No, she couldn’t smoke in there.
She could have just told Mia she was going outside; Mia didn’t have any hold on her or anything. But it just felt good not to ask. Or tell. Or talk at all.
And that, if she was admitting stuff, was the most beautiful thing of all about this trip west. Mia, for all her faults—and there were many—didn’t bother her with the little stuff, or expectations at all, for that matter.
So she straddled the ledge, looking down at the screen. Somehow she had to get it back up to the window. Closing her eyes, holding her breath, she jumped.
Luckily, the screen broke her fall. Unluckily, the screen didn’t take it so well. She lay there for a moment and took stock. No pain anywhere, and she could still feel her arms and legs.
Plus her cigarette was only kinda bent.
With a wince, she stood up, then moved out of the bushes. She walked around to the side of the house where she couldn’t inadvertently be seen by Mia out one of the windows, then headed toward the basketball court.
It was empty. She sat back against the steel post of the basket, then lit the cigarette. She’d just deeply inhaled when someone said, “And here all this time I thought you were so smart.”
She nearly dropped the lit cigarette into her lap. Kevin. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. She clamped her mouth shut, trapping the smoke, wondering how to get rid of him before she had to breathe.
But he sat on the ground next to her, then leaned back, raising a brow, signaling that it was her turn to talk.
Hard to do with a mouthful of smoke and holding her breath. She went for a smile that she hoped didn’t look like a grimace. Look at me, I’m fine, and I’m not smoking or anything.
“Pretty night,” Kevin said casually, putting his hands behind his head, crossing his feet. He had those old boots on, laced only halfway. They looked comfortable, like the man.
Not her, though. Completely. Out. Of. Air. Turning her head away from him, she tried to let out the smoke slowly, but the problem was her lungs. They were demanding more air. Right now. So she ended up trying to drag more in before she let the smoke all the way out, and then choked for her efforts.
Coughing, eyes watering, she bent over, trying to wheeze a lungful of air in.
Anybody would have laughed at her. Anyone. After all, she was being totally stupid trying to hide the smoke.
But Kevin didn’t laugh. He put a hand on her back and patted her lightly as she coughed. And coughed.
“Better?” he asked when she finally could breathe again.
She swiped at the tears streaming down her face and nodded.
He still didn’t seem to expect her to make excuses, or even speak. He just waited until he was sure she wasn’t going to die, and then leaned back, once again making himself perfectly at home in the dark night.
Something hooted. A light breeze blew, brushing the bushes together with a soft, wispy sound. An insect buzzed her face.
And still they sat there in shockingly companionable silence.
“Don’t you love it out here?” he finally said with a sigh. “The quiet. The noise.”
She couldn’t stand it another second. “I was smoking.”
“Yeah. You were turning an interesting shade of blue, too.”
She didn’t get it. “Aren’t you going to, like, yell at me?”
“If you want to be stupid and kill yourself, that’s your business.”
“I’m quitting tomorrow,” she heard herself say.
He turned his head and smiled at her. “That’s good.”
The warmth of his approval washed over her. They watched the night some more. “At home,” she said after a few minutes, “we’d be attacked alive by the mosquitoes, and sweating like crazy.”
“You should see August. Plenty of mosquitoes then.”
“I’m going back.”
“You know, you could always just ask to stay.”
She wanted to, God she wanted to, but she just shrugged.
“Your call.” Kevin went back to his easy quiet.
Then came the sound of a front door opening. And then running footsteps. Hope straightened to see Mia flying down the sidewalk, her bathrobe swirling behind her, her fancy high-heeled mules slapping down on the concrete as she came to a skidding halt between the Diplomat and the Audi.
Hope glanced at Kevin. “Maybe you should have left a note,” he suggested.
Mia whipped her cell out of her pocket, her breath rasping loudly as she stood beneath the streetlight, trying to hold her robe closed while dialing at the same time.
