He paused. “That’s going to suck.”
“Yeah. Big-time.” Her heart was going to barrel right out of her ribs, but she had to do this, wanted to do this. “Cole.”
He was still as stone, not even breathing, as far as she could tell, his fingers white-knuckled on the steel line. Then his Adam’s apple bounced once, hard.
For some reason, that little motion of vulnerability boosted the fledgling courage she felt inside and she touched his mouth with hers.
He groaned, a sound that did things to her belly and made her legs feel rubbery, all good stuff, so she kept her mouth on his.
He made the sound again, and then slid his arms around her. His nose bumped hers, hard, and she pulled back.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
She clutched at his shirt and stared at him. “No, it was good. I don’t feel like throwing up,” she said, her voice all strange and breathy. “I feel like…wow.”
He let out a long breath. “Yeah. Wow.”
She bit her lip and looked at his mouth again, a little surprised to find her body sort of quivery, wanting more. “I want to say one more thing about me. And Adam.”
Some of his smile faded. “You don’t have to. It’s okay.”
“None of my business—”
“—have sex. I’ve never—” She managed to look him in the eyes. “—had sex. I just wanted you to know.”
He looked at her. Then smiled.
“What’s so funny?”
“I haven’t either.”
Was it possible to actually die of happiness? Hope thought maybe it was.
Over the next few days, Kevin managed to teach without losing it, managed to avoid Mike’s probing, thoughtful gaze whenever possible, but he hadn’t managed to avoid Hope. He just couldn’t do it to her, so when she came up to him at lunch and whispered, “I know,” squeezing his hand, he could hardly speak.
But he opened his desk drawer and pulled out her car keys.
Hope stared at them. “You mean—”
“Finished.” He’d stayed up late putting in the new alternator and water pump for something to do other than obsess. “All yours.”
Her smile was worth every moment. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“I don’t know what your rules are, so check with Mia before you drive anywhere.”
“And no more driving across the country until you’re thirty.”
“I won’t.” She hugged the keys to her chest. “You are the best man on the planet.”
He nodded, but he didn’t feel like the best man on the planet. He felt like the emptiest man on the planet.
Basketball had always been Kevin’s drug of choice, and he needed to self-medicate, bad. Luckily, after work he had a basketball game scheduled at the court near his house. He headed toward the gate with more than enough pent-up aggression, and hoped the guys he was playing this week could handle it.
They could. The other team consisted of all twenty-and thirty-year-olds, and by the time the game was over, Mike bled from his lip and one knee and Kevin thought maybe he’d cracked a rib or two. Plus, he could hardly put weight on his ankle, which he’d twisted twice in his college days and apparently reinjured today in one of his fan-fucking-tastic layups, if he said so himself.
You’re getting old, Mike signed when Kevin winced as they walked/limped/whimpered off the court.
Kevin straightened and ignored the screaming in his ribs. Speak for yourself.
I might be bleeding, and possibly getting old, but at least I’m heading for a woman who’s going to feed me and then tuck me into bed, clucking over my injuries, kissing me alllllll better. He waggled his eyebrows as he backed away from Kevin, jingling his keys.
I thought she dumped you.
Mike’s smile faded. She did. I’m slowly working my way back into favor.
And he would, too. Mike was the most charming, funny, easy-to-love guy he’d ever met. Let her go, Kevin signed. Pick someone else.
Mike shook his head. There’s not going to be anyone else. Ever. And I know that’s a helluva long time, but that’s how I feel. Mike looked down at his battered athletic shoes, then back up. I’m going to prove myself to her. And you. I realize it might take a while, but I’m okay with that.
You have nothing to prove to me.
The hell I don’t. You’ve been saving my sorry ass for too long, and I’ve let you because, well, I guess I liked you feeling guilty. But I can’t get my own life together if you’re the one running it, and I want my life together. I want Tess.
Kevin stared at him, saw the real regret and honesty and frustration in his brother’s eyes, and for the first time felt a true surge of hope. What are you going to tell her?
The truth, for a change. That I’ve been working my way through any woman I could get my hands on, trying to feel better about myself and my screwed up life. That until she came along I never felt whole.
Kevin nodded, thinking how much he’d love to hear such things from Mia. You might have to be patient.
I’m willing to put the time in. Mike smiled, then walked off the court, leaving Kevin to wonder if he’d really get his happily-ever-after.
Or, for that matter, if Kevin would. He grabbed his bag, and when he turned around, his gaze locked on Mia.
She stood on the other side of the fence, on the path that would take her to her house, wearing some knockout business suit dress that made his tongue waggle and his heart hurt.
She looked like a million bucks, even as her eyes narrowed on him, her mouth opening in a little O of distress as she came through the gate. “What the hell have you done to yourself?”
He touched his lip and his fingers came away bloody. “Just a little cut.” He bent to pick up his duffle bag and sucked in a breath when the pain stabbed into his ribs.
“What’s the matter?” she demanded and put a hand on his arm.
“Nothing.” He managed a smile, and sweating all over again—and not entirely because of his injuries—he headed out the gate, dragging his bag instead of picking it up.
Dragging his ass, too.
Her heels clicked on the asphalt as she followed at his side. “You’re hurt.”
“Part of the game.” She smelled like heaven. He wanted her, of course; he always wanted her. But oddly enough, while dragging her into the woods and shoving up that hot, short skirt had plenty of appeal, he wanted other things, too. Her smiling, for one. Her happy, talking, laughing. Just being. With him.
Idiot. You can’t fix…“You’re dressed up.”
“I worked a new job today.”
