Heart in her throat, soda dripping off her nose, she turned and looked out her window.
A cop stood there gesturing for her to roll down her window. Oh, God. Oh, God…She rolled the window down an inch. “Y-yes?”
“I need to see your driver’s license and registration, please.”
“Um…okay.” She willed her heart to stop knocking into her ribs. Sticky with the soda, she fumbled through her purse, her fingers shaking like her momma’s did when she needed a drink real bad.
“Are you alone?” the officer asked, leaning in slightly to search the interior of the car with those flat cop eyes.
“Yes, sir.” Hope handed him her license and registration.
He eyed her for a long moment, then looked over her paperwork. “Wait here.”
And then he was gone. With her license.
She counted to twenty while watching the same dark clouds move in, blocking out the sun. And then to one hundred. And then she started counting backward, and had gotten back to twelve when the cop showed up again.
He handed her the license. “Careful driving, kid. A storm is moving in.”
She wasn’t a kid, but she nodded obediently, and then he was gone.
And she was alone again, but that was better than being arrested for map theft. She studied the soda-soaked map, then got back onto the freeway.
Mia got home from work at six. This was early for her on an evening when she should have been out celebrating, but the fight with Ted and then the fire in her trash can had pretty much sapped her.
She figured she owed herself a quiet evening, with nothing more exciting than an extremely hot shower and a good book. Oh, and maybe a quick private little happy dance for the Anderson account. It was sweet indeed, enough to almost make her forget that she no longer had a right eyebrow.
Getting out of her car and into the sticky pre-storm humidity, she refused to crane her neck to see if there was a motorcycle parked two houses down. No need to look, because she didn’t care.
Her heels clicked on the concrete walkway, but at the sound of pounding feet, a dribbling basketball, and male swearing, she pivoted the other way, to the end of the street and the basketball court there.
A competitor at heart, Mia loved a good game—of anything, but especially basketball. Something about the sweat and fast pace, not to mention the display of hard, damp, sexy bodies in shorts, called to her.
There was definitely a game in action, a vicious game of three-on-three. She moved closer to watch.
She recognized her neighbor’s twin college-age sons and the fifty-something guy who lived on the next block over who’d once fixed her plumbing. There was another neighbor, frowning with concentration as he dribbled. Then the twenty-something she’d seen in Kevin’s apartment.
And then, Kevin himself. Mia’s gaze locked on him and held. He’d looked amazing in his jeans and leather jacket. He’d looked damn fine na**d.
But on the court…be still her heart. He wore black basketball shorts that hung to his knees, a loose gray tank top that said You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to. His hair was damp, those yummy eyes following every movement of the ball with the same fierce intensity he’d used to make her come too many times to count, his long fit body primed and hard and damp with sweat.
He charged after the player with the ball, and with a hand that moved fast as lightning, he reached in and stole it. In tune to the cheers of his two teammates, he dodged free and ran down the court with lithe agility and speed, dribbling at the speed of light. Lifting his arm, he twisted in midair, performed a one-handed layup, and came down hard with a quick triumphant pump of his fist.
Someone threw the ball into play again, and Kevin caught it just as a player from the opposite team body-slammed into him.
They both crashed to the ground.
Mia held her breath. Kevin rolled to his knees and got up, offering a hand to the kid who’d knocked him on his ass.
The kid took his hand, stood.
They eyed each other.
Then grinned like idiots.
Kevin ruffled the kid’s hair, then waggled a finger in his face. “Flagrant.”
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
The kid grinned again. “Not flagrant, dude.”
“I’m taking a foul shot. Dudette.” Dribbling, Kevin moved to the foul line.
There was just something about his easy rhythmic movements that utterly captivated Mia. He looked down at the ball, then up at the basket, a line of sweat running down his temple, his shirt sticking to him like a second skin.
He made the shot, and the roughhouse game continued.
