Clearly able to hear Sugar, Hope’s mouth went grim and she tried to tug free, but Mia held on. “You need to come and get her now,” Mia said into the phone.
“Ship her back the way she came.”
Mia shook her head. “No. I won’t do that. It’s a miracle she made it here in one piece.”
“One week,” Sugar said. “Surely you can handle it for a week.”
“Her,” Mia said softly, mirroring Kevin’s words, which was how she knew she was screwed, that she was going to do this. “It’s a her—” But she was talking to a dial tone. “Damn it.”
“She had a date,” Hope said.
“How do you know?”
“Just a guess.”
Probably, but the way Hope said it, as if she understood and accepted how much more important a date would be than her…Mia wanted to strangle Sugar. Instead she set down the phone and drew a deep breath. “All right. Let’s get settled until we figure out what we’re going to do.”
“Hey, if you’re thinking of kicking me out, just tell me now and I’ll be gone.”
Hope jerked her shoulder again. She was good at that. “I’ve got plenty of places to go.”
In spite of herself, Mia was fascinated by the bravado. She’d once been in Hope’s shoes, or close enough, but she’d had strong grades behind her not to mention no police record—and had landed a scholarship to college. “Name one.”
“Hollywood is only a few hills over. I saw it on the map.”
“No one’s going to Hollywood tonight. I’ll show you where you can sleep, and tomorrow morning we’ll—”
“What, send me back then?”
“You keep saying that, and I’ll think you’re eager to get home.” Mia smiled grimly when Hope scowled. “So sleep first. You think you can manage to do that without getting into trouble?”
“Always.” They went into the kitchen, where Hope looked distinctly unimpressed with Mia’s sparsely filled refrigerator and cabinets. Mia didn’t eat here often, and when she did, it was usually something she’d picked up on the way home. Hope wrinkled her nose at the leftover Thai. “You need to go food shopping,” she said.
Mia was brought back to her childhood, when they might have always struggled to get the rent paid but there’d always been plenty of fat and carbs in the fridge. “We eat differently here in California.”
“Looks like you don’t eat at all.”
They made do with low-fat cheese and stone-wheat crackers; then Mia took Hope to one of the two spare bedrooms, which was decorated with a dresser, nightstand, and four-poster bed she’d gotten in San Francisco, and pale silk linens from Brunschwig & Fils. The two Pacific Ocean prints on the walls added serenity and beauty to the space.
Hope stood in the doorway looking staggered. “Wow. Sugar likes white, too.”
Mia resisted telling her the difference between her linens and Sugar’s linens was at least a thousand thread count. “That door leads to your bathroom.”
“My own?” the girl asked in hushed awe.
Something deep in Mia’s belly tightened. “Yes. Your own.”
“This room is as huge as our whole trailer.”
Mia remembered with painful clarity the life Hope had run from, the desperation, the despair, the need to get the hell out no matter that there was nowhere to go. “Look, about the fact that we’ve never talked before…”
Hope looked at her.
“I’m sorry. Just because Sugar and I aren’t close is no excuse. I should have called you. Checked in.”
Hope lifted a shoulder. No biggie. “How did you do it?” The kid walked the length of the room, reverently touching the polished dresser, the tray on top of it that held five white candles. “How did you get all of this?”
“Well, I didn’t get myself arrested, for one. And I stayed in school, for another.” Mia looked over the girl with her ragged black pants, black tank top, large black overshirt, black boots, and the studded belt and bracelet that looked dangerous to her health. “And I was far too busy planning my escape to be worried about Goth getup.”
Hope fingered her pierced brow, her expression closed, and Mia sighed. “Look, just get some sleep, okay?” When she got no response, Mia moved to the door.
“Were you like me?” Hope whispered. “At all?”
She turned back and searched the girl’s face. The too-black hair, lank from bad products. The black lipstick that made her look so pasty. The brow piercing. Beneath the veneer stood a painfully thin young girl, lost and achingly alone. Mia could read the fear as if it was her own, the knowledge that life wouldn’t just be accepted, that there was more and she wanted a piece of it.
