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The Charade: Chapter 44


ELYSE and I spent the next morning and afternoon with our mom talking about the past as well as everything going on in our lives right now. After that, Mom dropped Elyse off at the school and then offered to drive me to Carter’s house so I could tell him everything. I also needed to give him the birthday present I’d ordered him a few weeks ago when we’d first started officially dating.

‘Does Carter know you’re coming over?’ Mom asked as we drove through the small town of Eden Falls.

‘Not yet,’ I said. ‘I was planning to surprise him, but maybe I should make sure he’s actually home before you drop me off on his front porch.’

‘That’s probably a good idea.’

I pulled out my phone and texted Carter to give him a heads up.

Me: I know you don’t like celebrating your birthday, but if you aren’t in the middle of something right now, I’d love to come over and give you your October 17th Day gift.

His text came through a minute later, as if he’d been waiting for mine.

Carter: October 17th Day? Hmm, I didn’t realize that was a special holiday.

I smiled.

Me: Well, since ‘Carter’s Birthday’ is a forbidden phrase around your house, I figured I’d just start calling it October 17th Day.

Carter: Thanks for clearing that up. I’m going to hurry and write that in my bullet journal so it’s properly noted.

Oh Carter.

That bullet journal might just be a little too important in his life.

But I kind of loved it. Loved that Carter had his own little quirks that made him who he was.

When I didn’t respond immediately, another text from Carter came through.

Carter: So are you coming over? Because I kind of want to see what you got me for my birthday.

Carter: Aside from that amazing dress you wore last night, that is.

I laughed. How had I not known it was possible to like someone so much?

Me: My mom is dropping me off on her way out of town. I’ll be there in a few minutes.

WHEN MY MOM and I pulled up, Carter was waiting for me on the front porch of his home with a huge smile on his face.

‘So this is Joel’s boy?’ my mom asked after taking Carter’s appearance in. ‘He’s quite handsome, isn’t he?’

‘He is.’ I smiled at my mom as I lifted the manilla envelope with Carter’s gift on my lap. ‘And he knows it, too.’

Mom let out a hearty laugh, her brown eyes smiling. ‘It must be a Hastings’s family trait, because Joel always knew how good-looking he was, too.’

We were quiet for a second as my mom seemed to remember something from the past.

I wondered if she was remembering the good times with Carter’s dad, or maybe even my father Brendon. But since Carter was waiting and my mom wanted to get back to Ridgewater before dark, I sighed and said, ‘Well, I better get going.’

Mom nodded, her faraway gaze focusing back on me. ‘You don’t want to keep that boy waiting. From what you told me last night, it sounds like you might have a lot to talk about.’

‘Yes.’ I chuckled. ‘I think making sure he knows the story behind how he’s not my brother might be one of the first topics of discussion.’

‘Oh dear.’ Mom shook her head. ‘I really did make a mess of things for you, didn’t I?’

I shrugged, deciding to let her off the hook since being mad about things wasn’t going to help anything. ‘It’s okay. At least it’s all straightened out now.’

Sure, I might have made out with Carter when I thought he was possibly my brother, which most people would be embarrassed about. But at the same time, Carter had thought I might be his sister, so at least we knew we were both a similar kind of crazy about each other.

I leaned over the center console and hugged my mom. ‘I’ll see you at Thanksgiving. Have a safe drive home.’

‘I will. I’ll see you soon.’ She pulled away from the embrace and looked pointedly at me. ‘Just make sure you actually do some studying with that handsome math tutor of yours, okay? Even though things have been crazy, I still expect you to keep your grades up.’

I grinned. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

I climbed out of the car and waved goodbye to my mom. Then I walked over to the boy who was still patiently waiting for me on his porch steps, looking better than a human should have a right to look.

‘Hey,’ he said when I came to stand in front of him, his hands shoved in the pockets of his light blue jeans.

‘Hey,’ I said back, feeling a little more shy around him than usual.

‘Do you want to sit?’ He gestured at the porch swing they had on the side of the house. ‘Or would you rather go inside?’

