot. Mia and Margot had never exactly been friends, but in this firm, where they were in the definite minority as far as women went, were in fact the only two females at this level, they had a silent agreement to stick together when needed.
“Layoffs,” Margot said furiously. “Suck.”
Margot nodded, and in rare solidarity they smiled grimly at each other.
Mia went back to her office, going over and over the Runner stuff, wishing Tess would show up so she could get her opinion, but Tess had gone to lunch two hours ago and hadn’t come back.
Then, finally, Tess reappeared. She stuck her head in Mia’s office with an apologetic look on her face. “Sorry.”
“Are you sick?”
“No.” A flush worked its way up Tess’s throat.
“Ah, hell.” She scrubbed her hands over her face. “Mike.”
Tess sighed dreamily.
Mia searched Tess’s face, found utter bliss, and let worry work its course. “It’s only been a few dates. You can’t engage your heart that quickly.”
“It was engaged the first moment I laid eyes on him.”
“Oh, Tess. Really?”
“Really.” Tess’s eyes wandered to her plant. “Hey, you’ve got to water that thing.”
“I’ve watered it. I’ve not watered it. Nothing makes it happy and it’s going to die to spite me. You’re changing the subject. Tell me about him. What does he what to do with himself?”
“Well, he’s between careers at the moment, but he’s putting in time at the teen center every day for a while.”
“Great.” Mia tossed her pen aside. “Damn it, you have too big a heart, you know this. You fall too hard, and then get hurt.”
“No I don’t.”
Mia ticked them off on her fingers. “Scott. Jon. Timothy—”
“Okay, fine. I’ve fallen too hard, too fast before, but not this time.”
“Ha. You’ve already slept with him, the hurt is just around the corner.”
“Shows what you know.” Tess lifted her chin smugly. “I haven’t sleep with him. Yet.”
Mia groaned. “How do you even communicate? You don’t know sign language.”
“He reads lips, and that’s where I was today. I started a sign language class.” Another dreamy sigh escaped her. “Did I tell you? He’s been making cookie dough with me at night.”
Tess had a small home business called Cookie Madness. She made cookie dough for extra cash, and she was amazing at it. She sold it by the pound, mostly to two small local bakeries, and in Mia’s opinion it was the best dough in the world. So many times she’d bugged Tess to get serious about the business, to let Mia market it, but Tess had resisted, enjoying the smallness of the company.
“Mia.” Tess smiled at her doubt. “Stop thinking. Just be happy for me.”
“If he hurts you, I hurt him.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him. Now prepare yourself. I have wince-inducing news.”
“God.” Mia pressed her fingers to her eyelids. “What now?”
“King Dickface wants to see you in his office.”
“Ted says the Anderson people asked for him specifically, and that you wouldn’t let him on board,” Dick said without preamble.
“Ted also says he’s a human being, but I have my doubts.” Mia smiled.
Dick did not. “Fix this,” he said and went back to his computer.
Mia moved to the door thinking, if she could only figure out how to set her cell phone to stun…
She turned back. “Yes?”
“Ted wants to fire Tess. Says she came on to him.”
Mia found it difficult to speak with her jaw locked tight, but she managed. “Ted has an ego problem. Trust me, Tess wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole.”
“We’re laying off at the lower tier this week, and I’m just looking for people to give me a reason to let them go, so you might want to make sure.”
What she would like to make sure of was Ted’s slow, painful demise, but she merely nodded.
“How’s it going with your niece? Is she in jail yet?”
“She’s not a bad kid,” she heard herself say and left in tune to his low laugh.
Mike showed up for work each day, a fact that quite frankly surprised Kevin. Mike even exhibited a glimmer of true interest: not just the happy-go-lucky, what-the-fuck Mike, but a man who wanted this job and who cared about making a living.
Now if Kevin could get Cole to care about his grades, convince Beth not to sell the building, get Joe off his back, get Mia to open up…if, if, if.
To suitably exhaust himself, he took a very long ride on the bike, after which he planned to fall into bed and not dream of Mia, or how if she knocked he hoped she was wearing that gauzy sundress again.
No. Christ, what was wrong with him? He was not going to keep sleeping with her whenever she knocked.
Yeah, but there was no sleeping involved, a little voice reminded him, while his body surged and said Oh, pretty please, one more time.
He parked the bike on his dark street and, in spite of himself, looked up at Mia’s house. It was well lit, and from somewhere inside came the thudding beat of music. Not as loud as the previous week, which meant the two wildly opinionated, edgy, fierce females inside—so different and yet somehow so similar—had come to some sort of compromise.
It was possible he’d never met two more incredibly stubborn women. It’d been easy to let Hope inside his heart, and he was glad she’d gotten to stay as long as she had. He’d ordered the parts for her car in case she somehow pulled off the impossible and stayed even longer. There was just something about her tough exterior and soft, vulnerable inside that melted him. He understood her. Whatever her background, it hadn’t been easy, but she hadn’t allowed her spirit to be taken from her.
He could identify with that.
He identified with Mia, too, whether she liked it or not. Identified, and craved.
She craved, too, or she wouldn’t keep showing up on his doorstep.
From the top floor, probably her bedroom window, Mia appeared, looking blindly out into the night, her expression one of such sadness it pulled the air right out of his lungs.
She wasn’t all tough, kick-ass, coldhearted woman, any more than Hope was—not that she’d admit it. He stood there trying to talk himself into walking away instead of knocking on her door, when he heard an odd noise.
A different window, a different female standing in the window directly beneath Mia. Then the face vanished.
The screen popped out. A leg appeared, and a pale face glanced back to make sure no one was watching her escape.
Hope, on the move.
Kevin sighed. Guess he was going over there, after all.
Hope swung her other leg out the den window and for a moment clung to the ledge, looking down. Not so far, only eight feet or so. Not enough to break her legs.
But the bushes planted directly below looked a little prickly and uncomfortable, topped with the now bent screen. Aunt Apple wouldn’t be happy about that, but she squelched the regret because not even Mia wanted her around, not really.
And yet she didn’t send you back…
Yeah, yeah, give the woman a medal. Hope looked down. She just wanted to go somewhere and think…
And, okay, also see Adam. He’d said he’d meet her by the basketball court, where they’d maybe play one-on-one for a while. At the teen center, she’d looked into his sharp blue eyes and thought It’s not a game you want.
She wasn’t stupid, she knew what boys did want, and wasting time on the court with a girl was not it.
But Adam was so cute, cute enough for her to pretend she liked what he liked. He’d been playing football for a few years, putting on muscle where most guys her age were still too skinny. He was big and built and all the girls wanted him, including that beautiful Amber, but Adam wanted Hope. The rush of that!
God, she wanted a smoke bad. She wasn’t addicted, though. Nope, she would quit anytime. She pulled the pack out of her pocket with fingers that shook, then stared down at her hands in horror. Shaking, like her momma’s. Maybe she should quit.
She looked down again and got dizzy. If it hadn’t been for Adam, she’d have just sneaked a puff or two inside. And she’d started to, but then she looked around her at the wide-open, uncluttered, beautifully decorated house and faced the truth: she loved it here. It was clean and smelled good and so big she could be by herself whenever she wanted, without hearing another soul snore or yell. And the air conditioner, pure heaven on earth. No plastering her face to the inside of the freezer, she could get cool in any room of the house.