“Yeah. Maybe.” But she didn’t believe it. Then, before she knew it, they were in Kevin’s kitchen, with Mike pressing a beer in her hand and Tess regaling them with the story of her adventures of getting Cookie Madness on the map. One of Mia’s contacts called her after Mia had left her this afternoon—and ordered two hundred pounds.
Over more pizza, they all marveled at that. Then Kevin told them about his hopes of catching his pot-head, thanks to Hope’s rigging his gas burners with an alarm. “Tomorrow,” he said smiling, “is going to be fun.”
Hope laughed again, and Mia looked at her, feeling her chest tighten again. God, she loved that sound, and she put her hand on Hope’s arm.
“What?” Hope asked, still smiling.
Mia just shook her head. She’d just wanted to touch her, maybe hug her, but she wasn’t sure how to do that. Tess moved around, cleaning up, touching Mike, pushing Kevin, kissing Hope, being so easy and free with her emotions that Mia felt a little lost. A little out of place.
She blinked, and Kevin was standing close, tipping her face up to look deep into her eyes. “Where did you go?”
“I’m right here.”
Slowly he shook his head. Then he took her hand in his and led her to the door. “We’re going to get more sodas,” he told the room in general, grabbing the two helmets on the counter. “Be right back.”
He didn’t say anything on the walk to his bike or when he handed her a helmet. Or when he straddled the bike and waited for her to join him. She hadn’t been prepared to press her body to his, but when she did, some of the odd tension left her.
And a new one gripped her.
He turned his head and looked at her, smiled, and then, with a rev of the engine, they took off. Wind in their faces, the hills whipping by…yeah. This was just what she needed. All too soon, they were stopping at a convenience store for a six-pack of sodas, then heading back.
Dusk arrived and the heat lifted a bit. They parked on the street and sat there for a moment, not moving. Mia could smell the azaleas, could hear the buzz of a lone bee. From far down the street she could hear the normal sounds of traffic.
A world away from where she’d grown up. There the heat would still be thick, too thick to breathe. Dogs would be barking, growling, fighting. Kids screaming. Adults fighting. The smell of meat frying would be overwhelming. And above it all would be the sounds of her momma and Sugar, in their deep, Southern drawls, planning out their big catch at the rec center barbeque.
Mia’s universe couldn’t be more different. She’d carefully cultivated it to be.
So why wasn’t she happy? She’d blame it on the kid, or work, but that wouldn’t be honest.
She had the sexiest man on the planet looking at her, making her knees weak without even trying, causing her heart to pitter-patter like a kid’s; a man who claimed to want her, a man who wouldn’t accept her cool, calm façade she’d always given the world.
And yet she’d hidden herself for so long she didn’t know how to reveal herself to him, or—even more unnerving—she didn’t know who she really even was.
Kevin remained quiet as he got off the bike and reached for her hand. “Hey.”
“Feel any better?”
“Is that what the ride was about?”
“It always works for me, so I hoped—”
“Yeah.” She smiled. “It worked. I just got overwhelmed. You know…work, Hope, Tess.”
“You mean Mike.”
“Maybe him, too. Tess won’t admit it, but she’s been hurt, too much. Maybe you could tell him to move on now before it’s too late. It won’t be difficult. All he has to do is smile that smile and another woman will be falling all over herself to snag him.”
Kevin smiled grimly. “I’ve had this conversation with him.”
“And he wants Tess.”
“Damn it, Kevin.”
“Look, I’ve seen him with her. They were here this afternoon with Hope, baking. My brother, the hound dog, measuring sugar and cracking eggs.”
“So?” Mia shrugged, unimpressed. “A guy’ll do anything to get laid.”
Lifting a hand, he stroked a finger over her temple in the guise of tucking a stray strand of hair back. “Only guys?”
She slapped his hand away with a laugh. “Fine. Women do it, too.”
“You’re upset at all the changes.”
“No, I’m—” She broke off, her eyes locked on his. “Okay, maybe. I don’t like change.”
“Of course you do. Look at your life and how you’ve changed it to suit yourself. Your job itself is a constant change. What you don’t like is when you don’t have the reins in your hands. When you’re not sure of the outcome. You act all tough, but the truth is you’re not much of a gambler if it’s not a sure bet.”
“You make me sound like a control freak. I’m not.”
At that, he tossed back his head and laughed. “Yeah. Okay. You’re also not in denial.” He stroked a hand up her back and made her want to melt. “It’s okay, I’ve got your number.”
She hated how breathless his touch made her. “Think so?”
Leaning in, he kissed right beneath her ear. “Yeah,” he said on a soft exhale and made her shiver. Smiling against her skin, he bit her lightly. “Now tell me what’s really wrong, since you’ve danced around it.”
Wrapping her hands around him, she cupped his butt and squeezed. “I’ve got a better idea.”
He grabbed her hands in his. “I’m on board with that idea, trust me, but everyone is standing in my kitchen, probably watching us.”
“Damn it. Why are there so many people in our lives?”
He laughed again. “I haven’t a clue. Come on. Later we’ll ditch ’em all and you can have your way with me.”
“If you promise to hang around long enough for me to get my heart rate back to normal afterward.”
She stepped back in automatic defense, but he simply pulled her in anyway. “Is that elusive cuddle so terrifying? Really?”
“Is that why you asked us to stay with you?” she demanded.
“Well, all the possibilities did weigh in.” He kissed her again, then straightened and smiled at her, and took away her breath. Her chest tightened, too, but she told herself that was just because her life suddenly seemed like it was a runaway train. She stared at him, then put her forehead to his chest. “God, you get to me.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he murmured, stroking a hand down her back. “I know things are changing fast right now. But work has been hard before.”
