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The Charade: Chapter 8

AVA

CARTER HELD the door open so I could walk in first—a surprisingly thoughtful gesture from such a self-absorbed guy—and when I stepped inside, I was met with the most interesting mishmash of decorations I’d ever seen.

A miniature version of Michelangelo’s David statue stood beside a bench in the waiting area. But this wasn’t just any regular David statue. No, this one was wearing a sombrero on its head, and covering his nether regions were swim trunks with little Mexican flags.

What the heck?

I pulled my gaze from the strangely decorated figurine to find that in another corner, there was another David replica—only this one wore a colorful fiesta serape and had a black mustache attached above his lip. And sitting on the sling over his shoulder was a plate with a wood-fired pizza.

I furrowed my brow and looked up at Carter. ‘So…it’s an Italian and Mexican restaurant?’

‘It’s a diamond in the rough, for sure,’ he said, amusement in his expression.

A middle-aged waitress with dark hair, wearing a completely normal polo shirt and jeans, noticed we’d come into the restaurant. When she saw Carter, a huge smile lifted her cheeks.

‘Carter Hastings.’ She held her arms open to the tall boy beside me. ‘I was wondering when I’d see you again.’

‘Hi Rosa,’ Carter said, rolling the ‘r’ in her name, with a rare smile on his face as he bent over to hug the petite woman. ‘It’s good to see you, too.’

They held each other for a moment before Rosa stepped away. ‘Did you grow over the summer?’ she asked, looking Carter up and down. ‘You’re getting so tall these days.’

‘Maybe another inch.’ Carter shrugged his broad shoulders, seeming more at ease with this woman than I’d ever seen him since meeting him yesterday. ‘But then again, it’s not too hard to be taller than you.’ He shot Rosa a teasing smile.

‘Some of us only need to grow so much until we reach perfection, cariño .’ She patted his arm. ‘Apparently, it’s just taking you longer than most.’

‘Hopefully, I’ll make it there before too long.’ Carter laughed, a deep relaxed sound that surprised me. Then, as if he’d just remembered me, he said, ‘This is Ava, by the way. She and her sister just started at my school today.’

‘So nice to meet you, Ava.’ Rosa gave me a smile, her dark brown eyes warm. ‘Welcome to Eden Falls.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘It’s nice to be here.’

‘Well, since I know you probably have classes to get back to,’ Rosa said, grabbing two menus from the hostess’s podium. ‘Let me get you seated so you’re not late.’

She showed us to a booth in a corner with a painting of a Tuscan landscape on the wall beside it. The tabletop was lined with Mexican tiles, but the salt and pepper shakers were in the shape of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I couldn’t help but smile when I took in the eclectic decor. If the food was good here, this might just be the coolest restaurant I’d ever been to.

After setting the homemade menus in front of us, Rosa asked, ‘Would you like me to start you off with something to drink?’

‘Just water for me,’ Carter said.

‘I’ll take a Dr. Pepper,’ I said.

‘Great, I’ll be right back with those.’

After Rosa left, I took the time to glance over the menu. And sure enough, when I turned through the pages, I found that there was a full lineup of Italian-style dishes on the first two pages, and then Mexican cuisine on the last two.

‘When you asked if I liked Italian or Mexican food,’ I said. ‘I thought you were planning to narrow the options down.’ I glanced around the room again. ‘I didn’t expect this .’

‘They don’t have places like this where you’re from?’ Carter raised an eyebrow.

‘Apparently, we’re a lot more boring in central New York.’

‘Eden Falls definitely has its own special charm,’ Carter said.

‘Do you know the story behind this place?’ I asked, hoping to keep up the more relaxed vibe Rosa had seemed to bring to Carter so we didn’t have to go back to the awkwardness that had been in the truck.

‘Yeah, Rosa is actually one of the owners.’ He leaned his elbows on the table and pointed in the direction Rosa had gone. ‘She came to the United States with her parents when she was a lot younger but grew up making traditional Mexican cuisine. She enjoyed cooking enough that she went to culinary school, and while there, she ended up dating a guy named Lucca who was originally from Italy and had just moved to the U.S. for school.

“Anyway, they got married and soon after, they moved to Eden Falls and started a restaurant together. And since they were blending two cultures into one with their family, they decided to do the same with their restaurant.’

‘And so, The Italian Amigos was born,’ I guessed.

He nodded. ‘That’s the story Rosa told me, anyway.’

‘You and Rosa seem close. Do you come here a lot then? Or is she just like that with everyone she knows?’

From our minimal interactions, I already guessed that Carter wasn’t so friendly with everyone he knew.

‘A little of both, I suppose.’ He shrugged out of his blazer, setting it on the booth beside him. ‘But I did come here a lot when I first moved here.’ He pulled on the long white sleeves of his button-up that had ridden up his forearms, which was kind of a shame because the guy had amazing forearms—all veiny and muscular with just the right amount of golden arm hair.

Rosa brought us our drinks. She had two other glasses on her tray and said she’d be right back to take our orders.

‘You said you came here after you moved here. Does that mean your family isn’t from Eden Falls?’ I asked, picking up where we’d left off. For some reason, I’d assumed the Hastings family was like a founding family of this small town. Something to do with them having an estate and all.

