“You made this for me?” Kevin murmured, surprised.
“Maybe I’m staking my claim.” Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him good-bye.
“Ew,” Hope said, coming into the room, wrinkling her nose but looking secretly pleased. “Gross. Old people making out.”
Old people wanting more than that, Kevin thought.
Late the next night, when Kevin had resigned himself to the fact that Mia was sabotaging their nights on purpose because she was freaked about “living” together, he heard someone in the hallway.
It was Mike, who smirked. Still not getting laid?
Sucks for you, Mike signed, clearly dressed for going out.
Where are you off to?
To get what you can’t.
Mike’s smile fell, and he shook his head.
You saw her just last night. What happened?
During…an inopportune moment, Linda paged me. And then Shelly. They wanted me to go out with them.
Kevin shook his head. Demanding harem you have there.
Hey, I haven’t seen any of them since I met Tess. But she doesn’t know that.
And the calls look damning.
Mike nodded, a new expression on his face: shame. It happened last week, too. She read one of the texts. It said Come f**k me, big guy.
Mike let out an agreeing sound. She dumped me. She cried when she did it, too. Looking destroyed, he shrugged. So I guess I’m going out with the gang.
Why don’t you stick around here instead? Kevin signed casually, trying to keep him from the need to go self-destruct. I can put in a movie—
Mike shook his head and brushed past him.
A moment later, the front door shut.
With a sigh, Kevin went to the kitchen, hoping his brother kept his brain turned on. He heard the pad of the bare feet a few seconds before Hope poked her head in. She wore a black T-shirt that fell to her knees and her hair in a ponytail. No makeup at all. She looked about twelve, and incredibly sweet. “Hey.” He kicked out a chair. “You too old for milk and cookies?”
He started to get up, but she waved him down and helped herself, serving him as well. He smiled and thanked her, and then waited.
It didn’t take long.
“So this relationship thing…” She didn’t look at him but into her milk as if it held the world’s secrets. “How do you know when it’s real?”
“What kind of relationship are we talking about?”
“There’s different kinds?”
“Sure, there’s the friendship relationship, the student/teacher relationship, the love relationship—”
“Ah.” He nodded. “Well…there’s the I-gotta-have-you-or-life-is-over love. That’s usually a teenage thing, and lasts, oh, about a week.”
She snorted and dipped her cookie in the milk.
“And then there’s the I-love-you-if-you-change-into-the-person-I-really-want love. That usually doesn’t last much longer than the teenage kind.” He knew. He’d been there with Beth.
Another snort came from Hope as she shoved the cookie in her mouth, and he smiled. “And then there’s the real thing. The I-can’t-eat-can’t-sleep love that snags you by the heart and won’t let go. Only problem is, it’s almost always fatal.”
She went very still, then swallowed. “When you spell it out, it’s not really that hard to tell the difference at all, is it?”
“Are we talking about Adam?”
She looked away. “Actually…I was thinking about Aunt Mia. If she fell in love, the real kind, maybe she’d want kids. Maybe she’d want me to stay. And, you know, help.”
God, she was killing him. “She’d be lucky to have you, Hope.”
She played with another cookie for a minute. “Think she’d want to keep me?”
How to tell her Mia didn’t want to “keep” anybody. “Your aunt has some things to work out in the keeping department,” he said gently.
“And we can’t work them out for her?”
She sighed. “Don’t you hate it when you can’t just fix stuff? And make it right?”
He absorbed the unexpected wisdom. He couldn’t fix things. He couldn’t make it right. Some things just had to go the course. The kids in his class. Mike, Mia…“Do you have any idea how smart you are, Hope?”
She met his gaze straight on. “Smart enough to know which kind of love it is you have for Mia.” She smiled at his shock. “Don’t worry. Maybe it won’t be fatal this one time.”
She left him after that, but there was no way he could sleep. He tried late-night TV and had just watched some stupid infomercial on exercise equipment and was contemplating a way to wake up Mia when his cell vibrated to life. He looked at it and knew.
Mike, in trouble again.
Don’t you hate when you can’t just fix stuff? Hope’s words echoed in his head as he watched the cell shimmy and shake. He couldn’t fix his students; they had to want to learn. He couldn’t change Mia into wanting something she didn’t.
And he couldn’t rescue Mike by bailing him out over and over again. Shouldn’t.
After a moment, the phone stopped vibrating, and with a sick, heavy pit in his gut, he got up and went to bed.
The next morning Mike slammed into the house, stalked down the hall, and went straight to his room. Kevin came out of his room and shouldered his way into Mike’s before he was locked out. What happened? he demanded as his brother stripped out of his shirt.
Mike snorted. Now you want to know? Fuck off.
I was arrested for disorderly conduct for a bar fight which, by the way, I didn’t start. You’d know that if you’d have picked up your phone. He started to brush past Kevin, who blocked him with a hand to his chest.
I told you I was done bailing you out.
Mike stared at him, then shoved him back a step. Get your smug self-righteous face out of my room before I smash it.
Look, you’re done saving my ass? Fine. No doubt I deserve it. But I sure as hell don’t want to see or talk to you right now, so get out.
How did you get home?
Concern? Is that concern on your face? A little late, isn’t it?
I spent the night in jail and was picked up by Tess. Satisfied?
You called Tess?
For a ride home. She gladly gave it, unlike my own brother. Then she said I disappointed her, that she expects more from a man than I can give. Said I shouldn’t call her again. Mike punched the wall, then rubbed his knuckles. Look, just get the hell out.
But Mike turned and walked into his bathroom. The lock tumbling into place echoed into the silence.
