“Tess,” Mia managed. “We’re in the middle of—”
“I’m sorry, Mia, but you got me into this mess and I can’t screw it up now!” Tess helped herself to the kitchen cabinets, barking out directions. “Grab bowls and start mixing! The sooner we do this, the sooner we can all get back to our regularly programmed evening.”
Hope dug right in.
Mike dug right in.
Mia stood there, watching Kevin. Damn it! She had so much to say…
“Get busy!” Tess demanded.
Mike set the bowl down and signed something.
“Slave driver,” Kevin translated for him, looking fine with the interruption, of course, because he was fine. He didn’t have an epiphany to share!
Tess waggled her brows at Mike. “That’s right, baby, and keep it moving. I’ll reward you later.” She planted one quick smacking kiss on his lips.
“Hey,” Kevin protested when she passed him, no kiss.
“Sorry.” Grinning, she backed up and gave him a smacking kiss just to the right of his cut lip.
Mia knew it was silly and irrational and childish, but the green monster bit her on the ass.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Kevin said with a smile.
Mike shoved his shoulder, leaving a white flour handprint on Kevin’s bare skin.
Kevin eyed it, but Tess quickly stepped in between them, laughing. “No wrestling in here. I mean it! You can fight over me later.”
Mike nodded. Worked for him.
Kevin began cracking eggs.
Mia tried to be just as cavalier, but casual and cavalier weren’t her strong suits, and she’d never been so aware of another person in her life. Every move Kevin made she caught. Every smile, every egg he cracked with those long, talented fingers…He still had that flour handprint on him, which should have looked ridiculous but didn’t. He had at least a day’s growth of beard on his jaw, and she wanted to rub hers to it. She wanted to feel his mouth on hers.
She wanted him to hold her, tight, so that she could feel the steady, secure beat of his heart beneath her ear. But more than anything, she just wanted to be with him.
God, she had it bad. Bad, bad, bad.
Behind her Hope had gotten serious about the measuring, pointing out to Mike that he had enough flour.
“You’re hired,” Tess said. “Seriously.”
Hope blinked. “Really? I can work for you?” She looked at Mia. “Can I?”
Mia looked into her eager eyes and felt another tug. Damn it! All these strings on her heart! Somehow she smiled past the lump in her throat. “For as long as you—”
“Stay.” Hope looked down at her flour-covered hands. “Yeah.”
Mia’s gaze caught on Kevin’s.
He was looking at her with understanding and empathy, and she had to turn away rather than lose it. God. She couldn’t take it, she just couldn’t. She was losing everything, and everyone.
Hope touched her finger to Mia’s nose and left a flour print. “Pretty.”
Mia narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t just do that.”
Hope arched a cocky brow.
Mia dipped her fingers into the flour and took a step toward the kid, but Tess stepped in between them as she had Mike and Kevin. “I swear it, I’m going to start cracking the whip!”
Behind Tess’s back, Hope stuck her tongue out at Mia. “Out of my way, Tess,” Mia said.
“No! Now I have to create four hundred more orders by the weekend. I don’t have staff. I don’t have space. You goaded me into this, Mia Appleby, and our new place isn’t ready yet. I’m a half inch from a spectacular breakdown that, believe me, you don’t want to see, so—”
“New place?” Kevin asked.
Tess looked at Mia. “We invested in a building. Mia didn’t tell you?”
Mia shook her head. Not yet, she hadn’t.
Tess sighed. “We’re leasing part of the building to Cookie Madness. The other part—”
“Later,” Mia said and begged Tess with her eyes. “I’ll tell you all later.” It was important she tell Kevin herself, alone. Important that she do it right this time, preferably no audience. “After I cover Hope in flour—”
“Oh, no,” Tess said. “Kiss and makeup right now or I’ll make you do dishes.”
“I don’t do dishes,” Mia said.
Tess didn’t look like she cared if Mia wanted to do dishes or not, and Mia sighed. “Okay, fine. Sorry,” she said to Hope.
“And I’m sorry about how ridiculous you look with flour on your nose,” Hope said, tilting up her chin.
“Kiss,” Tess demanded.
“Can’t,” Hope said. “She’s not big on PDA.”
“That’s true.” Kevin cracked an egg with more force than necessary, and shame filled Mia. And sadness.
And more regret than she could have put words to.
Hope was looking at her with a daring expression, and that was it. Mia grabbed the little monster and kissed her noisily first on one cheek, then the other, then ruffled her hair with her flour-covered hands. “There. I’ve covered some of the black.”
“When I leave, you’ll not have to ever see black again.”
“Thank God,” Mia said with a fervor she didn’t come close to feeling.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Hope seconded toughly. “I can’t wait to get out of here. No one complaining about my music or my favorite color.”
“No one leaving entire boxes of donuts in the house.”
“No one harping on my curfew.”
“No one cramping my style.”
Mia looked at her.
Hope looked back.
Mia thought if she had to come up with one more thing, she was going to burst into tears right there. “Actually, I take back the donuts part.”
“I knew it. You did eat them.”
“Every last one,” Mia said and heard the catch in her own voice. Ah, hell. “And I guess I should tell you…rap is growing on me.”
“I think 50 Cent is a hottie.”
Hope clapped a hand over her mouth, but the giggle escaped anyway, along with a tear. “I like it when you harp on my curfew. It means you care.”
“Well, then I must care a helluva lot. I know you have to go, but I was hoping next summer—”
“Yes! And Christmas?”
“And Thanksgiving. I’ll send plane tickets for every holiday.”
Hope let out another laughing sob. “My mom—”
“I’ll handle Sugar. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Hope nodded and hugged Mia hard, streaking her black mascara and eyeliner mixed with the flour on her Dolce & Gabbana, and Mia didn’t even care.
