“Mmm. But what a way to go.” She looked hot and damp and extremely proud of herself. Propping a hand on his still-heaving chest, she leaned in and kissed him. “Thanks.”
He blinked when she got up. “Thanks?”
“Yeah. I needed that.” She slipped back into her jeans, then her heels. And then, while he was still trying to gather his wits, flat on his back on the floor, his pants still at his thighs, she pulled open the front door.
“No. You are not—”
But he was talking to himself because she was already gone. “—leaving.”
He stared up at his ceiling, wondering if she’d thanked him for dinner, the orgasm, or for just plain being an idiot.
Monday morning, Hope came downstairs, groggy and sleepy and wishing mornings didn’t come so early. Mia liked to get up at the crack of dawn, which proved it—they couldn’t really be related.
Over the weekend, Mia had taken her shopping in Beverly Hills, where the prices had given her sticker shock.
And then Hope had taken Mia shopping in return—to Target, where Mia was coaxed into buying a pair of sweats that actually looked quite comfortable. They’d had fun, a fact that surprised both of them.
All weekend, Hope’s cell phone had been vibrating with messages from Adam. She’d saved them and read every single one over and over. All she had to do was call him or text him back, but she knew what he wanted, what he expected, and though she’d thought she was ready, she wasn’t.
It’s just that Friday night, at Tess’s, they’d watched a movie with subtitles for Mike, who Hope kept forgetting was deaf because he was so…normal. She’d sat in Tess’s small but comfortable living room, watching Mike make Tess smile. An odd envy had twisted through her, which made no sense. She could have called Adam…
And maybe if he’d looked at her like Mike looked at Tess, she would have. All warm and safe.
But nothing about it seemed safe. Truthfully, being with him reminded her of being back home. Sugar’s guys always made her feel a little uncomfortable, too, and a little weird. It felt disloyal to think it, and just a little mean, but she couldn’t help it.
And as Sugar hadn’t shown up, the feeling must be mutual. Mia had made excuses for Sugar, but Hope knew the truth. Her momma didn’t want her back. With a sigh, she moved toward the kitchen, hoping there were still donuts, but she couldn’t count on it since her aunt had developed a fondness for them, too.
From the kitchen came Mia’s voice. “You win, Sugar,” Mia said clearly on the phone. “Take your damn thirty days.”
Thirty days? Hope’s heart jerked with hopeful excitement. Had she heard right? She opened the kitchen door in time to hear Mia say, “But at the end, you’d better—Hey!” Her aunt pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it. “She hung up on me. Bitch—” She broke off when she caught sight of Hope standing in the doorway. She let out a little smile, though it seemed a little strained.
Hope couldn’t blame her, seeing as she’d just been shit on by Sugar. Hope knew the feeling well. “Hi.”
“Hi back atcha. Want some breakfast? I’ve actually managed to boil water for oatmeal.”
“No, thanks.” Hope’s happy little bubble had burst, leaving her feeling just a little sick. How she’d forgotten, even for a second, that Mia didn’t want her, either, was beyond her. “I can walk to the teen center this morning.”
“Driving you is no problem. Kevin told me he ordered the parts for your car.”
This was thrown in so casually Hope blinked. “He…did? But I don’t have the money.”
“I can always give you a list of chores to do to earn it. You know, like…Cinderella.”
Hope blushed. So Mia had heard the stories she’d been telling.
Mia looked at her watch. “Yikes. We have to leave, if I’m going to sign you up for Kevin’s class.”
Hope’s heart clutched. “What? Really?
“I know you don’t want me here.”
Mia let out a sigh, then stood and came close. “You understand that it’s your mother who drives me insane, not you, right?”
“I drive you insane, too. I make steam come out your ears. I’ve seen it.”
Mia smiled at that. “And you enjoy that—don’t pretend you don’t.”
“You’re not who I expected.” Hope hadn’t meant for that to come out, but there it was.
“What’d you expect?”
“I don’t know. I mean, you’re beautiful and you have an amazing place, though you have flying ants in my bathroom coming out of the ceiling.”
“Yeah, and by the way, ewwww. But anyway, you have a kick-ass job, and your car—” She sighed. “Heaven. But it seems…I don’t know. Not cold exactly. But emptier than I thought it would be.”
Mia looked staggered. “You think my life is empty?”
“More like lonely. You don’t even have a plant.”
“I’m not lonely,” Mia said, looking affronted. “And just so you know, I have a plant in my office. Sure, it’s not looking so good right now, but I really don’t get what the big deal is.”
“I’m just saying I came here looking for a different life…”
Mia closed her eyes. “I know. I lived your life. I remember.”
“And this is great. But when I’m older, I want…more,” Hope whispered, an odd lump in her throat. “I don’t know what exactly, just more.”
“I’m sorry, Hope.” She really looked it. “But for now, you’re stuck. Your mom—”
Mia nodded. “Then let’s at least get you in Kevin’s class, if he’ll still have you.”
“I’m still going to drive you crazy.” She held her breath, waiting for Mia to deny it.
“Uh huh. And I’m going to drive you crazy, too. We’ll call it even.”
No pat, easy answer. Just the honest truth. Hope looked at her and suddenly felt like smiling, because, after all, she was getting pretty much what she’d wanted.
“Now for the rules,” Mia said.
“We already did this.”
“We’re doing it again. Rule number one—”
“There’s more than one?”
“Listen up, smart-ass, and you can tell me yours, too. First, no rattling my windows with your music.”
“Fine. No making fun of my makeup.”
“Ouch. I’ll try. No more smoking.”
“Only if you give up the God complex,” Hope said.
“Come on, you’re always right and your opinion is the only one that matters.”
