“I mean it, Mia. I won’t, not even for you. I have better things ahead for me.”
Cookie Madness was a fun thing, a make-a-little-extra-money thing, not a living thing. Mia put her hands on Tess’s arms, her throat tight. “Tess—”
“It’s what I want.”
Mia studied her best friend, felt her heart tug, and nodded. “Then I’ll help you.”
“I’ll count on it.”
Mia ate an entire donut standing up. “What am I going to do without you?”
“Oh, honey. You don’t need me. You never have.” Leaning in, Tess kissed her on her cheek. “Your cell is vibrating, I can hear it from here. Go on up. I’ll be okay.”
“Go. You have that meeting in twenty. If you lose the Anderson account now, I’ll never forgive you.”
Mia’s throat closed, and she watched Tess walk away, head high. “Tess.”
Tess turned back.
Tess’s eyes were glittering with pride. “Very. Now go kick ass.”
Oh, she intended to.
It felt so odd to be stressed about work, Mia thought on the drive home. Always she’d thrived on the intensity of it all, but suddenly it felt like too much. Tess was gone, Tami and Steven were gone, everyone else was nervous about the layoffs…
Well, except Margot, who, also now missing an assistant, asked Mia if she was going to walk off like Ted had, because she would like Mia’s office.
Ted didn’t say anything to Mia at all, but he didn’t have to; his knowing smirk said it all.
And if work wasn’t enough, Sugar left a message on Mia’s cell saying this weekend was bad for her as well. And nothing, nothing at all, was as it should be in Mia’s world.
Which reminded her, damn it, she had to pull over and do a U-turn because she’d forgotten Hope at the teen center.
Nice, Aunt Apple.
When she finally pulled up at the place, she found a car wash in action. High schoolers held up signs or directed cars toward more kids waiting with sponges and buckets.
Mia parked and got out in the blazing heat. Music boomed, and thanks to the education Hope had given her, she recognized 50 Cent rapping about all things sexual. The teens were mostly wet and soapy, having a grand old time as they washed cars for cash. In the beating-down heat, Mia searched the masses for Hope but couldn’t find her.
Mike was exchanging hose warfare with two boys over a Honda; another group was doing the same over a Toyota truck. There was a gaggle of girls wriggling signs that read HELP US KEEP OUR TEEN CENTER, LET US WASH YOUR CAR, HAND WASH!!
She saw a man in front of a Jeep filling a bucket from the hose. Bent at the waist, he was shirtless, his jeans rolled up to his shins, feet bare. Kevin straightened, his torso broad and leanly muscled, his belly flat and ridged. His gaze locked right on her, hose still held loosely in his hand at his side as he smiled.
Mia got hotter, and she realized she’d smiled first, a big, fat dopey one. Good Lord, she needed to have that fixed. No smiling. Not today. Today sucked.
Dropping the hose, Kevin came toward her in that loose-limbed, easy gait he had. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself. So how many more cars do you need to wash to buy the teen center?” she asked, her pulse quickening for no reason other than he looked damn good.
“Just about every single one in the state of California.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Where’s Hope?” She tore her gaze off him and searched the crowd. “I don’t see her.”
“Look again,” he suggested and pointed back toward the Jeep.
Mia swiped her damp forehead and scanned the group. Just a girl in jean cutoffs and a white T-shirt working the sponge over the wet windows, her hair stuffed beneath a Dodgers baseball cap. “I don’t see—” Her gaze froze, widened. “My God.”
The girl was Hope, sans black clothing, sans black makeup. “I can’t believe it. Where’s all the black?”
“She got wet and borrowed some clothes from another girl.”
“Ah, so the change is only temporary.”
Kevin shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe you should tell her you hate it, and then she’ll keep at it.” At her soft agreeing laugh, he shifted a little closer and ran a finger over her cheek. “So what’s up with you today?”
His voice was warm and deep, and sent a bolt of pure lust through her so that she crossed her arms over her hopeful nipples. “Nothing.”
“You are such a liar. A pretty one, but a liar nonetheless.” He stepped even closer.
Stressed and weak and down, she became extremely aware of his bare torso, tough with strength, a golden red from being in the sun. Broad shoulders on which to set her head. Lust she could deal with. But the yearning that followed that lust was hard to take. “Just a bad day,” she finally answered. I want to bite you and then lick you from head to toe…
“Queen Mia.” He let out another laugh that somehow made her want to press her face to the crook of his neck and hold on.
Terrifying thought. “I’m not the queen of much today,” she admitted, and at his easy, thoughtful look that said Tell me all about it, she felt her throat tighten. “Tess got fired, my new account is being taken over by the king of all assholes, and Sugar is too busy for her own daughter.”
“Been through the wringer today, have you?”
“To say the least.”
“You could keep Hope.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why?” She searched for the reasons, telling herself there were just so many. “Because I have a life.”
“Right. And it’s full and perfect, right? No need to make any changes to it, not when you have it all.”
“Don’t start with me.”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m only good for the stress relief. The horizontal kind.”
She felt a reluctant smile tug at her lips. “Horizontal? We’ve been vertical plenty, as I recall.”
He looked at her mouth and shook his head, an unwilling smile on his own lips. “I do like the look of that smile on you.”
She met his eyes, saw the flicker of heat and reluctant affection, and felt some reluctant affection of her own kick in. Damn it. “You look good all wet and soapy, Mr. McKnight.”
“You trying to change the subject?”
She opened her purse and pulled out a twenty. “For the cause?”
He arched a brow. “You want me to wash your car?”