Hope sat in science class, riveted by the lesson. They were learning about the effects of the moon’s pull on the ocean, and she was taking notes, dreaming about swimming with the dolphins.
Kevin—Mr. McKnight here in class—was tense today. She knew something was going on when she’d entered his kitchen that morning because he and Mia had immediately stopped talking. They’d both looked extremely unhappy, which she assumed was Mia’s doing. Why couldn’t the woman get it together?
Adam touched his foot to hers, and Hope looked over in surprise. He passed her a note.
When are we getting together?
Though she’d been the one to say they could, she was avoiding actually doing so. She didn’t know why. So she smiled but didn’t answer, didn’t know what to answer.
After class, he took her hand. “Walk with me to the teen center?”
She wasn’t supposed to—they were supposed to walk in groups of three or more, and always with at least two girls—but he was pretty cute, and smiling at her with those eyes. “’Kay.”
But instead of going straight to the teen center, they veered off the path and entered the woods. There, with the trees all around them, the day dim from the low clouds, Adam kissed her.
“Um—” she began, but he thrust his tongue in her mouth.
Jeez. Still too much slobber. She tried to pull back, but he held on tight, then stuck his clammy hand beneath her shirt. She jerked free.
“What?” he asked, lifting his hands.
“Um…wait a sec.”
His eyes filled with impatience. “Jesus, it’s always wait with you.”
She knew she’d given him mixed signals, and she felt bad, but she felt like a walking mixed signal. “I’m sorry.”
“If you’re sorry, then kiss me,” he whispered in that sexy voice and leaned in.
Okay, fine. One more. She let him stick his tongue back down her throat and put his hand back up her shirt, hoping he wouldn’t unhook her bra. She tried to stand still to wait him out, but she just couldn’t do it. She was about to shove him away when the twigs and branches on the path crackled beneath someone else’s feet.
Adam jerked back.
And Hope looked up into Kevin’s face. He looked pissed, and Hope wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
“We’re not doing anything,” Adam said.
Kevin uttered one very unteacherlike word, and Hope squeezed her eyes shut. Please God, just kill me right now. Strike me dead with lightning.
But God wasn’t listening.
Kevin took a deep breath and looked at Adam. “You.”
Hope shifted uncomfortably. “Kevin—”
“Zip it, Hope,” Kevin said without looking at her. “You’re next. Right now I’m talking to Adam.”
Hope tried God again. Please, I’m begging you. Kill me.
“This is the—what?—the third time I’ve caught you out here this week playing tonsil hockey?” Kevin asked Adam.
Hope stopped talking to God and stared at Adam. “Wait. Third time?”
Adam backed up a step, eyes cool and hooded. “Kissing isn’t against any rule.”
“Being out here in the woods is,” Kevin said. “You’ve been warned. You’ve been punished with extra assignments. Now you’re going to be suspended.”
Adam lost his smugness. “Hey, wait. I—”
“Too late,” Kevin said firmly.
“But if you get suspended from summer school, you don’t get credit for the class,” Adam said. “I need the credit.”
Adam just stared at him. “I thought you were cool. I thought you cared about fixing us.”
“Oh, I care, Adam,” Kevin said quietly. “But I can’t fix you. Only you can do that. You need to stop smoking pot and you need to get your act together while you’re still a minor and these mistakes don’t count against you permanently. If I can help you, I will.”
“Funny way of showing it.”
Adam glanced over at Hope, who was still stuck on the third time thing and looked away. Adam kicked the dirt and stalked off toward the teen center.
Hope couldn’t help it, she let out a relieved little sigh. Kevin, unaware that he’d just saved her from having to tell Adam no, was now glaring at her. “You want to tell me how I’ve ruined your life, too?” he asked. “Because—what the hell—I’m on a roll. Let’s hear it.”
Hope shook her head.
Kevin sighed. Swore again.
And Hope worked up the nerve to ask her most pressing question. “Are you going to tell Mia?”
She sagged in relief that turned out to be short-lived.
That night Kevin brought Hope home on his motorcycle, which she loved, but she couldn’t fully absorb the joy of it because she was freaking out about facing Mia.
Mia came home a little bit later, looking tense, tossing her purse to the table as she held out a bag of Chinese takeout. “Moo shoo and pot stickers for everyone. Tell me you’ll eat it,” she said to Hope.
“I defy you not to moan with pleasure at the first taste.”
Hope was used to feeding herself at home. Here it’d been a different story from the beginning. Having Mia even care brought a lump of guilt to her throat that she couldn’t swallow away. “Um, I have to tell you something.”
Mia had been looking at Kevin, doing that adult communicating thing without words. Again. Only for the first time since Hope had first seen them, it didn’t seem sexual, it seemed like…concern.
Mia was concerned about Kevin.
Kevin just shrugged. “I’m going to take a shower.”
Mia watched him go, then turned back to Hope. “What’s up? And is it going to ruin my appetite?”
“I don’t know. Today I…sorta broke a rule at school.”
“Did it involve the police?”
“What? No. I…” Suddenly it all purged out of her in a painful rush: Adam, the walk to the teen center that ended up not going to the teen center at all, the woods, the kiss…”And really,” she finished, “Kevin totally overreacted. It was just a stupid kiss.”
Mia sighed and sank to a chair. “Oh, boy. Okay. First things first. There is never ‘just a kiss.’ Kisses lead to all sorts of…other stuff.”
“But isn’t that how all of us Applebys solve our problems?”
Utter silence followed this.
Hope clapped a hand over her mouth. She couldn’t believe the words had come out of her mouth.
Mia sat there, stricken.