Remorse and regret and humiliation rose up and nearly choked Hope. She’d have to leave now, for sure. Mia would want her to. But she couldn’t even speak to ask, because of the lump in her throat.
“Listen,” Mia finally said, her disappointment weighing the room down. “Here’s the thing. I’m an adult. That means I get to do what I want, when I want. I realize that sucks for you, but when you’re grown up and done wearing Sharpie black ink as nail polish and eyeliner, then you get to do what you want. Get it?”
Hope looked at her fingernails and wished they were clear. She nodded.
“Do you? Do you really?” Mia asked. “Because it seems like we keep having this conversation. Whether you like it or not, I’m somehow responsible for you.”
Hope nodded. She got that part. She’d come out here, uninvited, and put Mia in this position.
“Just eat,” Mia said wearily.
Hope couldn’t have swallowed to save her life. She hated knowing that she’d given Mia a reason to send her back home. “You could ground me.”
“Can I ground you from talking ever again?”
“I don’t think so. Are you going to send me home?”
Mia looked away, and Hope’s heart clenched.
From somewhere in the depths of the house, the shower turned off. Mia cocked her head, listening. “We’re not going to do anything right now. Listen, I’ll…be back.”
Telling herself she didn’t care about the sudden awkwardness between them, Hope grabbed her chopsticks. In her life, she’d pissed off a lot of people. She’d rather have Mia’s anger any day over this clear disappointment, but she had no idea how to fix it.
Mia let herself into Kevin’s bedroom and shut and locked the door. She looked at the bed and ached. Instead of stripping and slipping beneath the soft brown-and-navy blue comforter like she really wanted, she sat on the edge and waited.
She already knew what had happened with Mike, and even if she hadn’t, she’d get an earful from Tess. Mia’s heart broke for all of them, but mostly for Kevin.
He’d looked so destroyed before she left for work that she cornered him in the pantry closet and did her best to take advantage of him.
That’s when he told her what had happened. How he felt he’d failed Mike.
In truth, he’d probably never failed anyone a single day in his life. She sat on his bed, surrounded by his things and his scent, aching, and not just physically. She wanted to help him, soothe him, take away his problems.
Apparently his wanting-to-fix-people thing was contagious.
Finally he appeared, his long, lean body still wet, only a towel around his hips, and he arched a brow.
“Want to talk about it?” she asked.
“About what, the weather?”
“About Mike,” Mia said.
He dropped his towel and walked na**d to his closet.
She eyed his very fine ass and shook her head. “Much as it pains me to say this, you can’t distract me with your body.”
“Well, damn,” he said and shoved his legs into a pair of jeans.
Commando. God, she wanted him. Wanted to use that edge and temper she could see simmering just beneath his surface to her advantage. “Are you okay?”
“You don’t seem okay.”
“My brother hates my guts, did I tell you that? Oh, and I suspended a kid today, and he hates my guts, too. So does my boss, by the way, which he made clear when I was suspending said kid. Oh, and half the other kids hate me, too.”
“Why, because you tell it like it is? Because you want them all to better themselves? Because you—”
“Butt in at every opportunity trying to make people be something they’re not?”
Standing, she moved closer to him, feeling that heat of his carefully banked temper. “Then stop doing it. Worry about only yourself.”
“That’s your answer? That’s what you came in here to tell me? Worry only about myself?”
“No, I came in here to jump your bones.”
He stood there shirtless, shoeless, attitude-ridden, and gorgeous, and let out a sound that seemed to say That works for me.
She glanced back at the bed wondering if they could somehow—
He let out a harsh laugh. “Don’t tempt me.”
With a small smile, she slipped her arms out of her camisole dress and let it fall.
The breath whooshed out of his lungs, a satisfactory reaction indeed. Wearing only a demibra, a thong, and four-inch satin sandals, she put her hands on his chest and pushed him backward into the bathroom.
“Mia, we can’t—”
She locked that door, too. Double protection, though she had no such help for her heart.
He made another rough sound. “This won’t help—”
“Wanna bet?” Then she did as she’d promised. Jumped his bones.
The next morning, Hope didn’t want to get up. It was their last morning at Kevin’s, and Mia was in a snippy rush, snapping at Hope to hurry, hurry, hurry. Well Hope was hurrying, thank you very much, but she was also still feeling the heat of Mia’s disappointment from the night before, and it made her snippy, too. Snippy enough that she felt the need to cause trouble.
It brewed inside her until she got to class and went up to Kevin’s desk. “Mia wanted me to tell you that as our first night back in her house, she’s cooking tonight to celebrate.”
Surprised, Kevin looked up. “Cooking? Are you sure?”
“Very.” Even as Hope said it, knowing Mia could burn water trying to make tea, she felt a grim sense of satisfaction.
Now that should bring Mia from disappointment mode straight to temper mode, no problem. Temper was something Hope understood and knew how to deal with. “She said to come over and have a homemade dinner with us tonight.”
Pleased with herself, Hope went to her desk. Feeling someone looking at her, she turned around. The group of girls behind her, the popular girls, were glaring at her.
They glared harder.
Hope turned forward again, and a moment later felt something hit her in the head. It was a note, which read: We know what you did.
Too bad Hope didn’t know.
At break, one of the guys explained it to her. The girls blamed her for two things: Adam being suspended, and that she’d “put out” for him in the woods before they’d gotten caught.
Put out? She hadn’t put out, that rat-fink bastard!
Her neck was burning when class began again. She’d blown it in two out of two schools now. Nice record. She tried to concentrate on Kevin. He stood in the middle of the classroom holding a cylinder, head bent, boots unlaced, jeans looking as if maybe they’d been around for a few years, his T-shirt stretched taut over his shoulders and adorably frayed. Smiling.