“Mia,” Kevin called out as he rose to his feet. “Over here.”
Mia’s head whipped toward them, but Hope could tell she couldn’t see in the dark.
Mia’s hair wasn’t in its usual perfect state. That is, it was piled on top of her head, precariously perched there with pieces hanging down in her eyes, and it was damp as if she’d been in the bath or something. She wore no makeup, and if Hope’s eyesight was correct, she wore nothing beneath the gown. Wow. Her Aunt Apple had it going on.
“Hope?” Mia squinted toward them. Breathing heavily, she put her hand to her chest. “God. I thought—” She moved on the sidewalk until she came to the gate at center court. Slipping inside she came right up to them. “I really thought—”
She broke off when her voice cracked.
Kevin reached out for her, putting his hand on her arm and squeezing, and shockingly, for a moment, Mia leaned into him.
“You thought that I’d what?” Hope asked. “Stolen your car?”
Mia grimaced. “More like rewired the thing so that when I started it the horn would go off or something. Don’t even try to tell me you couldn’t do that if you wanted.”
Hope jerked a shoulder.
“You so belong in my science class,” Kevin said with a low laugh.
Hope hugged herself. “Whatever.”
“Hope, you can’t just vanish on me,” Mia said. “It gives me gray hair.”
“You vanish, too. To go to his house.” She jerked a shoulder toward Kevin. “You’re totally crushing on him.”
Kevin eyed Mia with interest. “Really? Crushing?”
But Mia’s nostrils were wriggling. “Is that smoke—Hope, were you smoking again?”
Shit. “Yeah. But I didn’t inhale.”
Mia about had a coronary. “You think this is funny? Smoking kills, Hope.”
“So does stress,” Hope pointed out. “So does being a workaholic. A perfectionist—”
“Okay, great, thank you. I get the point,” Mia said tightly. “Look, I thought you’d left. That’s why I was upset.”
Something that felt suspiciously like regret and guilt twisted through Hope. “Well, I do live to upset you.”
“Hope,” Kevin said quietly, “come on. Meet her halfway.”
Hope sighed. “Okay, yeah. Whatever. I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry I made you run out here without makeup and with your hair all crazy.”
Mia put her hand to her hair. “Crazy?”
“Well, there’s three whole hairs out of place. A crime, I know, in your perfect world.”
“Is that what you think?” Mia asked, shocked. “That my world is perfect? Listen, you need a serious reality check if you really think my life is perfect.”
Hope shrugged. “You have a hotshot car, a hotshot job, a hot boyfriend, and your house is—”
“Yeah, hot. I get it,” Mia muttered, not looking at Kevin. “Look, we can analyze me later. This is about you, and the scare you gave me. I’m responsible for you while you’re here, damn it. And in case you’re still not clear on this, I freaked when I thought you’d left. I didn’t want you to go. And when I thought you had, I—”
“Wanted to celebrate?”
“I know I’m a pain. I know you’re not interested in family, my momma said.”
She made a sorrowful noise. “Hope, I’ve wanted to say this for a while. Your momma and I…we weren’t close growing up. It doesn’t matter now why, it’s just how it was. But it is my fault that I never pushed past that to get to know you, and I am sorry for that, sorrier than I can say.”
Hope looked at her, feeling her throat tighten. “Really?”
“Really.” Mia glanced at Kevin, as if seeking help. In response, he ran his hand up her arm again in a sweet, united gesture, which was strange—the last time Hope had looked, the two of them generated heat and lots of sparks, but she’d missed this other, deeper bond.
In a shocking move, Mia reached for Hope’s hand, bringing Hope into the circle, and for a moment Hope couldn’t even breathe for fear Mia would pull away.
“We have definitely gotten off on the wrong foot here,” Mia said softly. “Maybe we could start over.”
“Why?” Hope asked warily.
“Hell, I don’t know, maybe I want to get to know your sunny and gentle disposition.”
