“Sugar.” Why didn’t she felt like dancing for joy? What was this irrational dread? “Things were bad between the two of you. She’s getting herself straightened out, she’s happy, she—”
“Have her call me,” Sugar interrupted and hung up.
The Appleby way.
When Hope rushed into the kitchen with one minute to spare, Mia used that as an excuse to not mention Sugar’s call. She dropped Hope off at school and drove straight to Tess’s.
“I’ve thought about this. I don’t want to get another job working for some other Dickhead. I want to work for myself. For us. I want in,” she said.
“In Cookie Madness.”
“You’re already in.”
“I want to be a partner. You interested?”
“I am not taking your money.”
“Take? No. Invest. Yes. And believe me, we’ll use it wisely.”
Tess looked torn between joy and caution. “I’m not letting you take a chance on your money.”
“Are you kidding me? We’re not taking a chance on anything. We’re going to succeed.”
Tess gnawed on her lower lip. “Mia. Friends shouldn’t do this, combine funds.”
“You’re not my friend. You’re my sister.”
Tess’s eyes filled and Mia shook her head, pointing at her.
“No. Don’t do that—”
Too late. Tess threw her arms around Mia, making her stagger back a step, hugging her hard so that Mia’s eyes burned, too, damn it.
“Besides,” Mia whispered. “We both know how good I am at selling. I’m going to sell us all the way to the bank.”
Tess choked out a laugh and Mia took her first real breath of the day. She had a purpose again, a direction to concentrate her efforts, which meant she was going to be okay.
That night Cole came over for Hope. The two of them sat at the kitchen table, heads bent over their science final projects, looking so happy Mia could hardly breathe.
She’d worked hard all her life, always thinking that the next step would be the one to bring her happiness, but, damn it, she was tired of waiting for that elusive feeling to materialize.
Especially when the truth was, the only time she’d come close had been in the company of a man.
In a moment of weakness, she waited for Cole to leave, then downed three cups of caffeinated coffee to guarantee staying awake longer than the kid. It wasn’t easy, but adrenaline—and caffeine—fueled her, and when Hope was asleep, Mia sneaked out her back door into the warm, sticky, lightly raining summer night.
God, to have someone to stare up at all those stars with…But there was only one someone that interested her. Her heels sank into the damp grass as she crossed her yard, and then her neighbor’s, and came to Kevin’s.
She stood there alone in the dark, raining night, aching for the sound of his voice, his smile, his arms to come around her.
But his house was dark.
Just like her heart.
Kevin paced the house like a caged tiger. The weather was too bad to go for a long ride on the bike, and nothing else appealed.
In the end, he sat in the darkened kitchen nursing a beer, listening to a late-summer storm pound the windows. Lightning flashed like a strobe, and he got up to look out the window as the storm raged. On the next crashing boom, the sky lit up, the landscape imprinted on his brain like a picture. The low-riding hills, the bush-lined trail to his door…and a woman standing at the end of the trail.
Mia, standing there in the rain and wind, staring at his house. He couldn’t see her expression, but he wanted to think she was filled with the same pain and longing that filled him.
But in the next flash of lightning, she was gone.
After zero sleep, Mia rose at dawn and dressed for a run. Despite the light drizzle, she was determined to run off some tension. After one block she was joined by familiar battered athletic shoes, topped by a mouthwatering body.
Mia soaked up the sight of him, so relieved she was speechless. His hair was spiked with rain, his tank top and shorts equally splattered, and he looked, well, vibrantly masculine.
“Hey,” he said in a voice that made her yearn, and adapted his stride to hers.
She knew she was strong, but she couldn’t help herself. “I, um, missed you.”
He tripped, then caught himself. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.”
“I suppose I did.” He let out a smile. “I just wanted to hear it again.”
He looked at her and she looked right back, drinking in all the details, the sheen of his several-day-old stubble, the shadows beneath his eyes that said he wasn’t as laid-back and happy as he seemed, the planes and angles of his face, the sexy line of his jaw.
The piercing eyes that saw right to her soul. “If you missed me,” he said, “you knew how to fix that.”
“One would think. But apparently, smart as I am in some areas, I’m a little slow in others.”
He didn’t correct that, and they jogged along.
He wanted more from her, and she struggled to give it. “Sugar wants Hope back.”
“Yeah. Best news I’ve had in weeks,” she quipped, then could have bit her tongue. Why did she do that?
Seeing right through her, he slanted her a long look but didn’t speak. They ran in silence past the park on the right and onto a trail leading into the woods, where there was no development, just trees and wild growth on either side of them. The rain was coming down harder now, cooling her overheated body.
“I’m sorry,” she said, gasping for breath. “That back there, about Hope. I lied. I’m going to miss her like hell. Kevin…I’m sorry I hurt you.”
She nodded, not liking the terrifyingly final tone to his voice. She took them off the trail, into the woods.
“Hey,” he called, following her. “Where are you going?”
She kept running. Hoping he followed.
“Mia, I have to get to work…”
She kept running. Please follow me.
“Well, as long as it fits into your schedule, Ms. Gotta Do Everything Her Way or the Highway,” he muttered.
Finally she stopped and, huffing for air, turned to face him. “See, now this is why you shouldn’t pour your heart out to people. They’ll use your personality traits against you.”
He made a sound that might have been a laugh or a snort of agreement, but it was cut off when she pushed him back against a tree. “You’re going to ruin your shoes,” he warned. “Isn’t that a crime in Mia-land?”
“Ha ha.” She knew they were surrounded by suburbia, and yet it was hard to believe it in here. Craggy rocks and tall pines and oaks were interspersed with patches of high bush and crevasses. They were isolated enough, with no one else around for what felt like miles.