He was usually smiling.
She loved that about him. She loved him. Not that she’d admit this upon threat of torture or even death, but sometimes, in the deep, dark of the night, she fantasized about him.
Fantasized that he was her dad.
It embarrassed her that she had that need, but it was there, burning in the pit of her belly.
He lifted his head and asked, “Okay, so if we use a vacuum on this cylinder and sucked out the oxygen, what’s left?”
She knew the answer but bit her lip. She’d long ago learned to keep it to herself when she got things too quick, but especially here, now that everyone hated her, it would be worse.
“Cole?” Kevin asked.
Cole shook his head. He didn’t know.
Kevin looked around. “Anyone?”
No one moved. No one appeared to even be breathing.
And Kevin let out a disappointed sigh.
Damn it. Hope raised her hand.
His eyes warmed. “Hope. I knew you’d know.”
Her heart took a flying leap and hit her ribs. “Nothing. There’s nothing in the cylinder.”
His smile spread. “Correct.”
The classroom was so utterly silent she could hear people breathing. Someone snorted, and someone else snickered. Heat flooded Hope’s face. Then, from behind her, Cole shifted, leaning forward. “Cool.”
In surprise, she craned her neck and looked at him.
At over six feet, he didn’t fit into his desk so well, his long legs bent at a funny angle, his elbows hanging off the tabletop. He had dark hair on the wrong side of long, falling way over his collar and into his eyes. And he was so skinny she’d always thought of him as a scarecrow, but he had the kindest eyes she’d ever seen on a kid his age, and they’d drawn her that first day.
They drew her now, too.
All this time she hadn’t spoken to him because the popular girls didn’t like him. A thought that brought more shame. It just kept following her, starting from that time back at home when she’d been accused of stealing the lipstick.
At the end of class, she walked alone to the teen center, trailing a group of girls so as to follow the rules. Halfway there, she heard running steps come up behind her and whipped around.
It was Cole.
“Hey,” he said, a little breathless but trying to be cool.
She didn’t have it in her to come up with any smartass remark, so she just kept walking. He fell in besides her. She thought maybe he’d try to get her to talk, or even draw her into the woods like Adam, especially since everyone now thought she was that kind of girl, but they walked in companionable silence.
Out front of the teen center, he stopped and touched her arm. “You’re too good for Adam” was all he said, and then he went inside, leaving her standing there, wishing she really was too good for Adam, wishing also that she hadn’t invited Kevin over for Mia’s home cooking. She really, really wished that.
Mia’s morning was long, made even longer by the worrisome, underlying tension in the firm and the rumor of more layoffs coming. Damn it. She was in a staff meeting in a conference room when she had to leave to take a call from a client. She ran down the hall to her office and found her plant mysteriously tipped over. Only problem: the water from the container had spilled out, soaking the desk—and her laptop.
Her fried laptop.
Rumors flew at that. Some said she had enemies, some said it was karma. Her favorite was the one that said she’d done it herself to get attention. Please. As if she needed that kind of attention.
She actually thought about going to Margot, just for another female opinion, but the truth was, though Margot did not possess a penis, she would enjoy Mia’s troubles.
But the bottom line was she couldn’t even properly obsess about any of it, because she just didn’t care the way she used to. Suddenly there were other things crowding her brain. She was worried about Hope, worried about Kevin, worried about Tess…Hell, she even worried about Mike. A new phenomenon, all this worry outside of work, but the list kept growing.
In an afternoon staff meeting, Ted came right out and criticized her methods of getting accounts, which he claimed were too aggressive.
Bring it on, she thought grimly and sat back because surely someone would defend her.
The deafening silence around her spoke volumes.
Others felt the same way.
The joy in the job was fading, and that scared her because this job had always been everything to her. Everything. But the tension was too high to handle. Normally she solved that problem with a man. She looked around her and realized she didn’t want just any man.
She wanted Kevin.
She checked her cell phone for the thousandth time, thinking maybe he left a message, something like Now that you’re back in your house, be sure to come knocking tonight.
But nothing is what she got, and when she complained to Tess about it on the phone, Tess laughed at her.
“Let me get this straight,” her supposedly best friend said. “You’ve told him you don’t want a relationship, but you’re mad because he doesn’t call you?”
“Well, damn it, when you put it that way, I sound crazy.”
“Honey, you are crazy. That is one fine, hot, sexy man. And I should know—his brother was just as fine, hot, and sexy.”
Mia sighed. “I knew he was going to break your heart.”
“He gave me my first man-made orgasm, you know.”
Ah, hell. Tess had been in plenty of relationships, but she’d always had a hard time achieving full glory until Mia had bought her a vibrator a couple of Christmases back.
“He really did it for me,” Tess said. “Without even trying, bam.” She sighed dreamily. “I’d have married him for that alone.” Her voice broke a little, and so did Mia’s heart.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, me, too. Did you know he thought I was sexy? Me.”
“You are sexy.”
“You aren’t going to keep me warm at night.”
“Damn it, I really want to kill him for screwing this up.”
“I just want to hug him.”
She sure as hell better not, Mia thought grimly. “He couldn’t have supported you.”
“Mia Appleby, queen of feminists everywhere, you did not just suggest I need a man to support me. I am woman, hear me roar.”
“I heard you got some more orders,” Mia said, executing a change of subject.
“Another thirty pounds a month. You were right, I need a bigger kitchen. I’ve applied for a business loan. Cross your fingers for me.”
“I told you, let me loan you the start-up money.”
“I can’t take your money.”
“Who said anything about take? It’s a loan.”