Kevin choked out a laugh. “Sorry,” he said when they both looked over at him. “I was just thinking how special it is that the sweet and gentle disposition runs in the family.”
“I’ll have you know, we’re as different as night and day,” Mia said.
Well duh, Hope thought.
“Although, I’ll give you that we might both be a little stubborn,” Mia said.
Well, at least one of them was, Hope thought, but it wasn’t her.
Kevin just grinned.
Mia shook her head and said an extremely off-color word that made Kevin’s grin spread.
Mia rolled her eyes, and right then and there Hope felt something new bloom in her chest, something she’d never expected.
Affection. Not wanting to be moved, wanting to soak in her self-righteous pity a bit longer, she bit it back. “Starting over…What does that mean exactly?”
“It means we wipe the slate clean. I pretend you just drove up.” Mia thrust out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Hope. Maybe you can stay until the weekend.”
Right. In three days her mother was supposedly coming for her, for real this time. Hope stared at the proffered hand and then shook it as she met Mia’s eyes. “It’s nice to meet you, long-lost Aunt Apple—Mia,” she corrected quickly when Mia’s smile slipped.
“I don’t know, I kind of like Aunt Apple,” Kevin said.
Footsteps sounded on the walk behind them, coming closer. Adam came into view, and when he saw the two adults with Hope, he slowed his steps. “Uh…hi.”
Hope’s heart started pounding. God, he was cute. That thought warred with another. Only three more days…
Kevin nodded to Adam. “What’s up?”
Adam slid his hands into his pocket. “Just hanging.”
Mia looked Adam over, too, taking in the baggy T-shirt, the loose pants that sagged past his butt, revealing black boxers, and the surfer shoes. She sighed. “Just don’t get into any trouble.”
Adam shot her his charm-the-stupid-adult smile. “No trouble.”
Mia and Kevin exchanged a long look, but finally Mia shook her head. “Be in by eleven, Hope. That’s half an hour from now.” Then she and Kevin walked toward their houses.
Kevin turned back. “Adam?”
“If you give her alcohol or pot, I’ll castrate you.”
Adam swallowed hard. “No alcohol. No pot.”
Hope watched Kevin catch up with Mia, feeling oddly warm and fuzzy. And cared for. Mia had freaked when she’d thought Hope had left, and yet she was still sending her home in a matter of days…Sucked.
Adam smiled at Hope, his eyes sleepy and sexy as he stepped close. “Hey.”
He was seriously in her personal space, looking at her with those eyes, and she tried to relax. “Hey back atcha.”
Adam craned his neck to make sure they were all alone. When he saw that they were, he pulled her into the trees beyond the basketball court.
“You look pretty,” he said huskily and touched her cheek.
He slid an arm around her, tugging her close, burying his face in her neck. “And you smell yum. Let’s hang here,” he murmured and kissed her throat.
“M—maybe for a minute.”
“You have thirty,” he reminded her.
Suddenly that seemed like a very long time. What the hell had Mia been thinking?
Adam kissed her then, sticking his tongue in her mouth and a hand up her shirt. His other hand slid into the back of her pants, startling her. “Wait,” she gasped.
He pulled back a fraction.
“I have my period,” she said brilliantly.
Adam sighed and stepped free. “Damn.”
“Yeah. Sorry,” she said, breathing a huge sigh of relief. “Want to smoke?”
“Sure. What the hell.”
Mia rushed toward her house without looking back, inexplicably close to losing it in a big way. She needed to be alone, to think, to process. God. When she thought Hope had left, she panicked. And then when she leaned on Kevin, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…She went around to the back of her house, slipping into her dark kitchen—
“Ow,” Kevin said, rubbing his forehead where the door hit him.
She looked at him and felt an odd ache in her chest to go with her tight throat and burning eyes. She was holding on by a thread here. “Go home.”
Instead he shut the door behind him and looked at her from those dark, sexy eyes that never failed to melt her into a pool of longing.