It was a cop-out.
“Does your family know where you are?” Kevin asked.
Hope shook her head. “It’s just my mom. She probably thinks I’m at a friend’s house.”
“It’s only been three, but yeah.” Beneath the makeup, she went red. “I—we’ve had some…problems.”
“Um…” Another kick of those black boots on her wood floor. “It’s complicated.”
“Did it involve the police?”
Oh, that was it. Mia tossed back the wine.
“All right, my little snooper,” Kevin said. “Wait here.” He cocked his head at Mia and offered a smile that didn’t meet his eyes. “Mia? A minute?”
Both Hope and Kevin looked at her, seeing her wet hair, her lack of clothes, her tightfisted clench on the now empty wineglass.
And she’d never felt more na**d, more vulnerable in her life.
Kevin’s eyes didn’t zero in on her body, as she’d have liked, but stayed on her face, his mouth grim. Just last night he’d had his hands and mouth and body all over hers in wild, hot, reckless abandon.
Now this. Under different circumstances, she might have relished making him feel an inch tall, but without her armor she felt helpless.
Finally, taking matters into his own hands, Kevin smiled reassuringly at Hope and pulled Mia by the arm into the kitchen.
Yanking free, Mia went directly to the counter and poured herself another glass of wine. “I can handle it from here.”
He cocked a brow as he leaned his h*ps back against her table. An insolent, know-it-all pose. “Can you now? Apple?”
She looked right into his eyes wanting to kill him with one glance, but at the last minute she held back, knowing damn well if she let him know how much it bothered her, he’d love it.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Cat got your tongue, Apple?”
“Call me that again and you’ll be walking funny tomorrow.”
He let out a slow grin, even as she silently kicked her own ass for revealing her hand. “I can handle it from here,” she repeated.
“She’s a runaway. A niece you don’t even know, apparently.”
“Oh, and you know all of your family?”
“You bet your sweet ass I do. They’re family,” he said simply.
Yeah, he was the kind of guy who attached and attached deeply. A man who liked his family, faults and all, a man who knew kids and cared about them. He’d probably give a stranger the shirt off his back, even when the economy was decent and any bum sitting on a corner begging could get a job flipping burgers if he wanted. “Look, Hope’s momma and I…we had our problems. We’re not close.”
“Lots of families aren’t close. They don’t go sixteen years without seeing each other.”
“Well, my family does.”
“Where does Hope come from?” he asked. “The accent is…what? Alabama?”
She was already feeling stripped bare, and it had nothing to do with being nearly na**d. To hell if she was going to give him that information.
“You know what?” he said, tossing up his hands. “Fine, don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.” He strode toward the door, then at the last minute turned back. “Just don’t sweep this one under the carpet, Mia.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means that this isn’t like last night. You can’t just get into this for the fun and the heat and then jump back out when it suits you. This time when someone gets hurt, it’s going to be a kid.”
“Who got hurt last night?”
He stared at her, then shook his head, mouth tight, eyes unfathomable. “Forget it. But that’s one mixed-up kid out there. She’s fragile. Needy.”
“Are you kidding me? She’s tough as nails. And she needs no one.”
He just shook his head and muttered something that sounded a lot like How can someone so smart be so stupid?
After the day she’d had, this made her see red. “Get out.”
“Yeah, I figured that one was coming.” But he didn’t move. “Listen, I’m going to do something I told myself I wouldn’t.”
“What, stop dragging your knuckles?”
“I’m trying to help.”
Shaking his head, he put his hand on the door, but then once again turned back. “I realize you probably don’t hear these words very often, Ms. On Top of Her World, but trust me on this one. You are wrong.”
“I can handle this.”
“This? Jesus.” He shook his head. “It’s not a business deal, Mia. Or a guy you’re stomping the shit out of. It’s not a ‘this’ at all. It’s a girl.”
“And what do you know about girls?”
She knew her mistake the minute he flashed her a quick grin, showing a glimpse of the laid-back, bad-ass biker she’d slept with last night. “I know enough.”
Damn it, but her tummy fluttered. “You’re acting like it’s going to be hard to watch her for a night until I can get her home. I mean, honestly, how much trouble can she be?”
He stared at her, then let out a low laugh. “You’re right. You handle it. Your way.”
He moved through the door and she followed, getting into the hall in time to see him touch Hope’s arm, leaning in to say something softly.
In turn, Hope gripped his arm. “You’re leaving?”
“But I thought you two were…” Hope waggled her fingers back and forth between him and Mia. “You know, like, doing it.”
To Kevin’s credit, he didn’t react at all. “You thought wrong.”
“But I want to stay with you,” she said to Kevin.
“Uh, that’s a big negative,” Mia said.
Hope’s bravado seemed to desert her at this unwelcome news. “Oh.”
“Look, why don’t we call your mom?” Kevin said quietly. “And then—”
“No.” Hope shuffled her feet some, and Mia winced at the additional scuff marks. “I don’t think my mom’s ready to hear from me.”
“I bet she is.” She would be. Mia grabbed the portable phone off the small desk against the wall. “We’ll just call—”
“I’ve changed my mind about staying here,” Hope said stiffly.
“Good. But we’re still calling. Number?”
Hope went sullenly silent, but Mia was unmoved. “The number, Hope.”
Hope rolled her eyes.
“Could you stop rolling your eyes at everything I say?” Mia requested. “It just makes me want to put your eyeballs into a jar so that you can shake it every time you feel the need to roll them at me.”