“I’m sorry,” Tess said softly, hugging them both. “This is good. But we have to finish. I have to deliver.”
Kevin’s gaze touched on Mia’s features, soft and warm for that one moment, as if he was happy for her. And proud of her for sharing her feelings.
Her throat burned, her heart ached. She wanted to tell him to sit down for this one, because there was more, much more that she wanted to share, but Tess the drill sergeant was standing over her.
Grinding her teeth, Mia took a bowl from Tess and began mixing.
“Yikes.” Tess looked into the bowl. “Honey, you have to commit to mixing—you can’t just go halfway.”
“She’s not that great at committing,” Hope said, smiling at her own quip. “It takes her a while.”
Kevin shot Mia a look that said he most definitely agreed.
Tess worked on fixing the mixture. “You should have just told me you were bad at this and just walked away.”
“Yeah, now that she is good at.” This from Kevin’s corner.
Tess went still. Everyone went still.
Hope glanced at Mia, waiting for her reaction.
Her reaction? That she couldn’t do this. She couldn’t even joke about what had been the best thing to ever happen to her, before she’d walked away, as Kevin so helpfully pointed out. She reached for her keys.
“Oh, no,” Tess said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’ve got to—” Fall apart. Cry. Kick my tires…
“I’ll go.” Kevin shouldered his way to the door, but Mike slapped a hand on it, keeping it closed, pointing to Tess.
“Oh, my God, oh, my God!” she cried.
“What?” Mia demanded, whipping back around. “Honey, what is it?”
Tess had been holding a bowl in the crook of her arm, whipping the contents with a whisk, which she’d lifted above the bowl and was peering at intensely. Specifically, between the steel twines, all covered in cookie dough, something sparkled.
Mike, watching Tess very carefully, set down his own bowl and dropped to his knees. Reaching up, he took the bowl from her hands.
Tess stared down at him as she reached into the whisk and pulled out the diamond ring.
A drop of cookie dough landed on Mike’s nose.
“A ring,” Hope whispered, stating the obvious. “A diamond ring!”
Tess dropped the whisk and brought the ring up to her mouth, sucking off the cookie dough. Then she looked down at Mike, letting out a laughing sob, and dropped to her knees too, leaning in to kiss the drop of cookie dough off his nose.
Mike signed something with his hands.
“Will you marry me,” Hope whispered.
“How do you know what he’s saying?” Mia whispered, her heart in her throat.
Hope beamed. “He’s been teaching me.”
Tess signed something back, and with his eyes suspiciously bright, Mike slid the ring on her finger.
They signed back and forth to each other.
“I didn’t know—” Hope translated. “I thought we were going to wait—No, I don’t want to wait, I don’t want to ever wait. You’re the love of my life. There’s no one else, there will never be anyone else. I love you—” Hope broke off as they kissed. “That part is sort of self-explanatory.”
Mia stared at Hope. “She said yes.”
“Actually, I think she said, ‘Oh, hell yes, yes, yes.’”
Tess laughed as she rose to her feet, swiping at her tears. “No more distractions! We have to get this done! You”—she pointed to Hope—“measure. You”—she pointed to Kevin—“mix! And you—” This was for Mia.
Mia lifted her hands and backed to the sink. “I’m on it. But, God, Tess.”
Tess welled up again. “I know.” She wrapped her arms around Mike, kissed him once and then shoved him away. “Later. We all celebrate later.”
It was hours and hours before they finished, and in the end they all sat on the kitchen floor, covered in various ingredients, exhausted.
Except Hope. She looked at her watch. “I’m going to go meet Cole. ’Kay?” she asked Mia.
“’Kay,” Mia said. She had her eyes closed, head back against the cupboard. “Where at?”
“Dairy Queen. He’s working there.”
“Put out the word that Tess is hiring. She’ll pay good for hard-working teens to work a couple of hours every afternoon.”
“I don’t know about good,” Tess said. “But I’m a kind, patient boss.”
Mike rose and pulled Tess to her feet, kissed her, then pulled her out of the room, waving good-bye at Mia and Kevin, neither of whom had moved.
Finally, they were alone. “Kevin.”
He opened his eyes but didn’t move a muscle. His hair stood straight up; he had flour on one cheek and nose and across his chest. He looked like the sexiest, baddest, most adorable man she’d ever seen.
And she had to do this, had to do it right. “I wanted to talk to you.”
He didn’t move, didn’t speak, but his eyes were on hers, dark and intense.
She shifted up to her knees and crawled over to him, hunkering back on her heels at his side, wishing he’d reach for her, touch her, smile. Anything. “First things first. About the new property for Cookie Madness. I bought the old drive-through restaurant.”
“The building you house the teen center in. Tess and I wanted the huge kitchen. But as you know, there’s another seven thousand square feet that I thought…you might want to…damn it. I want you to have it for the teen center. You can lease it if you’d like, or owe me, or don’t pay at all, for all I care, but it’s a done deal.” She took a breath, and then another. “Are you going to say anything?”
He blinked once. “I’m not sure.”
“Okay.” Fair enough, she thought, as she hadn’t ever said much. Or enough. “Second, about what I said to you the morning after we first, um…”
He arched a brow.
“I know, look at me maturing right before your very eyes.”
His lips quirked, but that was all. No warmth, no affection…just a bone-deep terrifying nothing. She closed her eyes, then opened them. “That morning, I was scared.”
She would have sworn that caused a flicker in his gaze, and warmed by that, she sped up. “You reached into a part of me and made me feel things I didn’t know I could feel anymore. See, I thought I had it all closed off. So I pushed you away, thinking it would be easiest. I said you were bad in bed. You…uh, weren’t.”