Were they alike at all? “I don’t know,” Mia answered honestly. “But it looks like we’re going to find out.”
By the time Kevin entered his house again, he was drenched to the skin and a jackhammer had begun to go off at the base of his skull. A helluva day. His first summer science class had been like teaching Greek to preschoolers. Nor had he found his pot smoker, but he’d caught hell from Joe.
Mrs. Stacy had tattled on him to the principal.
Joe had taken great pleasure in reading him the riot act, not for wasting electricity or having kids smoke weed in his classroom, but for Kevin taking his parking spot.
Then had come far more troublesome news. The teen center, housed next to the high school in a building loaned to the rec center, had gone up for sale.
Unfortunately for Kevin, the owner happened to be Beth Moore, his ex, and she hadn’t been happy with him in years. She didn’t care that the town couldn’t buy the building and that her selling would probably mean closing the teen center, which in turn would leave lots of kids with no supervised, safe place to hang out.
And speaking of safety, or lack of, he’d had three kids sneak off into the woods this afternoon. Two boys and a girl who’d come from a broken home and had no self-esteem, which made her easy prey. Thankfully, Kevin had found them before they’d talked the girl out of her clothes, but they’d all been drinking.
Damn it. Could no one make a good decision?
Then he’d come home and found yet another teen, dressed in wannabe Goth, poking in his drawers. Mia’s niece. And then there’d been Mia herself, eyes cool, body hot…
His entire world had turned into one big Peyton Place.
Mike came into the living room, dressed for clubbing in all black, hair artfully styled to look like he’d just gotten out of bed, eyes sparkling with trouble. And he’d find it, too, then be worthless for the job interview he’d set up through Monster.com for tomorrow. This was usually the portion of the evening where Kevin gave the whole be-good spiel—don’t go slutting around; you need to find a woman to love you, not f**k you; etc. etc.—but, damn, he was fresh out of pep talk tonight.
Mike stopped in the doorway as they passed each other, and looked at Kevin questioningly. What’s your problem?
I don’t have one. Nope, he had about fifty. He tried to go around, but Mike stepped in his way.
It’s the hot babe, isn’t it?
Of course not. He had all these other things going on, things that were important—Ah, hell. It was the hot babe. I’m fine. Try to stay out of trouble tonight. Which was like telling a bull in a china shop to be careful.
She doesn’t want round two, huh?
Kevin hadn’t wanted his brain to go there, but it was too late now. He pictured Mia in her robe, gripping a glass of wine as if it was a lifeline, looking pale and shaken and off her axis…and, damn, if that hadn’t reached out and grabbed him by the throat.
Then she’d kicked him out. I think it’s safe to say there’ll be no round two, he signed.
Actually, it was the smart thing. Mia had the same attitude toward sex that Mike did, and while Kevin couldn’t fault her for that, he didn’t have the gene that allowed him to sleep with someone and then move on in a blink. Go, Kevin gestured. Just don’t be stupid.
Mike grinned. Don’t worry, Mom.
I mean it. I don’t have bail money this time.
Don’t wait up.
The door shut. Kevin shook it off. He couldn’t keep agonizing over every single person in his life, over their inability to make good decisions. It was too tiring. So he showered until the scalding water ran out, then pulled on a pair of sweats and wandered through his dark house toward the kitchen. The refrigerator wasn’t promising. It held leftover pizza of questionable quality, a soggy-looking apple, and a beer, which he grabbed. Yeah, he was a party animal all right.
A hollow, empty-feeling one.
Just as he took a long pull from the bottle, someone knocked on his front door. Probably Mike, who’d forgotten something. Flipping on the porch light, he pulled the door open in one movement, then went still in surprise.
She was beautiful. Maybe even crazy beautiful. And wickedly dangerous to his mental health.