“That’s great,” he said and meant it. “What—” He broke off when he tried to shoulder his bag, because the sharp pain stabbing into his ribs made it impossible to do anything else.
She made a soft sound of distress as she reached for him, but he gritted his teeth and shook his head. “I’m fine,” he managed, not wanting her hands on him. That would only make things worse. “Nothing a shower can’t cure.” He lengthened his stride ahead of her, gritting his teeth as he took the three stairs toward his front door, each jarring his ribs.
“Yeah, I gotta go. I’ll see you, okay?” He shut the door, dropped the bag and the pretense, and sagged back against the wood.
Mia stared at Kevin’s front door. He’d dismissed her. Unbelievable. Well, guess what? She was done with being dismissed. She’d spent the afternoon working Cookie Madness for all it was worth, and she’d kicked some serious ass. She had big news and—other than Tess, who already knew—no one to share it with.
At least no one to get na**d and share it with.
That’s when she’d had her epiphany—and better late than sorry, right? She’d been wrong to hold back, wrong to let her past and fears stand in her way, and she wanted Kevin to know it.
She lifted her fist to knock, but decided the hell with that. They were way past knocking, so instead she turned the handle and pushed. She felt a resistance, then heard a pained “Oomph.”
“Hello?” She pushed again, then realized Kevin himself must be leaning on the door. “Kevin?”
Slipping inside the crack, she found him sitting against the wood, pale and sweaty. “Damn it.” She put her hands on her h*ps rather than hover over him like the worried hen a small part of her wanted to be. “Let’s go. Now.”
“Sorry, honey.” Brow damp, he shot her a weak smile. “I don’t think I can do you right now. I’ve got to—”
“Doctor,” she said through her teeth. “I meant I’m taking you to a doctor.”
“Not necessary.” Getting up very carefully, he moved to the base of the stairs, then just stared up at them in dismay.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” She dropped her briefcase and moved forward, slipping a hand around his waist. His skin felt hot to the touch, and damp. “Did you break a rib?”
He was holding his breath as they took the stairs, she noticed with concern, and now looked a little bit green. “I still think we should—”
“Wow, I must have hit my head, because I thought you just said we.”
But he just walked through his bedroom and into his bathroom, slowly pulling off his shirt. “Start the shower?” he asked her.
She cranked it to what she knew was his personal favorite—scalding.
He kicked off his shoes with the slow, purposeful movements of the very drunk or the very injured, and she got mad again because mad was easier. “Damn it, Kevin, you need a doctor.”
“Shh,” he said, then toed off his socks.
“Look, I’m dragging your ass straight to the ER.”
He shoved off his shorts, then stood in front of the mirror inspecting his lip.
Because she was human, her gaze took a tour of his rock hard body. Long, powerful legs. Fantastic ass. Lean hips. Smooth, sleek back.
Coming up behind him, she put her hands on his already bruised ribs. Beneath her hands, his muscles leapt. He hissed out a breath.
She met his gaze in the mirror. “Sit.” Gently pushing him onto the closed commode, she grabbed a towel, wet it, then dabbed at his lip.
She scowled, and dabbed some more. Damn it, she was not good at this coddling shit. She dabbed again and his hand came up and caught her wrist.
“I’m fine,” he said.
She tossed the towel aside in frustration and glared at him. “Great. You’re fine.”
Slowly, holding his breath, he stood again and put his hands on her arms. “And you’re not.”
Hey, she was perfectly great, just because apparently she couldn’t even show him how she felt. What was wrong with her? How was it she’d not gotten the gene to do this—to love?
She tried to turn away and he stopped her. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” She tossed up her hands and let out a laugh that didn’t fool either of them. “Are you kidding? Nothing’s wrong. I’m damn perfect.” With a rough sound she pushed him into the shower. Then she left the bathroom. She felt the urge to fix him something, something to eat or drink…something.
She loved him.
She loved him, and she was afraid even that wouldn’t be enough and she’d be left with this huge gaping hole in her chest. She was going to break an ankle on his stairs, but she didn’t care as she rushed down them and into the kitchen, then looked around her wildly. What could she make him? She looked at the counter, at the table.
He’d taken her there.
The counter, too, and on the floor, in that amazing storm.
“Oh, damn,” she whispered, throat thick, and sat right there on the floor, folding into herself, putting her forehead to her knees as she did the grown-up thing.
She burst into tears.
The house creaked, and she lifted her head, gasping at the two feet right in front of her. Long legs hunkered, and then Kevin’s face appeared. Reaching out, he touched her wet cheek. “What’s this?”
Sniffing, she wiped her nose on her arm. “Allergies.”
He gave her a long look. He’d pulled on fresh basketball shorts but was still wet. Lip still bleeding, his eyes were warm and concerned and filled with things that caught her breath. “Mia.”
She closed her eyes. “Something blew in my eye.”
“Why can’t you admit it? That maybe you need to lean on someone else for comfort once in a damn while?”
She lifted her chin at that. “The only comfort I need is the occasional orgasm.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you like it more than occasionally. As studly as I like to think I am, I can hardly keep up.”
She snorted and swiped at her nose again. “You keep it up better than any other—” She broke that thought off, thinking that had probably been 5-1-1. Too much information.
But he went down to his knees, a motion that made him wince, then slid his fingers into her hair and not so lightly tugged her head back so he could look into her eyes. “Better than anyone else? Is that what you were going to say?”
“God, you are such a liar.”
The back door of the kitchen opened, and suddenly people poured in. Tess, Mike, Hope, all carrying grocery sacks.
“I need help,” Tess said, actually sounding close to tears herself as she took over the kitchen without taking a good look at Mia. “I have to come up with one hundred pounds of dough tonight—”