The doorbell rang, shattering that silence, making her jump and nearly spill her wine. Then, before she could recover or even react, a heavy knock followed.
“Coming,” she muttered and moved toward the door. On tiptoes, she put her eye to the peephole, then went still.
Kevin stood there, his face very close to the opening as he waved.
She looked down at herself. Silk robe and nothing else. Bare feet. Wet hair.
She wished she’d taken a shot of whiskey instead of the glass of wine she still held, because her body wanted to let him in. Everywhere. Luckily, her brain held back. Good, brain. “I’m a little busy,” she said through the door.
“This isn’t about you, Mia. Open up. It’s raining like a mother.”
She took another peek. He’d stepped back a bit and was already drenched. He’d changed, too, into a pair of Levi’s and that leather jacket, and with the porch light glaring on his face, thrusting it into bold relief, she could see he had one hell of a shiner blooming along his right eye, and that that eye was no longer looking at her with heat and lust.
He’d been riding his bike.
He wasn’t alone, she saw now, but whoever was with him had their face averted.
In fact, it appeared that Kevin was gripping the back of that person’s jacket, holding them against their will.
What the hell?
She opened the door. Kevin was indeed holding on to the back of the person next to him, a small, thin teenage girl dressed in black from head to toe, with various studs and belts and chains. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Nothing much,” he said, tightening his grip when the Goth girl tried to sidestep away. “Just catching snoopy intruders in my bedroom. Listen, next time you want to spy on me, do it yourself, all right? She’s just a damn kid.”
The “damn kid” raised her face, which was pale and streaked with anger, sullenness, and undeniable humiliation. “I wasn’t spying for her!”
Mia took in more details. The teen had jet-black hair, the color that could have come only from a bottle, and a cheap one at that. It was long, hanging in her pasty white face. Her makeup consisted of thick black eyeliner and black gloss, both of which had run in the rain. She wore a myriad of silver hoops up one ear and a brow piercing. “I don’t know what this is about,” Mia said. “But I’m busy.”
“You’re going to want to hear this.” Kevin gently but firmly pushed the teen inside past Mia, following uninvited into her foyer.
Kevin let go of the girl, who crossed her arms over herself and hunched her bony shoulders, the two of them dripping on her floor. “Tell her,” he said to the teen, who rolled her lips inward. “Oh, now you go mum. Great. Nice.” His lip was a little puffy, and there was that bruise beneath his eye, and he looked like maybe he’d come to the end of his patience. “You’re done screaming holy murder then?”
“You grabbed me!”
“You were in my house. In my bedroom. Searching my drawers!”
Mia shook her head. “She was breaking and entering? Why didn’t you call the cops?”
Kevin sent her a scathing look. Nope, he was definitely done lusting after her. “You ever been to juvy, Mia? Not a friendly place. I just want to get to the bottom of this, and I want to get there now.”
“But I have no idea…” Mia started, breaking off when the teen let out a harsh laugh that might have doubled as a sob.
The girl stood there, skinny and scrawny and maybe all of sixteen, quivering in her black lace-up boots as the sound escaped her lips again. Confused, Mia turned to Kevin, whose eyes were downright chilly.
“Are you really that self-absorbed,” he asked, “that you don’t recognize your own niece?”
Mia stared at Kevin as the words sank in, then turned back to the girl.
Much of the teen’s bravado had faded away. With the heavy black of her eyeliner and mascara smudged beneath her eyes and all that stringy black hair in her face, she looked like an Addams Family reunion reject. She was nibbling on a chipped black fingernail, already chewed to the nub.
“What’s your name?” Mia asked hoarsely.
The girl shrugged, and though she looked like a drowned rat, it did nothing to dispel the obvious fact that she had a major attitude.
Kevin divided a look between them, then turned to the teen. “So she didn’t know? She had no idea you were in my place?”
“Of course I didn’t—” Mia started, stopping in shock when he held up a hand in her face.
“I was talking to the kid,” he said.
Yeah, and he’d be talking to her fist, except…She stared at the girl. “Your name?”
Once again the girl pressed her lips together.
“Tell her,” Kevin said, nudging her, though doing so with a clear gentleness. He seemed so tall and big next to her, almost formidable, a definite contrast to the sexy lover and basketball player Mia had already seen.
The girl looked up at him, silently imploring.
“Tell her,” Kevin said again in that same infinitely patient but inexorable tone.
He had a voice on him—Mia would give him that—the kind that could coax the most saintly to sin, the law-abiding to throw caution to the wind, and a woman to forget her inhibitions. She thought of him teaching, talking to teenagers, and she had to admit, he could probably sell the most boring textbook ever written.
It certainly had sold her last night. One naughty, wicked word from those lips to her ears and she’d been gone.
The girl reacted by sidling slightly closer to him as she looked at Mia. “Hope,” she whispered.
Mia leaned in. “You hope what?”
A glare was her only answer.
“Her name is Hope,” Kevin clarified.
And Mia froze. “Hope…Appleby?”
Her answer was the universal gaze teenagers all over the country had perfected, the one which said Fuck off and die, but before you do, please take care of me.
Oh, my God. Hope.
To Mia’s shame, she’d never met her. Sugar had gotten pregnant the night of that long ago BBQ, and since Mia had never been back…
Another shame, but though she hadn’t planted herself there physically, she had done her best with letters and phone calls, not that that was enough.
Still, Mia had tried, sending checks, too, money that had surely gone toward barbeque wardrobes and tacky furnishings for the trailer, at least until her mother had died five years ago in a car accident.