I looked up at the sky. It was actually a really nice day for this late in October. We wouldn’t have too many more days like this, so I said, ‘The porch swing is perfect.’

He slipped his hand in mine, intertwining our fingers together, and led me to the swing.

I looked at our hands for a second, loving that we could do this again without feeling like we were breaking some sort of law.

‘So, I’m guessing you realized that since Dr. Aarden is my dad, it means we aren’t brother and sister after all?’ I asked, looking up at his handsome face and liking how petite I felt beside his tall frame.

‘Yes. You might say I’m pretty good at putting two and two together.’ He gave me a soft smile and squeezed my hand.

‘Well, that’s good,’ I said. ‘Hopefully, it was good news.’

He chuckled as we sat on the swing together. ‘Yes, let’s just say it was very good news.’

‘You didn’t want two extra sisters?’ I made a show of looking offended as I angled my body toward him. ‘You worried we’d become your dad’s new favorite kids?’

Carter laughed again, and I liked the way it sounded—a happy, free-spirited sound that made me feel light inside. ‘I already know Cambrielle is his favorite, so that’s not exactly what I was worried about.’

I smiled. ‘Well, I’m glad I’m not your sister, either. Cambrielle and Nash—and probably Ian—all sound like a blast to be related to, but I’m pretty sure I would hate to be related to you.’

‘That’s good. Because the feeling is mutual.’

We just looked at each other for a moment with smiles on our faces as the world seemed to right itself around us.

Carter’s gaze went to the manilla envelope in my hand. ‘What do you have in there? Another contract for us to sign?’

I shook my head. ‘I think we already discovered that we’re too good at ignoring those.’ I held the envelope out to him. ‘But this is for you.’

‘My October seventeenth gift?’ He arched an eyebrow as he took it from me.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Kind of, at least. I know you aren’t big on celebrating this day, but I hope you’ll be okay with this.’

He slid his finger under the seal, opening the envelope, and then pulled out a certificate from the International Star Registry.

‘You named a star after me?’ Carter guessed, looking at the piece of paper with the company’s logo printed on it.

‘Just read it,’ I said, my palms feeling sweaty as I waited for him to take a closer look at what I’d done.

I knew he was into astronomy and so it seemed like something he would be into, but I’d also taken a slight risk that I wasn’t sure he’d like.

He narrowed his gaze as he read the old-fashioned calligraphy, and when his eyes stopped on the name of the star, he looked up at me with surprise in his blue eyes. ‘You named the star after my mom?’ He swallowed, a sudden range of emotions showing on his face. ‘You named it Astrid?’

I nodded, my heart racing as I hoped it was a good surprise and not a bad one. ‘I just know how much she means to you and how this time of year is difficult for you because of what happened, and I don’t know…’ I shrugged, still unable to discern from the look in his eyes if he liked it or hated what I’d done. ‘I guess I thought it might be nice to name a star after her, so that you could think of her every time you looked at the stars and know that she’s looking down on you and watching out for you.’

He was quiet as he studied the certificate again. As he ran his fingers across his mother’s name and the coordinates of her star, tears started pooling in his eyes.

‘Is this okay?’ I asked him, suddenly nervous that I might have just brought up more pain for him instead of comfort. ‘Because I also thought about getting you a T-shirt with the words ‘Haughty Mc-Hot Hot’ on it, if you think that would be better. Or even just take you out for dinner, if you prefer that. Or—’

Carter touched my arm to stop my nervous rambling. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I love it.’ He ran his hand up my arm and squeezed it. ‘This is perfect, Ava.’

‘Really?’ I looked up at him carefully, still needing reassurance.

‘Yes.’ He nodded, and the sincerity in his gaze told me that he was speaking the truth. He pulled me against him. ‘This is the best gift you could have given me,’ he whispered into my hair.

I wrapped my arms around his torso. ‘Well, I’m glad you like it.’

CARTER and I went inside to eat dinner with his family a little later. I didn’t know if any of them knew about why Carter and I had cooled things off last week—if they knew why we hadn’t danced a single dance at Cambrielle’s amazing party. But if they did know anything about the angst we’d created for ourselves based on several assumptions, they didn’t say anything about it.