“Yep, while I watch. Unless my money isn’t good here.”
He snatched the twenty from her fingers, then waved at Mike, who sauntered over, dressed pretty much the same as Kevin. He took the twenty and stuck it in a cash box.
Kevin signed something, and Mike grinned as he walked away.
“What did you tell him?” Mia asked, shifting her feet on the baking asphalt.
“That I was going to give you the works.”
“Your car.” His expression was all innocence. “I was talking about your car. Wait here. I’ll call Hope over to help.”
“Yeah, about that…” Mia winced. “That sucky day I mentioned? It also includes the disagreement we got into this morning. She’s not happy with me.”
“Well, it’s possible her day has been worse than yours. There’s apparently some question of whether Adam is going out with Hope or Amber.”
Mia followed Kevin’s gaze to a pretty little blonde, leading a cheer on the sidewalk to attract more cars. She was everything Mia—and Hope—had never been. “That punk.”
She swiped a hand over her hot, damp face. “He gave Hope a hickey.”
Of course he’d seen; he didn’t miss a thing. “I’m going to kill him.”
“They didn’t have sex,” Kevin said.
“But she knows we did,” Mia said. “And she thinks I’m the biggest hypocrite out there.”
“Ah. That makes sense then.”
She looked at him warily and tried not to wilt in the heat. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
He sighed. “She’s been telling stories.”
“Oh, boy. What’s she saying?”
“She’s just talking, being a teenager, trying to fit in.”
“What’s she saying?”
“That she’s from some rich family and they’ve dumped her with you for the summer and you’re treating her like Cinderella before the ball. Any of that background stuff true?”
“Are you kidding me? You know it’s not.”
His eyes never left hers. “How would I know? You’ve never told me anything of your past.”
“Okay, you know what? It’s too hot for this. I’m just going to take her home.”
Kevin splashed the hose over her feet, making her gasp with the sudden cold.
She stared down at her silky, strappy heels. “These are Jimmy Choo’s,” she said in shock. “You can’t just—”
He did it again, splashing just a bit higher now, past her ankles nearly to her knees. Water spots appeared on the bottom of her pleasant D&G skirt. “Hey!”
Mia narrowed her eyes and took the last step between them, putting them toe-to-toe, and if she’d been a foot taller, nose-to-nose. “I’ll have you know these shoes are expensive.”
“And I’ll have you know that haughty tone you use when you’re irritated really turns me on. It’s sick, I know, but true.”
“You don’t want to play with me. Trust me. I always win.”
He flashed a slow and utterly wicked smile. “Did you know that when you’re backed into a corner, your Southern accent shines right through?”
“Oh, that’s right. We don’t talk about that. Or your past. You don’t even cop to having one.”
Echoes of Tess saying the same thing went through her head. “My past is too complicated to discuss in this heat.” She reached for the hose, but he evaded.
“I’ve got air-conditioning at home,” he said.
“You said you weren’t going to answer the door to me anymore.” She again tried to snatch the hose from him, but he pulled back and, in the guise of pointing it at her car, missed entirely.
And nailed her legs, making her gasp again.
From behind them, the kids began to notice and let out a bunch of whistles and woo hoos. “Water fight!” someone yelled.
That was all they needed to hear. With shrieks of laughter and screams, the kids turned on each other.
In the midst of it all, Kevin took a step toward Mia, a wicked light of intent in his eyes.
She backed up, her butt hitting her car. “I mean it. Don’t you even think about—”
The hose hit her thighs and belly, and laughing, she finally grabbed the hose and pointed it at Kevin’s chest, nailing him full blast. He burst out laughing, the sound even sexier than his voice, and then just stepped through the spray toward her. Pulling a total girl, she screamed, dropped the hose, and went running around the Jeep, ducking down on the far side of it.
Mia opened her eyes from her crouch by the passenger door and came face-to-face with Hope. Or at least she thought it was Hope. With a cap on and her face devoid of makeup, she looked like a different girl entirely, sweet and pretty. And fairly shocked.
“Are you…squealing?” Hope asked in a disbelieving voice.
“Apparently, yes.” She would marvel over that shocking fact later. “I’ll pay you twenty bucks to sidetrack Kevin so I can get him.”
Hope’s eyes widened. “Twenty?”
Hope just stared at her.
“Sixty. Come on, Hope. Help me out here.”
Hope shook her head, looking bowled over. “I’d have done it for nothing, you know.”
“Have I taught you nothing? Aim higher, girl.”
“Yeah.” Hope touched the cap, looking a bit self-conscious. “I’m, um, sorry about this morning.”
Mia blinked in surprise, but the girl was gone. She waited a minute, then, assuming Hope wanted that sixty bucks, stood up. No Kevin in sight. Perfect. She tiptoed toward a forgotten bucket filled with soapy water, her heels squishing all the way. Damn him. She took another quick look around.
Still no Kevin. This was too good to be true.
Without warning, she was grabbed from behind and pulled against an extremely wet, warm, hard chest. “Gotcha,” Kevin said low and husky in her ear, tightening his arms on her as he laughed softly.
Goose bumps rose everywhere, but pride dictated that she struggle. “When I get free,” she vowed, “I’m going to get you.”
Another soft laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“Let go or I’ll…” Hard enough to think when he held her like he did; harder still to maintain her righteous dignity.
“You’ll what?” he goaded. “Make it good now.”
“I’ll get Hope to rewire your house so that every time you switch on an appliance, country music blasts at earsplitting decibels throughout your house.”