“Yeah, but it nearly worked on you, I could tell.”
Mia paced the hall. “Damn it! This day was a total waste of makeup.” Sighing, she looked at Hope. “You told him I’d cook him dinner, knowing that I’d rather have a root canal without drugs?”
Hope grimaced. Nodded. “See, you were all disappointed in me, and I decided I liked it better when you were mad.”
“You know, that’s just twisted enough that I believe you.” Mia took a deep breath. “Okay, in the kitchen. Get started. I’ll meet you there.”
“Why don’t I just tell him—”
“Oh, no! Are you kidding? Never admit your mistakes! Not to a man! Now move it—we have some major deception ahead of us. You know when you mentioned being in cahoots with Satan? You were just kidding, right?”
Kevin heard the frantic whispers and murmurs coming from the kitchen and glanced questioningly at Cole. The kid lifted his shoulder.
Kevin moved closer to the kitchen door.
“Canned soup isn’t cooking,” he heard Mia hiss. “You told him homemade.”
“We don’t have anything to homemake,” came Hope’s voice. “I keep telling you a growing teenager needs food in the fridge.”
“Hey, I feed you.”
“Expensive takeout! And at least I’m making sure you’re eating your veggies and fruit. Just this morning I bought you frozen yogurt.”
“Hate to tell ya, but yogurt isn’t a fruit or veggie.”
“Yours had strawberries in it.”
“You know,” Hope said, “if you’d just be honest and tell him you’re not perfect, I wouldn’t be able to get you in these situations.”
Mia muttered an oath and Kevin grinned. So Mia wanted him to think she was perfect? Kinda cute, really. Cute and extremely revealing, especially since he already knew she was far from perfect.
“Look, this has been a bad day all around.” This from Mia, sounding frazzled. “I just don’t want to admit that I can’t even put a meal together. It makes me seem pathetic.”
“You’ve got other stuff going for you.”
“Yeah, don’t hurt yourself, thanks.” Mia sighed. “A real woman can cook. All right? I intended to learn, I just never got around to it.” The sound of cabinets shutting drifted through the door. “Damn it, I don’t even have a cookbook.” More slamming of cupboards. “I ought to make you drive to Giapetti’s and bring back takeout, which we could then claim as our own cooking, but making you drive the Audi isn’t exactly a punishment.”
“How about if I pretend to hate it?”
“Hope, I swear to God, if you don’t try looking sorry that you got me into this mess, I’m going to ship you back to Sugar via UPS ground.”
Kevin laughed—oh, yeah, this was what he’d needed; she was what he needed—and opened the kitchen door. He rattled his keys. “How about I drive us all to Giapetti’s?”
With a squeak, Mia whipped around to face him. Her cheeks had two high spots of color and there was a strand of hair hanging in her eyes, but something else seemed off…Ah, she’d kicked off her heels, bringing her down to her own petite height. She fixed that by immediately slipping into them again.
Tell him you’re not perfect.
The words had amused him a moment ago, but now he felt a hard tug on his heart. Didn’t she get it? He didn’t want perfection, he just wanted her.
She smoothed her hair in a calm, cool gesture he knew was faked. “Well,” she said with a laugh. “I was going to cook something right here, but if you insist.”
He smiled. “Oh, I insist.”
He let her keep up the pretense all through dinner, which was excellent, but he could tell something else was seriously bugging her. He waited until they’d gotten back home and Hope had gone inside to do homework with Cole before he stopped her. “What is it?” he asked her.
Mia looked at him in surprise. “Is it all over my face then?”
“Maybe I just know you.”
She studied him for a long moment, the evening breeze ruffling her hair. “Is it weak to admit I actually liked the sound of that? You knowing me?”
Her admission grabbed him by the throat, but he smiled and shook his head. “Not at all.”
She leaned in as if to kiss him, and his engine revved, but her cell phone rang. She looked down at the ID and sighed. “It’s Tess. I have to get it.”
“I just heard,” Tess said in Mia’s ear. “Oh, honey. Dickhead didn’t deserve you, either.”
There on the sidewalk, Mia closed her eyes. “You heard? How?”
Absorbing the shock, Mia rubbed her forehead. “So the whole world knows I’m gone? Nice.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll come up with something. I always do.” Extremely aware of Kevin watching her, she turned away, not wanting to admit quite yet her public humiliation. “Listen, I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” She clicked off, plastered a smile on her face, and looked at Kevin.
He stood there, tall, lanky, gorgeous, making her heart hurt. She was holding on by a thread here, and the drama of the evening hadn’t helped ease the drama of the day. She needed him with a shocking desperation. But she couldn’t drag him upstairs; she had an impressionable teen in the house. She couldn’t drag him to his house because of Mike. Damn it. She wanted him na**d, hard, inside her, making her mindless how only he could.
Maybe they could go for a ride somewhere. Practically vibrating with need, she opened her purse to check for a condom.
“When were you going to admit you couldn’t cook?”
She looked up. He was watching her. “Although, if you’re wondering,” he said, “I could care less if you can or not.” He playfully tugged on a strand of her hair.
Her fingers wrapped around a condom. “Actually, I was thinking of another kind of cooking altogether…”
His hands stroked down her back as if he couldn’t help himself, but then he stepped back, jamming his hands into his pockets. “Nice subject change.”
She sighed. “If you don’t care if I can cook, why bring it up?”
“Because you tried to hide it. Just like you hide everything that you think is too revealing.”
“Like your past. Your weaknesses. Anything you think makes you less than who you want to be. You hide a lot, Mia.”
“I don’t—” But she did. They both knew it.
