She closed her eyes and pulled his face close, touching her forehead to his. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Sure? It was kind of rough.” He eased her shaky legs down until her feet touched the ground, and helped her right her clothes. “I’m sorry.”
She couldn’t speak past the lump the size of a regulation basketball in her throat, so she just shook her head. She didn’t want him to be sorry, she wanted—
God. What she wanted.
They walked back in the pouring rain, their fingers entwined. Outside his house, he brought her fingers up to his mouth. “I have to go to work.”
And she did not. The wince came out of her before she could stop herself. He squeezed her fingers. “Mia—”
“I’m a big girl, I can handle it,” she said. “Besides, I have tons of stuff lined up—” She broke off, looked away, and then back into his eyes. “No, that was an embellishment. I have nothing. No leads, no interviews, nothing. I am unemployed. Completely. All I have is a part of a cookie dough company that looks good in theory but has yet to prove itself. How’s that for letting you in to see the real me?”
His smile was slow, and no less sexy for the sympathy in his eyes. “A damn good start. I was getting tired of being a piece of flypaper for the obnoxiously bullheaded and obstinate.”
She felt her own reluctant smile. “Obnoxiously bullheaded?”
“Hey, if the shoe fits…”
She laughed, and, God, that felt good.
“So what now, Mia?”
“I don’t know.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “Let me just lay it out there for you. I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything or anyone else in my whole life.”
Once again the breath backed up in her throat.
“You either feel that way back, or you don’t.”
Since she couldn’t breathe, she just stood there. Brilliant.
“What’s the worst that could happen, Mia, if you go for it?”
“I could screw it all up. I could—”
“Snore?” he asked ironically. “Have stinky feet? Be bad in bed?”
“This is not funny.”
“No,” he agreed, his smile gone. “It’s not. But if we’re going to just do this, I want all of it.”
He just looked at her, and she swallowed. “You mean—” She swallowed again. “The whole white lace dress, tacky white tiered cake, complete with a lease on a double-wide?”
“I’m not trying to freak you out, I’m just telling you how I feel.”
Something in her face must have given him her answer, and he stared down at his feet. Nodded. “Yeah.” He looked at her then. “Good-bye, Mia.”
A sob welled up and she bit it back. If this was really how he felt, it was the end.
Oh, my God. Through blurry eyes she watched him walk away, a profound sorrow working its way through her as she realized she’d never see him smile at her, never feel the touch of his kiss, hear the timbre of his voice all directed at her in that special way he had of making her feel like the only woman on the planet.
Not ever again.
She waited until he was gone to sink to the ground, curl up in a ball, and watch the rain fall.
When Mia got home, she was surprised to find the world still spinning. The refrigerator hummed, music emitted from Hope’s alarm that she was ignoring…Yep, everything looked and sounded completely normal. Chilled, she took a long shower. By the time she got out, she was warm and dry again. She surveyed her closet. Prada or…Target?
Target. Sweats and bunny slippers, to be precise. Dressed, she headed for the kitchen and any alcohol. Only problem, it was still morning. Settling for caffeine, she dumped three teaspoons of sugar into the coffee to add a desperately needed sugar rush. Then she glanced at a box of small chocolate donuts on the counter. Hope’s. Screw watching calories, this was a mental-health emergency. She ate one, then five more.
At seven thirty, Hope staggered into the kitchen, went straight to the refrigerator, and pulled out the OJ container. She shook it and drank straight from the jug. “I’m going to finish it,” she said when Mia just looked on.
Hope eyed her more closely. “You look like crapola. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Gee, unless you count the fact my life is in the toilet. “Why?”
“Are you wearing…” Hope squinted in disbelief. “The Target clothes?”
That the girl recognized the difference between designer versus plain brand gave her a proud-aunt moment.
“Are you?” Hope pressed.
“Tell anyone and die.”
“Hey, I’m not kidding. And just so you know, I wasn’t always a clothes snob.”
“You know it sounds like English coming out of your mouth, but I just can’t quite make it out,” Hope told her.
“Great. A comedienne.”
Hope set down the juice. “Okay, what’s wrong really? Tell me the truth, because you’re not harping on my clothes or makeup, you’re not harping on what I’m not eating—”
“Does this train of thought have a caboose?”
“What did you do, call my mom and get me booked on a bus or something?”
Ah, shit. Sugar. She needed to find a way to tell Hope her mom wanted her back. “No. No bus riding.”
Hope put the dishes from the sink into the dishwasher. Got to hand it to the kid; she knew how to pick up after herself. She’d probably been doing it for years. Mia took another long look into Hope’s face and felt a squeeze on her heart. There were purple smudges beneath her eyes that had nothing to do with her baffling choice of makeup. And her face seemed drawn. “Clearly, I’m not the only one in a pathetic mood,” Mia said.
Hope looked up in surprise. Lifted a shoulder.
Oh, boy. A fishing expedition in the expanse of a teenage mind. “So…Cole seems nice.”
Bingo. Hope plopped into the chair across from Mia. “Yeah. But just a few days ago I was gaga over Adam. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to trust my feelings now. It seems so…comforting.” She looked at Mia. “Any maternal urges coming to you? Any advice at all?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not so good with feelings in general, so I’m probably not one to ask.”
“You’re with Kevin. You have feelings for him.”
“Well, no to the first, but yes on the second.”
Hope’s mouth trembled open. “I thought he loved you.”
“Maybe love isn’t always enough.”
Hope looked vastly disappointed by that, but Mia told herself she was young, she’d learn.