We sat around the large wooden table in their formal dining room, eating a delicious pot roast and mashed potatoes that Mr. and Mrs. Hastings had made themselves since it was their chef’s day off. Cambrielle and Nash asked their dad all about his latest trip to South America, and then everyone else caught Mr. Hastings up on what they’d been up to in his absence.

Carter held my hand under the table as we all talked and laughed. While there was a huge part of me that would love to become a part of this amazing family someday, I was grateful that it wouldn’t be happening in the way that I’d feared just the day before.

‘Want to go to the conservatory and look for that star?’ Carter whispered against my ear after everyone had finished helping clean up dinner together. ‘I think it might be dark enough now to see it.’

‘I’d love to.’ I dried my hands on a dish towel. Carter pulled me down the long hall past the garage, past the ballroom, and then down to the room made of glass where Carter and I had not so honorably made-out like it was the last thing we’d ever get to do in our lifetime.

‘I think this might be one of my favorite rooms in the house now,’ Carter said as he turned back to me with a wicked smile on his lips.

‘You like rooms that remind you of the kind of forbidden moments that could send a person to jail if they got caught?’

He chuckled as he reached for the door. ‘Forbidden romance does make things more exciting, right? I mean, that contract Nash tampered with certainly forbade us from any sort of relationship and yet, here we are now. Proof that forbidding something only makes you get more creative in making it actually happen.’

‘That’s one way to look at it,’ I said, my smile broadening. ‘I suppose I never would have come up with the idea for our little charade if I’d thought anything would actually come from it.’

Carter shut the door behind us to block out the light from the hall. If not for the metal frames that held the large panes of glass in place, it almost felt like we had just stepped outside on to a patio in the dark night—a patio that was climate-controlled and filled with beautiful ornate furniture.

Carter pulled me toward the huge telescope near the far wall, and after typing the coordinates to his mom’s star into an app on his phone, he moved the telescope to the far corner of the room and got to work locating it through the eyepiece.

As he fiddled with the telescope settings to get it just right, I took him in. He really was a work of art. I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I couldn’t think of a single thing that I didn’t like about him. He was such a good-hearted person.

And even if he wasn’t the most social person, never the life of the party, he was a great friend to those he cared about. I felt safe enough to be myself around him, which was something I’d never fully been able to do around anyone besides my mom and Elyse. And it felt amazing. To be liked not just despite all of my quirks and little idiosyncrasies but because of them. He liked me for me.

‘I think I found it.’ Carter looked up from the telescope with a smile on his face and waved me over. ‘Come see.’

I stepped closer, and when I looked through the eyepiece, I saw a beautiful star winking at me in the dark sky, glowing slightly brighter than the other stars surrounding it.

‘It’s so pretty,’ I said, taking in the beautiful creation of the universe.

I looked at it for a moment longer and then walked up to Carter who was leaning against the side table where he’d kissed me the evening before.

He held his arms open for me. I gladly went into his embrace, and we held each other for a little while as I listened to his steady heartbeat.

‘Thank you again for the birthday present,’ Carter said in a soft voice against my hair. ‘I think this might be my favorite birthday yet.’

‘So it’s your birthday now?’ I lifted my head to look at him. ‘Have you finally decided to allow the people who love you to celebrate the day you graced the earth with your amazing presence?’

‘I guess you’re helping me warm up to the idea a little.’ He smoothed his fingers through my hair, angling my head back slightly as if positioning me for a kiss. ‘There’s just something else that I’d like for my birthday.’

‘Yeah?’ I arched an eyebrow, curious what else this boy who had the world at his feet could want.

He leaned his face closer, his lips hovering just over mine, and then whispered, ‘You, Ava. The only thing I want is you.’

And since being claimed by Carter was exactly what I wanted, I smiled and whispered against his lips, ‘I’m already yours.’

I pressed my lips to his and got lost in the moment with the amazing person whom I’d no longer call my math tutor, my fake boyfriend, or even my possible brother. No, the only thing I’d be calling him from now on was mine .


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