She’d never seen such a grim expression on his face as he backed a step from her. “You know what? I’m going in,” he said.
The air felt charged as they stared at each other, and she knew the ball was in her court. “Don’t,” she whispered. “Don’t go.”
He let out a sound that managed to perfectly convey his disappointment in the fact she hadn’t faced what he wanted her to face. That she hadn’t talked to him: about herself, about her feelings, about them. When he turned and walked away, she felt her heart crack and give, but her heels felt as if they’d been stuck in wet concrete. She couldn’t move.
“Wait,” she whispered.
He looked back, saw the sheen of tears in her eyes, and closed his. “Mia.” He came back to her and spoke in a quiet tone that broke her heart with each word. “I’m just tired of this, you know? Tired of digging for the real you. You hide at every turn, you close yourself off. I don’t want to have to find out you’ve lost your job by overhearing a damn phone call.”
Humiliation rose up and choked her. “I was going to tell you.”
“When? When you had something else, when the situation was all fixed?”
“See that’s just it. I want more. I want to be needed. I want to be a part of your life.”
“I didn’t keep it to myself to make you angry.”
“I’m not angry, I’m hurt. I thought we were friends.”
The panic that had been sitting in her chest since Dickhead’s office rose up and grabbed her by the throat. “We are friends.”
“How can we be, when you’ve never trusted me?”
“This isn’t about trust.”
She stood there staring at him, thinking it’d been a hell of a day. She’d lost her identity, she’d lost her sense of self, and now she was going to lose him. “I’ve given you all I have to give. It has to be enough.” Please, God, let it be enough.
He looked at her for another long moment. Then slowly shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Me, too.” Again he walked off.
And this time she let him go.
Kevin took his bike over the canyons and hills of LA for several hours, but neither the cool breeze nor the scenery helped the hole in his chest. He had a feeling nothing would. When he got home, Mike was waiting for him. They hadn’t spoken much since the arrest.
What’s up? Kevin signed.
Mike shook his head. Just waiting for you.
Well there’s a change.
Mike winced and Kevin felt like a jerk. Look, I just broke it off with Mia and I’m not fit for company, all right?
Mike looked stricken. What happened?
We don’t agree on what a relationship should be. Story of my life.
I’m sorry. I know that’s inadequate, but I am. Mike got in Kevin’s way when he tried to move up the stairs. Maybe we could hang out or something.
I don’t have any cash.
Mike’s eyes reflected regret. I don’t want money. We could stay home.
Kevin shrugged and turned away. Nah.
Mike shouldered his way in front of Kevin. I know you don’t believe me, but I just want to be here for you.
I thought you were mad at me.
I got over it.
Kevin rolled his eyes.
I mean it. Come on, name a problem, let me try to fix it.
Kevin laughed. You’re going to fix my problems? You hate problems.
All right. Kevin crossed his arms and leaned back against the banister. The teen center. I need a down payment to buy the building.
About a hundred times what you’ve got.
I could accept Linda’s marriage proposal.
Remember that voice-over actress I dated last month? She’s a daddy’s little rich kid, and she wanted to marry me.
Kevin looked at him. You’d actually get hitched? For me?
Mike lifted a shoulder.
Kevin laughed. You’re allergic to commitment, much less marriage.
I wouldn’t be with Tess. Even Mike looked shocked at that. He staggered backward and sat down. I can’t believe that came out of my mouth.
Kevin stared back. You do know the definition of marriage, right? Till death do you part?
Mike rubbed his heart, still looking staggered. Shut up a minute. He looked up at Kevin. I’m having a moment. I just realized I’m in love with her.
Ah, hell. Kevin sat heavily next to him and looked into Mike’s stricken face. She’d be crazy to have you. But damn lucky.
That won’t get you the teen center.
Yeah, but it’d make you happy. Happy would be good.
Mike nodded. But I want you to be happy, too. You can fix this somehow, I know it.
Kevin shook his head. No more fixing. It’s either right, or it’s not.
And at the moment, nothing seemed right, nothing at all.
Mia slept poorly, then got up at the crack of dawn like usual and checked her cell phone.
Not a single message.
Flopping back, she stared at the ceiling, trying not to panic. She was hugely successful. She’d have thought she’d wake to handfuls of offers.
But no one had contacted her.
She was undesirable. “Shit.”
That the word came out sounding extremely Southern didn’t improve her mood any. God, she missed Kevin already. One night, and she felt as if she’d lost an appendage.
But she’d given him every damn thing she had.
She had, she told herself again, shoving away the niggling doubt, because self-righteous indignation was much easier to deal with.
She’d given her all and had turned out to be lacking. A common problem, apparently.
Her phone rang. Her heart leapt, thinking that maybe…Kevin. She couldn’t pounce on it fast enough.
“Hey, Apple, guess what? I’m missing the ol’ kid.”
Mia thunked her head down on the counter. Sugar. “I thought you were busy on your vacation from life.”
“I was recovering,” Sugar said somewhat defensively. “But I’m done now. Send her home, damn it.”
Suddenly suspicious, Mia lifted her head and frowned. “Let me guess. You’ve been dumped.”
Sugar burst into tears. “Oh, Apple. And I thought he was the one this time. The real one.”
Mia thought of Kevin and felt like crying, too. “Yeah.”
“And the place is a mess. Only Hope can manage to keep it decent. I need her back.”
Unreasonable panic hit Mia, because Sugar sounded like she meant it, and because…well, because, damn it, Mia had grown rather fond of the troublemaker.
“She’s not the maid, she’s a kid. And she’s now enrolled in a science class that she needs. She wants to be a marine biologist. It’s important to her.”
“But she lives here. With me.”