Kevin made a move as if to step in, but Mia put a hand to his chest and held him back, her gaze locked on Hope’s.
“I know you know the number. Let’s hear it.” Damn difficult to be tough when she was distracted by the heat of Kevin’s chest and all that easy strength beneath her palm. Not to mention knowing exactly what he could do to her with all that strength. “Speak up.”
Hope looked at Kevin.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said very gently.
And Hope’s tough-girl image seemed to fold in on itself. “Promise?” she whispered.
Kevin put a hand on her shoulder. “Family can get complicated sometimes, that’s all.”
He let out a low laugh. “Oh, yeah.”
“Does your mom drive you crazy?”
“My mom is gone now. So’s my dad. But my brother drives me crazy. Does that count?”
She let out a little smile that didn’t last long before collapsing as she rattled off her mom’s number to Mia without looking at her.
Mia punched it into the phone but didn’t turn it on yet. “Is she going to be home?”
“I can take a look at your car,” Kevin said to Hope. “If you’d like.”
Looking at him as if he was Superman, she handed over her keys.
Kevin turned to Mia. “If you have any…issues, I teach at the high school and run the teen center next to it. We have a summer program that started up just today.”
Mia nodded and waited for him to go. When he didn’t, she met his gaze and felt a punch of awareness, as well as an unbidden memory of being na**d in his arms. Her body actually leaned toward him for a touch, a hug…
Ridiculous. She didn’t need those things. And yet…No. No, no, no. She shook herself, backed up, and gave him the room he needed to go.
He oozed virility as he turned to the door, but Mia just held her breath because it really seemed as if he was waiting for something from her.
The air sort of crackled, went still, then crackled some more.
“You’re supposed to kiss him,” Hope said ever so helpfully. “Guys like it when you do that.”
Kevin looked at Mia, and she would have sworn there was a glint of wry amusement deep in his gaze.
“Don’t you?” Hope asked him.
Kevin seemed to debate with himself on whether to answer or not. “I’m not sure where you get your perception of the male species, but some guys—”
“—are from another planet,” Mia interjected dryly. “Actually, all of them are.”
Kevin shot her a look. Then turned back to Hope. “You don’t have to do what guys like.”
“Maybe I like it, too,” Hope said but didn’t sound convinced.
Kevin tugged on a strand of Hope’s hair. “You know where to find me if you need anything.” He looked at Mia. “You, too,” he said.
And then he walked out into the rain.
“He’s hot,” Hope said, watching him go. “For an old guy.”
Yeah, well, he was gone. Hot or otherwise.
Just as she’d wanted.
So she had no idea why the sound of the door closing felt so uncomfortably…final. With a sigh, she turned on the phone and listened to it ring in a place two thousand miles east in Tennessee, in a single-wide trailer a world away.
Sugar answered the phone in her soft Southern drawl. “Hello?”
Mia took a breath and said, “Sugar. You’ll never guess who I’ve got here.”
A silence greeted this. Then, “Are you shitting me?”
“Nope.” Mia smiled grimly at Hope and responded in the heavy Southern drawl she’d buried for sixteen years. “Not shitting ya.”
“Ah, Jesus. You still all the way out there in Cali?”
“Well, that sucks.”
“I was thinking you could come get her—”
“Oooh, no. I’ve got this new job, I don’t have any vacation time until September, and I’m not going to make any waves here. I’ll come for her then.”
Mia’s eyes cut to the wall calendar. “It’s June.”
“Hey, tell it to the girl. She’s the one who ran away from home. Sixth time this year, too. Says no one understands her. Says no one cares. Well, no one understands or cares about her need to cut school or about the lipstick that just found its way off the Piggly Wiggly shelf and into her purse!”
Mia looked at Hope. “So she’s in trouble then?”
Hope looked away.
Sugar sighed mightily. “Trouble is as trouble does, and that little thing is full of it, no ifs, ands, or buts.”
“You have to come get her.”
“Uh huh. Listen, I know we haven’t exactly stayed close, but I could use an itty-bitty favor here.”
Mia’s jaw tightened because she could already smell the con.
“I know you don’t miss us little ol’ folk.”
Laying it on thick. Nice touch.
“But I’ve been raising that child all alone, on a low, single income. It’s rough, you know? I mean, I couldn’t get there sooner than the weekend anyhow…and trust me, the girl could use a role model. Someone who got somewhere in life, someone to show her the ropes on how to succeed, how to get what she wants without stealing it, you know?”
“I work, too, Sugar.”
“Right. You work your fingers to the bone, barely scraping by.”
Mia turned in a slow, frustrated circle, then caught a glimpse of Hope standing there, her face tight, closed off.
No missing the resentment, the feeling that no one wanted her, not even family.
“I’m outta here,” Hope said and turned to the door.
Mia reached out and wrapped her fingers around the kid’s arm. God, she was thin, so very thin. And still and chilled, despite the warm air driving the wet storm. “Wait, Hope. Sugar, listen—”
“Look, the truth is, you were always so much smarter than us, we never knew what to do with you, Apple.”
Sugar laughed good and hard over that, in her craggy voice that suggested she’d been smoking her entire life. “Fancy name or not, you’re just the person that kid needs to motivate her back into school.”
“She left school?”
Next to her, Hope closed her eyes.
“Got herself kicked out,” Sugar said. “And arrested. She still owes me two grand for that whole mess.”