Mia had no idea how long she stood there captivated, entranced, watching Kevin move on the court with the grace and ease of a cat, but for the life of her, she couldn’t walk away. Someone blocked his next shot, but he got the rebound and went up again, taking an elbow to the cheek but making his shot. His team cheered as he came down on both feet. When the other team tossed the ball in, Kevin again snatched it away, then fired the ball to a member of his team. It was immediately passed back to him. Someone tried to take the ball away, but he simply moved faster, his face tightening into an expression that said Back off, sucker.
When he got into the key, he passed the ball to his brother in a bulletlike throw, and the shot was made.
“Yeeees!” Kevin said, looking extremely satisfied.
Whooping and high-fiving ensued, and some manly butt-slapping, leaving Mia to assume game over, victory declared.
Kevin grabbed the ball and executed some sort of victory dance, and deep within Mia something quivered. Oh, damn. Oh, damn, this was bad, bad, bad.
Despite his easygoing demeanor, he was a fellow hard-core competitor.
How sexy was that?
Kevin swiped a towel over his face. His shirt was stuck to him, his arms and throat gleaming. He had a bruise gathering beneath one eye and a cut on his lip. And he was smiling, as if he’d just had the time of his life. His brother nudged his shoulder, and they began a conversation.
With their hands.
The brother was deaf. No big deal, but the sight of them, eloquently and easily signing, felt addicting. Even knowing she was invading their privacy, Mia stood there transfixed by their quickly moving hands, their fast smiles, the easy affection…
Then Kevin brushed his hand over his brother’s hair, messing it up, rubbing his knuckles over his head in the affectionate age-old noogie.
The brother tossed back his head, his mouth carved in a laughing smile, then pushed away and walked off. Kevin watched him go, his smile fading, replaced by an expression of worry and concern.
Mia’s smile faded, too, and she wondered what she’d missed.
Then suddenly Kevin turned his head and saw her. The hand holding the towel dropped to his side. His worry and concern faded, replaced by an expression she was fairly certain could be read as annoyance.
She would have winced, but she preferred not to show her hand, that being she felt something almost foreign—true regret at how she’d treated him this morning. But if she didn’t like to repeat men, she really didn’t like looking back, and so she turned away, moving up the sidewalk toward her house.
The evening had begun to cool. She couldn’t believe nearly half an hour had passed since she’d parked, she’d gotten so lost in their game.
“Running. What a surprise,” he said.
Slowly she turned back to face the low, husky voice she knew so intimately, thanks to last night. Kevin must have hustled to catch up with her, and yet he wasn’t even breathing hard. “I’m not running,” she said.
“Yeah, you are. Well, as much as you can in those ridiculous shoes, anyway.”
She looked down at her favorite heels. “Ridiculous?”
“What’s the hurry? Your cookies burning?”
No, but, oddly enough, now her face was.
“You didn’t really make them, did you?”
“I never claimed I did.”
“It was implied. Among other things.”
“Like—” But suddenly his eyes narrowed and he took a step closer to her, frowning as he lifted a hand and touched her singed eyebrow. “What happened?”
She fought the urge to slap his hand away. “Nothing an eyebrow pencil won’t fix.” Turning away, she began to walk again, only to feel his fingers wrap around her arm and gently but firmly pull her back.
He peered into her face, so close now that she could see his eyes were more than light chocolate, but lined in dark as well, with specks of gold dancing in them. “Stop staring,” she said and lifted a hand to cover her brow.
He simply took her wrist in his hand and held it out. “You’re burned. What did you do, catch yourself with a whatcha-call-it, a curling iron?”
His other hand came up and gently probed at the sensitive skin, making her hiss. His eyes cut to hers. “Nothing, huh?”
Her belly quivered. Hunger, she decided, but, damn it, deep down she knew it was his touch. He was waking up her body again, making it remember how wonderful and amazing and shockingly perfect last night had been. Trying to cover this unwelcome reaction to him, she shoved his hand away. “Just a…work incident.” No big deal. She’d laughed it off countless times today with all the others at work, despite deep down remaining off balance about the “suspicious” incident.