She held him to the tree, her palms slapping up against the tough, damp sinew of his chest. It shouldn’t have turned her on but it did. He did. She had a feeling he could just stand there breathing and he would arouse her. “Listen to me.”
“I’ve been listening to you for weeks,” he said. “Want to know what you’ve been saying? ‘Do me, Kevin.’ ‘Do me and then walk away, Kevin.’ ‘Don’t get attached.’ ‘Don’t try to get to know more.’ ‘Don’t love me.’ Well, f**k it, Mia. Whether you like it or not, I’ve done all those things, and I’m done. Cooked. DOA.”
She stared up at him in shock. “You…love me?”
“Have you been paying attention at all?”
Spots swam in her vision, and from far away she heard him swear as he reversed their positions so that he pressed her back against the tree, holding her there with his body. Rain plastered his hair to his head, dripped off his nose, his chin.
“That night at the restaurant…I convinced myself you didn’t really, that you couldn’t…” She gulped in air, held it.
“Breathe, damn it.”
“Hold me. Please—just hold me.”
He swore; then his hand skimmed down to the backs of her legs, where he lifted her up. His erection pressed into her, and despite the wet, she sighed in pleasure. “Oh,” she breathed, her head falling back against the tree so that the raindrops fell on her face.
“Yeah, oh.” He did not look or sound nearly as soft and relieved as she felt, and she lifted her head. His eyes were dark, his face taut, his mouth grim. Angry, frustrated. Turned on.
“Here,” she gasped. “Please, here.”
“I’m more than this,” he ground out. “I have to be more than this to you.”
“Yes—God!” She gasped when his fingers dipped between her legs, beneath the edge of her panties. He stroked one long finger right over her while she thunked her head back against the tree.
“We’re back where I promised myself I wouldn’t go.”
With effort, she lifted her head and blinked past the now heavy rain to focus his face. “Kevin—”
“Yeah. You know what I think? I think sex with me is safe for you. Short, fast, and damn good.” Another stroke and she arched into him. “But when it comes to more, no can do. Wonder why that is, wonder what you’re afraid of? That I’ll see the real you?” His gaze swept down her body, flushed and damp with perspiration, with rain. “News flash, Mia. I’ve seen the real you. I’ve always seen the real you.”
Unbelievably touched, Mia closed her eyes.
“You’re passionate, smart, sharp as hell, and damn funny when you want to be. You’d give a perfect stranger a room in your home, even when you don’t open yourself easily. Yes,” he said when she began to shake her head in denial. “You’d give a friend your entire savings account.”
He knew about that? She’d kill Tess later.
“And yet you’d go to great lengths to hide what you think are your faults so that someone who means something to you won’t turn away. Goddamn, Mia, do you think I don’t know your faults?”
“You’re bullheaded, opinionated, and you swear like a sailor.”
She squirmed, braced for more, but he shook his head and murmured, “I don’t give a shit about any of that. I love you anyway.”
The words, uttered with frustration, with anger and heat, with utter bare-soul honesty, made her gasp.
“Yeah,” he growled. “And I know that thrills the hell out of you,”
She clutched at him, rain falling on her face, his hands in her shorts, still stroking her. “Kevin…I don’t know what you want from me.”
“You. You, Mia, without me pushing, goading, prodding to find that you beneath your protective layer. Let me in, goddamnit.”
“In?” she cried, overwhelmed by the emotion she’d been holding at bay since…since forever. “No one wants in. They want me to be strong, be in charge, they want me to be a team player. But I’m not! Do you hear me? I’m not any of those things really, I’m just me. Plain Mia Appleby, who can put a spin on anything, including a damn fine façade. Don’t you get it? I don’t know how to let you in.” She sank her fingers into his hair and tightened her grip, nose-to-nose with him, furious, upset, and far too close to tears. “I’m giving you all I can, but it’s not enough! I should have never brought you cookies that first night—”
“Damn right you shouldn’t have,” he growled, hands clasped on her bottom to hold her in place. “Or come knocking on my door the next night, and the one after that, looking like sin personified, promising all sorts of things with those gorgeous, wounded eyes, things that had nothing to do with what we give each other in the deep, dark of the night.”
The skies let loose then, dumping buckets down on them. It didn’t matter; Mia for one was so hot that the rain felt good on her steaming skin. “I want to be enough for you,” she whispered. “Just as I am.” She arched up, gliding the wettest part of her over the hardest part of him. “Please, Kevin. Let me be enough.”
He swore at that, and in the next instant slammed his mouth over hers as he tugged down her shorts and panties, shoved his shorts to his thighs, then lifted her back up to wrap her legs around him. “Hold on to me then,” he demanded. “Damn it, hold on.”
“I am.” She hung there, suspended by time, by his body, by the storm, lost in his possession, in his ragged breathing and the rain pummeling her heated flesh, in the feel of his muscled body, the scrape of his beard, the scent of him, and the wet trees and earth all around.
He slid into her with one powerful thrust, making her cry out. She had no idea how it was always like this between them, a match to dry timber, a moth to flame, every single time. She would die if she didn’t have it. Him. No one but him. “Kevin…”
A low, rough, gravely sound of tortured pleasure escaped him, and with the rain pelting down on them, he surged into her, again and again, until with a gasping sob she exploded. She was still in the throes when he followed her over, her name on his lips.
Still quivering, she closed her eyes and just held on, loving the way he had his face plastered to her neck, panting for breath, his arms crisscrossed against her back, protecting her from the bark of the tree, bowed over her body so that the majority of the rain fell on him instead of her.
Even when frustrated, hurt, and furious, he was the best man she’d ever known, and from nowhere the emotions reared up and battered her. She tightened her arms on him, preventing him from stepping free, but he didn’t even try. He stayed still with her a long moment, his muscles still quaking, until finally he lifted his head. His eyes were dark and shadowed. “You okay?”