“Not really. I’ve always loved it so much, it never felt hard. But now with my boss out for blood and Ted out for my accounts, I’m not exactly feeling the love.”
“Kick their asses.” His thumbs stroked her jaw when she smiled. “Next time anyone’s in your face, remember it’s not about them, it’s about the actual work and how much you enjoy it. Next problem.”
“Tess. She’s lost her job and she’s about to get her heart stomped, and I can’t help her with any of it.”
“She doesn’t seem too worried. She’s a big girl, Mia. And she’s got it together.”
Mia blew out a breath, unable to concentrate with his hands on her. “Yeah.”
“A great kid.”
“But she’s not mine. She doesn’t belong here with me.”
“That explains why she’s braced for the other foot to fall.”
“She’s just waiting for you to send her back.”
Mia sighed. “Sugar doesn’t want her back yet. Damn it. I can’t send her back knowing that.”
“Because you know how it feels?”
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. “No, it wasn’t like that for me. My mom wanted me around, I just didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t stand to be there. Pretty rotten of me, huh?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Is it rotten of Mike to want to hear? Is it rotten of me to wish I’d been good enough to play pro basketball? Is it rotten of Tess to dream about her cookie company? Or Hope to want to be you?”
“She doesn’t want to be like me.”
“Damn it, I am not a good role model. I’m not like you. I don’t want to fix people.”
He went still. “Is that what you think I do?”
“It is what you do. And I meant it as a compliment.”
“Next,” he whispered.
“You.” This admission passed by her inner editor, and she lifted her head.
His eyes seemed to be deep and full and very warm. “I didn’t realize I factored.”
“Oh, you factor.”
“That is very good to know.”
She saw the light of intent in his eyes as he leaned in, and as much as she wanted to lose herself in his kiss, she planted a hand on his chest. “I have no idea what I’m doing here. You know that, right? I’m on this merry-go-round, and I don’t know how to get off.”
“Just follow your heart.”
Could it really be that easy? She decided she’d never know unless she tried. So she slid her hands into his hair and tugged his face down for a kiss. He humored her for a beat, then tried to pull free, but she touched her tongue to his and dragged a low groan from him as he pulled her close and let her deepen the kiss.
Only when they were both breathless did he step back, still holding one of her hands, which he trailed down her arm, linking her fingers with his. He brought their joined hands up to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. Watching her over their fingers, he nodded. “You look better now. Less tense.”
She felt her body humming. That kiss was far more potent than she’d expected. “I don’t feel less tense.”
“Yeah, you do.” He ran a finger between her eyes, where there was usually a tight furrow. “You’re not frowning. In fact, you’re smiling at me. And your eyes are dreamy.”
She leaned past him and looked at herself in the reflection of the side-view mirror of his bike. God. It was true.
He laughed. “Don’t look so shocked.”
She kept staring at herself. He hadn’t mentioned the color of her cheeks and the almost giddy expression on her face. “Dessert,” she decided.
What was good was him. She leaned against his body. “And then…” She pressed against his erection. “This.”
She sighed. “Look, about that whole cuddle thing…”
He laughed and slung an arm around her. “You might like it, you know.”
Yeah. She did know.
Thanks to a certain night-owl teenager, Kevin and Mia’s late-night rendezvous never materialized. Hope managed to stay up past Mia, who fell asleep in the queen bed with the teen next to her, rocking out to the iPod Tess had lent her.
Kevin stuck his head in to wave good night to Hope, smiling grimly to himself as he eyed the exhausted Mia. No doubt, she was going to wake up in the morning ready to kill Tess for giving Hope the iPod.
The next morning he found Mia with her head in his refrigerator, dressed to the hilt in some floaty sort of skirt that flirted with her legs and a top that played peekaboo with something lacy and made his blood race. She straightened, a scowl on her face.
“Nothing good magically appear?” he asked.
She whipped around, startled, and he realized it hadn’t been the food making her frown, but her thoughts. “I’m late,” she said in warning when he took a step toward her. She held up her hand to ward him off. “Very late.”
“Just this then…” Pulling her close, the scent of her shampoo and sweet, soft woman tickling his nose, he kissed her.
She let out a low murmur and kissed him back until his eyes crossed. Lifting his head, he eyed the pantry door with half a mind to drag her in there.
“No,” she laughed breathlessly and blew out a frustrated breath. Looking sexy as hell, she moved out of his arms and into the kitchen, calling for Hope to “hurry her tush up” and leaving him behind, hot and bothered.
Nothing new, he’d been hot and bothered since he’d met her.
That evening was a repeat performance, but at least the next morning Mia softened enough to give Kevin a longer kiss. She’d just pressed him back against the refrigerator to feel him up—and down—murmuring, “If she stays up late tonight, I’ll kill her,” when Mike and Hope walked in.
Mike arched a brow.
Hope just stared.
Recovering quickly, Mia tossed Kevin half her bagel and commanded Hope to hurry, as if they hadn’t just been going at it against the refrigerator.
Kevin took much longer to recover. Like all day…
On the third morning, Mia was feeling desperate, and shoved Kevin into the bathroom. “This is a ridiculous,” she whispered. “How do married people ever have sex once they have kids? I can’t wait any longer.” She lifted her skirt.
With a rough groan, he reached for her, but Mike banged on the door.
Mia thunked her head back against the shower. “I’m going to cry,” she whispered. “I mean it.”
But a few minutes later, in the kitchen, she gave him a whole bagel. Toasted and jellied.