Mia rolled her lips together and considered. “Overruled. I am God here in this house. Next rule—no sex.”
“You’ve already mentioned this a time or two.”
“You can never repeat it enough. No sex.”
“You can’t make a rule like that.”
“I can and I am,” Mia said firmly.
“I’m sixteen. Old enough.”
“Not in my house, it isn’t.”
“How about you?”
Mia lifted her chin. “I, thankfully, am old enough.”
“Take it or leave it,” Mia said.
Hope had no intention of leaving it. To give herself a second, she kicked her toe over the tile and left a mark. To her credit, Mia hardly grimaced. “I’ll take it,” Hope said.
On the drive to the high school, Mia pulled out her cell phone and called Tess. “I’ve made a bunch of calls. I have five clients who’d love to interview you.”
“That’s incredibly sweet,” Tess said. “But I told you, I’m making a go at this cookie dough thing full-time. I mean, honestly, can you think of a better job than making cookie dough?”
Um, yes, but she’d keep that to herself.
“Oh, and remember when you said you wanted to help? Well, know any good ad execs?”
Mia grinned. “Are you kidding? I’ll make you an ad campaign that makes you rich.”
“Hey, if I just make a living, I’ll be thrilled.”
Mia would make sure of it.
“How’s it going there with Hope?”
Mia looked over at her niece. The jet-black hair dye was slowly fading. She still wore black pants and black boots, but her tank was gray today. More interesting, she didn’t have all the metal and steel armor on. “Hope’s good. But my house has flying ants.”
“Termites? Oh, no! You have to get rid of them before they eat your house. I’ll call someone for you.”
“Honey, that’s the beauty of no longer being my assistant—you don’t have to do this stuff anymore.”
“You’re like a lifelong habit. Let me call Buddy.”
Buddy was one of Tess’s ex-boyfriends. He’d been a great guy, except for his inability to date only one woman at a time. “Tell me you’re not still in contact with him.”
“How about we focus on your house not being destroyed,” Tess said diplomatically, because of course she was still in touch with Buddy. She was still in touch with everyone she’d ever met. It was that big-heart thing again. “I’m calling him.”
Imagining the termites sitting on their butts gnawing on her wood walls, Mia sighed. “Fine, thanks.” She clicked off and walked Hope into the high school, feeling an unaccustomed set of nerves. She had no idea why until she stopped in the doorway to Kevin’s classroom.
And then she knew exactly why.
Kevin himself. Friday night, and the wild, wonderful, amazing sex.
She’d avoided him all weekend, needing to think. Obsess. When they’d made love, right before she’d cl**axed something had happened. Time had stopped, worlds had collided, and stars had fallen.
She still had no idea what that little beat had been about, but for that one second something had happened, something deep and connected and…terrifying.
And when they’d finished, she realized she lay there breathing crazily and hugging up to him like a lost little monkey, so she forced herself to get up and get out.
He was pissed, and she knew it.
But she’d had to go or lose it, and for the rest of the weekend, whenever her brain wandered from where she’d ordered it, it always took her back to that moment at the end when he’d been buried inside her, when she looked into his eyes and exploded. And then the next, which was her leaving him flat on the floor, looking hot and sated. Sexy.
God, her heart hurt, too. She was actually having pains over this. Now the person responsible for those pains stood at the front of the room, his back to them, writing something across the board.
He turned around. He wore loose cargo jeans, those perpetually unlaced boots, and an unbuttoned long-sleeved shirt over a plain white T-shirt that read: I AM AUTHORIZED TO THINK YOU’RE STUPID, both shirts having apparently never met an iron they liked. His hair was adorably rumpled, and when he smiled at Hope, it turned Mia upside down.
Again Friday night flashed in her mind, how he looked after they’d both come so explosively all over each other. His eyes had been dark and soft, and the way he’d touched her—God. Something fathomless and yawning had opened up inside her, and she couldn’t seem to close it again.
It was so big she couldn’t face it, but she needn’t have worried. He wasn’t looking at her like that anymore. In fact, he wasn’t even looking at her at all.
“Hey,” he said to Hope, sounding extremely pleased. “Tell me you’re here to add my class.”
“Great! We don’t start for another fifteen minutes, so let me show you what we’re working on.” He gestured Hope toward his desk and they put their heads together over a book.
Mia, still at the door, cleared her throat.
They both looked up.
And for the first time in her life, Mia didn’t know what to say, how to charm, how to get her way. Hell, she didn’t even know what her way even was. “Kevin.”
“Thanks for letting her take the class,” he said, smile cool, eyes equally cool. “Was there anything else?”
Ouch. And for no known reason, a ball of panic began to swirl deep in her gut. “Uh…no.”
How to fix this? How?
But before she could decide, he went back to showing Hope something in the book.
And Mia, well used to alienating people and moving on, lifted her chin and walked right out of the room.
Kevin turned to watch her go, then tossed aside his dry-erase pen and shoved his fingers through his hair, swearing softly. He caught Hope’s curious eye and muttered an apology.
“That’s okay,” Hope said, wise beyond her years as he knew her to be. “She brings out the worst in people. All us Applebys do.”
Kevin stared at her. “Is that what you think?”
She lifted a shoulder. “Fact is fact.”
The girl’s bravado attitude matched her aunt’s, and damn if he wasn’t incredibly attached to both of them—prickly, grumpy, beautiful.
Still, Mia had hurt him, letting him feel he was nothing more than a good lay.
Or a bad one, as she’d tried to convince him so many times.
For every step they took forward, she pushed them back two. In fact, unless they were in bed—or on his foyer floor—lost in their odd and wonderful chemical attraction, she was doing her damnedest to pretend their connection didn’t exist.