But having this man look at her with concern darkening his eyes had an effect she couldn’t have possibly imagined: the odd urge to set her head down on someone’s shoulder, someone who cared about her, someone who would tell her she was going to be okay.
Only she’d never had the luxury of someone else’s shoulder in her entire life, and she wasn’t going to start now.
“A work incident?” That frown still marred his lips. “I thought you were some PR wizard.”
That almost made her smile. “Advertising.”
“You kick some ass today, Mia Appleby, advertising exec extraordinaire?”
“You know it.” She cocked her head and studied him, blackening eye, cut lip, and all. “You’re looking a little worse for wear yourself.”
“Nah.” He pulled a face, then swore and lifted a hand to his lip. “Shit.”
“Uh huh. You need help cleaning that up?”
He was now gingerly touching the blooming bruise, licking his cut lip. “No, thanks. I’m still bleeding from our last encounter.”
“Suit yourself.” She began to back away but couldn’t resist running her gaze over his face one last time. No, you can’t have him again. “You might want to give yourself a break from basketball for a day or so.”
“Are you kidding?” His eyes lit. “We won.”
Her heart squeezed with competitive spirit. With lust. And more. She’d have to make sure to avoid the basketball courts. The entire street.
And especially his bedroom.
He touched his lip again, looked at the blood on his fingers, and shook his head. “I’m losing my touch.”
Now that he was most definitely not doing, but before her thoughts could take her there she firmly walked away.
“See ya,” he said, only slightly mockingly. “Or if you get your way, not.”
That’s right. They would not be seeing each other. Keep walking. She managed it, too, and only when she’d taken the turn on the path, did she glance back.
He was gone.
Good. Perfect. Mission accomplished. She’d distanced herself from him both physically and mentally.
Only, oddly enough, the surge of victory never came.
Hope couldn’t believe how insanely people drove in California, but finally she found Mia’s street. The block was nice, and there was not a trailer park within miles, she’d bet.
Mia’s place was Spanish style, with a ceramic-tile roof and stucco walls. It was barely dusk, but streetlights flickered on and so did some house lights around her. Even with the dark clouds overhead, the neighborhood felt warm and friendly. Pretty.
There was an outdoor basketball court at the end of the street, and beyond that a small green area and tiny park with a set of swings and a slide and a few benches. And beyond that, woods, lots and lots of woods.
She got out of her car, and her heart knocking against her ribs again, she knocked.
Thunder cracked, making her jerk. She knocked again.
But no one answered, and as the sun began to dip into the sky her aloneness settled into her gut, along with the realization that she had no money and nowhere else to go.
Inside her house, Mia let out a long breath and moved through the wide space. Her own haven. In her bedroom she removed all her protective layers—her Michael Kors, her Prada, her makeup—and when she was stripped bare, she showered.
And then, not looking at her missing eyebrow or the angry red welt/burn above it, she wrapped herself in her French silk robe and padded barefoot through the living room to stand in front of her huge picture windows. The storm had moved in and rain slashed down with a soothing sound.
Her hair fell straight and wet to her shoulders, dripping into the silk and cooling her still-heated skin. Beneath her robe, her body seemed different.
Anticipatory. Hopeful. Tight and achy.
It made no sense. She’d gotten off just last night. And as Kevin knew what he was doing in that department, she’d have thought the effects would last her a while.
And yet, truthfully, it wasn’t mindless sex she yearned for…
But familiarity. Someone who knew her. Someone to smile at her and tell her she was fine.
Since that was a discomforting thought, she moved to her liquor cabinet and poured herself a glass of wine, trying not to think about Kevin at home right now, possibly also fresh from a shower, stretched out na**d on his bed, big and lean and gorgeous. Sipping her drink, she moved through her living room, enjoying the smooth, shiny hardwood floors beneath her feet, the lovely silence.