Blinking from the sudden glare, she wore only that creamy, elegant robe, a pissed-off, hungry expression, and nothing else. He knew this because the light cast her in bold relief, cutting through that thin, drenched silk and highlighting her gorgeous body.
It was still raining. Her limbs glistened, her skin glowed damply. And everything within him tightened in anticipation. “What are you doing here?”
“Can you cut the light?” She lifted a hand to protect her eyes as rain dripped from her hair to the silk, plastering it to her skin, revealing that she was good and chilled.
She looked amazing, if not oddly solemn. He should send her home, for nothing else than she also looked vulnerable, and then there was that melancholy in her eyes…
But to hell with being the good guy, to being the guy everyone came to when they needed something. He needed, too, goddamnit. And what he needed in this moment was to look at her.
“The light?” she said again.
“I don’t think so.” He drank in his fill. Just look, don’t touch. “You never know who could be prowling around late at night.”
“Funny.” She drank her fill as well, her gaze lingering on his bare chest, wet now from the rain blowing at him. “You going to let me in?”
Her cool, icy voice was back, overriding any vulnerability he’d caught a glimpse of. Even wet and chilled, she now looked put together, in charge of herself and capabilities, and sexy as all hell.
Which meant he was in big trouble. Trying to maintain composure, he propped up the jamb with his shoulder, his beer dangling from his fingers. “Why? Need to hit me with another Mack truck?”
Arms crossed over her chest, Mia glanced behind her, as if worried about someone seeing her. “I’m not dressed.”
“I noticed.” He took another long pull of his beer, letting his gaze soak her up, all that long, still-damp chestnut hair tumbling just past her shoulders. Her eyes flashed her frustration louder than a shout, that compact, neat, tight, toned body quivering with God knew what beneath that silk. All he knew for sure was that her ni**les were still poking against the material, her softly rounded belly rising and falling with her every breath. And those legs. He needed a good long time to sigh over those legs. “Where’s Hope?”
“Fast asleep, and snoring like a buzz saw.”
“You’ve got a real thing about snoring.”
“Move,” she said and went to brush past him, only he straightened, trapping her between his body and the jamb.
She let out a sound that spoke volumes about how frustrated she was, and glared up at him.
God, she was something, all shimmering with pent-up aggression and a barely repressed excitement, and he felt a glimmer of his own excitement, which made him a very sick man, he decided. “Do you ever say please?” he asked.
Her mouth tightened. “Fine. Will you pretty please let me inside so you can do me?”
He let out a surprised laugh. “What, is it my birthday?”
“Yep, and I brought you just what you wished for,” she said with just a slight hint of that Southern drawl in her voice now, a sound that gave him back some of his power. He took one last breath as a smart man and stepped back. “Do you want something to drink?”
She kicked the door shut behind them, then slid her hands up his bare chest into his hair and tugged his head to hers.
“Okay, no drink, no talk,” he said as she bit his lower lip, just sunk her teeth right into his flesh and tugged, whipping his blood into an instant froth, from cool to boiling in just under two-point-zero seconds. “Jesus.”
He was already off balance, so when she gave him a light shove he fell back against the wall. Her scent surrounded him, some complicated mixture of exotic perfume and woman as she sandwiched him there with her body, taking her hot, greedy mouth on a tour along his jaw, exhaling slowly in his ear, making him groan as his hands gripped her h*ps hard for balance in a spinning world.
Then she slithered out of his hold and dropped to her knees.
“Right here.” She yanked his sweats down, baring his ass to the cold wall behind him, and everything else to her gaze. She whispered his name then, or what might have been his name, on a sigh so soft it drifted like silk over his heated, hard flesh as she took him in her hands and stroked.
He sucked in a breath. His knees buckled, and he hit the ground hard. Had it been only a minute ago he’d been feeling hollow and empty? Because, he didn’t know how, but she was changing that for him, filling him, making him feel whole.