“I think what I feel for Cole is more…real than what I felt for Adam. Does that make sense?”
Mia thought of Kevin and compared him to every guy she’d ever been with. There was no comparison. “Perfect sense.”
“He kissed me.”
Mia cut her eyes to Hope.
“Don’t worry. No sex.”
Mia nodded and ate another donut.
“You know, my mom would be spouting stuff like, ‘Marry a trucker, they have good insurance.’ Nothing I’d want to hear. You don’t do that. If you don’t know something, you don’t pretend to. You just tell it to me like it is.”
“I guess I wish I’d had someone do that for me when I was your age.”
“Were you scared? When you left?”
“Terrified. Still am.” Now that I’m back to square one.
“You never seem scared. You always seem like you know exactly what you’re doing.”
Mia laughed. “Well, trust me, I don’t. I’m all screwed up. I lost my job yesterday.”
Hope’s eyes widened. “Are you going to be out on the street?”
Mia’s smile faded. She’d nearly forgotten what it was like to be sixteen and living seriously day to day. In Hope’s world, no job meant no food and a manager banging on the door demanding rent, or else. “We’re going to be okay for a while.”
“You said we.”
“So I did.”
Hope smiled, but it faded. “How long is a while?”
“Long enough that you don’t need to worry about it. Longer if Tess and I make Cookie Madness work.”
“I can work for Tess. I can even quit the science class and work full-time.”
“No. No way. You’re staying in school. Wherever that might be.”
Hope blinked. “What does that mean?”
Mia sighed. “It means your momma wants you back.”
Hope was quiet a moment. “And what do you want?”
“I want what’s best for you.”
“Oh.” Hope looked down at her clasped fingers. “I guess I actually miss her sometimes. You know, a little.”
A knife to the chest. “That’s good.” Trying not to lose it right there, Mia got up and grabbed her keys. “Time for school.”
They were in the car before Hope spoke again. “I want to be just like you when I get to be as old as you are. What is that, forty?”
“Do you want to see your next birthday?”
Hope actually smiled. “Twenty-five?”
“See, now you’re talking.” So she’d turned the big three-oh last year. She could handle that. Yeah, her life sucked at the moment, but she could handle that, too.
For a long moment after Hope left the car, Mia sat there absorbing the morning sun. Hope wanted to be like her.
God help the both of them.
That afternoon Hope sat on a swing in the park. The early-evening sun beat down on her head as she idly kicked her foot in the sand, rocking back and forth, eyeing the lazy blue sky. At home she’d have been lying on her bed, wondering why she had no friends, why no one wanted to get to know her.
It should have disturbed her that she was still alone, but somehow it didn’t. She didn’t feel sick and sad all the time, she didn’t feel like her chest was too tight. She didn’t feel like she wanted to hurt something.
And—and this was the biggee—she didn’t feel like wearing black all the time. For one thing, it was freaking hot. And for another, she liked Mia’s clothes.
She liked it here.
She hadn’t talked to her mother yet. Sugar had needed a break, which Hope understood, because she’d needed the break, too. But now that break was over.
Still, it would have been nice to hear from her momma, even once, to know she’d been missed, worried about. Even though that wasn’t really her way. Hope would have bet that wasn’t Mia’s way, either, but Mia always wanted to know where Hope was and when she was coming back. At first, Hope had thought it was because Mia needed a break, too, but now she knew differently.
Mia worried about her.
And though that knowledge should have felt weird, should have been suffocating, it wasn’t.
She heard the footsteps and knew it was Cole. He’d said he’d come hang out. He always did what he said he was going to, and the sheer comfort in that warmed her from the inside out. Lifting her head, she watched him walk toward her. He wore baggy cargo pants, a Zeppelin T-shirt, and a tight expression that said his mother had been yelling at him again.
But then his gaze caught hers and the shadows in his eyes went away. He smiled.
She smiled back.
“You look really pretty when you do that,” he said.
She felt the heat settle in her cheeks. “You don’t have to say stuff like that.”
“I know.” Moving behind her, he gave her a push.
Laughing as the swing began to move, she closed her eyes and let the warm wind blow over her face. It felt so good. He pushed her for a few minutes, then sat on the swing next to her.
“Adam broke up with Amber,” he said.
She opened her eyes and caught the worry in his. “I don’t care about Adam,” she said.
He didn’t say anything.
“I don’t,” she repeated, wanting him to believe her. “I don’t care about any of them.”
“What do you care about?”
“My aunt Mia. Kevin, and Tess, and Mike. I care about school. About…”
“You,” she whispered, holding on to his swing when he would have backed up. “Cole, I mean it.”
He looked like he desperately wanted to believe her but didn’t.
“Adam was stupid,” she said. “Being with him was me being stupid. I’m done with that. And I’m done with trying to hurt people to get attention. I just want to be.” She leaned in close, her heart in her throat. “And I just want to be…with you.”
He just stared at her as if she was speaking a foreign language, and it gave her the courage to admit the rest. “Cole, I’ve never…” With a grimace, she looked down at her toes. “I’ve never really felt…excited by a guy. I mean, I pretended to, but it’s always pretty much been an act.” Never having made the first move before, she wasn’t sure how to make it count, but she lifted her head and stared into his eyes, then shifted even closer, their mouths a breath apart. “But when I’m with you, it feels different.”
He stared at her, not moving a muscle. “Different like I’m-going-to-puke different, or different good?”
“The truth?” She shook her head and stared at his mouth. “I’m not sure yet. I want to find out, though. I have to find out. But you also need to know…I have to go back to Tennessee.”