After that, Mia still sent money, but Sugar hadn’t been as easy to keep in touch with. As she wasn’t much of a letter writer, either—and let’s face it, there hadn’t ever been much love between them—years had gone by without a word or thank-you. The only way Mia even knew Sugar received the money Mia sent was that the checks had always been immediately cashed.
Mia had done her best not to care, sending cards and checks directly to Hope as well, even though she’d never received an acknowledgement.
If asked, Mia would have said she hadn’t needed or wanted one. But to see the kid here, without warning…“My God. What’s going on?”
Another jerk of the shoulder.
Lost, Mia looked at Kevin. He shrugged, too.
Damn, she wished she’d downed her wine. She wanted to now but felt a little self-conscious doing so in front of a minor. “Hope.” Mia struggled with the words. Funny, that. She was known for being good in an emergency, for always knowing what to do or say, but for the first time in her life she felt clueless. “What are you doing here?”
Hope kicked the toe of her black-soled boot against the hardwood floor, leaving a dark scuff mark. With the smoothness of one well used to covering her tracks, she stepped on it. “I thought I’d, you know, come see LA.” Her voice was soft, and thick with a Southern drawl.
Mia did not so much as glance at Kevin. She’d told no one where she was from, not even Tess, and that wouldn’t change now. “Is Sugar with you?”
“Did you fly?”
“Did you take the train?”
Kevin sighed and nudged Hope again. “Listen, you got lucky. You could have pulled your little B&E session on a cop’s house. Or one with a guy who might have been extremely happy to find a young girl in his bedroom. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah. You don’t want to do me.”
Kevin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m a teacher,” he said. “A high school teacher. That means that I supposedly have a boatload of patience, but that’s a complete crock. What I have, Hope, is an unfortunate understanding of how your mind works. We’re not the bad guys here.”
She said nothing, but scuffed the wood again with another kick of her foot.
Mia winced and eyed her perfect wood floor.
“Talk to us, Hope,” Kevin said.
“I didn’t mean to break into your house.” She spoke directly to her boots. “And I wasn’t stealing nothing, I swear it.”
“I didn’t say you were,” Kevin said. “I said you were snooping.”
“I was looking around. I wanted to see her stuff.”
“Whose? Mia’s?” He asked this in a much more patient tone than Mia could have come up with. She wanted answers, and she wanted them now, but Kevin wasn’t rushing anything. In his eyes was an understanding of Hope, one that said he’d been there.
Hope nodded. Yes, she’d thought she was looking at Mia’s stuff.
Mia straightened, momentarily forgetting she stood there in nothing but her robe, gripping a glass of wine. “So why were you in Kevin’s house?”
“Because I mixed up the address.”
“Keep talking,” Kevin said.
“I didn’t know anything about her, okay?” Hope lifted her face, bright now with embarrassment. “I wanted to see what she was like, see if I was going to want to stay, and I messed up the two and five of the address.”
“So you’ve never been to your aunt’s place?”
Mia’s stomach tightened as Hope shook her head.
Kevin was nodding as if he understood this crazy situation perfectly. “So you were looking in my drawers, thinking you had Mia’s things in front of you?”
“Yes.” Again she rolled her lips together, as if fighting with herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, the words seeming to cost her. “I didn’t mean to invade your privacy.”
“I got that.”
Hope looked at him. Her face was still mostly covered with her long, streaky black hair, but she actually made eye contact.
He smiled approvingly.
She didn’t smile back, but she kept her head up.
“Now tell us what you’re doing here all alone.”
She kicked at the wood floor again, and Mia did her best to not yell Stop!
“I wanted to come to LA like Aunt Apple did,” Hope said. “I wanted to get rich and live like this.”
“Aunt Apple,” Kevin repeated pointedly and looked at Mia, who suddenly wished she’d downed the entire bottle of wine.
“Yeah. I mean, look at this place,” Hope said, gesturing with a jerk of her shoulder at the foyer into the large, clean, beautifully decorated living room.
Mia knew exactly what it looked like to her: a mansion.
“I want to live like this,” Hope whispered in awe.
Mia went to say that it took a hell of a lot more than want, but Kevin shot her a warning glance and she slowly closed her mouth. She hated that he was running this show but admitted to herself she was so far out of her league she couldn’t even see her league.
“How did you get here?” Kevin asked Hope.
“For my sixteenth birthday a couple months ago, she sent me money. Five hundred dollars.”
Kevin let out a low whistle. “Score.”
“I bought a car. An eighty-nine Dodge Diplomat. I drove out here using the return address from the card she sent, but the ink got smeared when I got pulled over and spilled a Coke—”
“You got pulled over?” Mia asked, horrified.
“Only once,” she said defensively. “I was speeding by accident.”
“Oh, my God.”
Kevin shot her another zip-it look. Mia just shook her head, feeling sick. The kid had driven across the country, by herself. Good God, what if it had been her street name that got smeared? Hope might have gotten lost entirely, and then been at someone else’s mercy, someone possibly not as kind or understanding as Kevin had been to find her prowling through his things.
“I think my car died in front of your house,” Hope said morosely. “It was on its last legs anyway.”
Mia let out a choked laugh. The implications of it—of a young girl on her own, and all the inherent dangers she must have faced—made her nauseous. Anything could have gone wrong, and for a moment, thinking about it, she could hardly speak. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“I dunno.” Another kick of the wood. “You’ve never called me.”
Over Hope’s head, Kevin looked at Mia. “Never?” he repeated in an even tone that didn’t need any recrimination in it because it was all in his eyes.
“Never,” Hope said.
Kevin’s eyes were cool now. “Huh.”
Oh, yeah, he was done wanting her. She opened her mouth to defend herself, to try to explain the complicated reasons for the lack of physical contact and that she and Sugar had never been close.
It sounded like a cop-out.