Carter fiddled with a small gold chain bracelet around his wrist. ‘My great-great-great-grandfather Hastings actually settled the town. But, um, I lived in Guatemala until I was eight.’

‘Your family lived in Guatemala? That’s cool.’

‘No.’ He shook his head, letting go of his bracelet and reaching for his glass of water. ‘That was just me.’

‘Oh.’ He had lived separate from his family for the first half of his life? He’d said he and his siblings had different moms.

My mom had told me about a documentary she’d seen one time about a pilot who had two separate families who didn’t know about each other. Was this something like that? Had Carter’s father kept him a secret for the first eight years in Guatemala and brought him to the U.S. only when his other family found out?

And if so, what did that mean for Carter’s mom? Was she still in Guatemala or had she moved to the U.S. with him?

I wanted to ask questions, to see if it was something similar or something completely different, but before I could, he continued by saying, ‘Anyway, I didn’t speak English when my dad found me, so I ended up hanging out here with Rosa a lot those first few years since she was the easiest person to talk to.’

Which explained the Spanish book he’d been reading at dinner yesterday and the slight accent I detected when he said Rosa’s name. I was vaguely wondering if he spoke more Spanish than English when my mind picked up on the other thing Carter had said. That his dad had found him in Guatemala.

Had Carter been kidnapped then?

All kinds of new scenarios started forming in my mind until Rosa came back with her notepad in hand. ‘Are you ready to order?’ she asked.

‘Um, almost.’ I looked down at the menu, realizing I’d barely even glanced at the food since I’d been so caught up in the conversation with Carter. But knowing we were short on time, I said, ‘Actually, do you have chicken enchiladas?’

‘Of course,’ she said, followed by something in Spanish that I didn’t understand.

When I just looked blankly at her, Carter said, ‘She says she doesn’t like to brag but her enchiladas de mole are the best you’ll ever have.’

Rosa’s jaw dropped. ‘Now you make me look like I’m bragging.’ Rosa tsked at Carter, making a show of being embarrassed that he’d revealed what she’d really said.

‘Well, I guess I better try them and see if they really are the best.’ I smiled at Rosa, enjoying the playful energy she and Carter had together.

‘Good choice.’ Carter folded his menu up and handed it to Rosa. ‘I’ll have the same thing.’

‘Two enchiladas de mole coming up,’ Rosa said in her accented voice before heading toward the kitchen again.

‘Should we get started on those questions for class?’ Carter asked, pulling out the notebook he’d brought in with him along with his phone.

‘Sure.’ I opened my math notebook, and when Carter noticed the cover, the biggest smile I’d seen from him so far stretched across his face.

And man, he really was gorgeous when he smiled like that.

Which I guess was probably why he kept the smile mostly to himself. He’d never escape the throngs of hormonal girls from our school if he handed smiles like that out like candy.

‘You pick that notebook out especially for Stats?’ he asked, eyeing the skull-and-crossbones pattern on a light pink background.

‘I thought it went well with the subject matter,’ I said lightly, not letting on that I was happy he’d made the connection.

He chuckled. ‘You really don’t like math, do you?’

‘I don’t like things I’m not good at.’ I shrugged.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘Hopefully, I can help you change your opinion on the subject before too long.’

‘So you’re one of those math tutors who actually likes math?’ I narrowed my eyes so he’d know I was judging him big time for that.

It was his turn to shrug. ‘Math works the same in English and Spanish, so yeah, it’s the one subject I didn’t suck at when I moved here.’

‘I guess I never thought about it that way.’ I found myself even more intrigued by his background and hoped he’d tell me more.

‘But I totally get why you don’t like it.’ He rolled up the sleeves of his button-up and it was a treat to see his forearms again. ‘I felt the same way about a lot of things until my tutors explained them in a way that made sense to me.’

So my tutor had had tutors before?

‘Is that why you’re a math tutor, then?’ I asked, because from what I knew about him so far, I really doubted he needed the money he’d earn from working with me.

He shrugged, the fabric of his white button-up stretching across his broad shoulders with the movement. ‘I guess I like the challenge of taking someone who sees math as an enemy to seeing it on friendlier terms by the time we’re done with our tutoring sessions.’

‘Do you tutor lots of people from school?’ I asked, a weird sensation of jealousy forming in my stomach at the thought of him spending one-on-one time with multiple math-challenged people from school.

Which is ridiculous, I know.

Never thought I’d feel possessive over my math tutor…whom I’d just met, by the way.

And yet, here we were.

‘I usually tutor a few people at a time, depending on how long my services are needed,’ he said. ‘But since I’m enrolled in more advanced courses this year, I told Mrs. Simmons I only had time for one.’

‘So should I feel special?’ I asked. ‘Or embarrassed that I’m a bad-enough case that I’m the only one to make the cut this year?’

‘Let’s go with special.’ He looked down at the notebook he’d brought in with him and pulled a sheet of paper from the front. ‘Actually, that reminds me. I have a contract that I’ll need you to sign before we get started.’ He slid the piece of paper across the tile tabletop so I could read it. ‘It’s just something I have everyone I work with sign so we can make the most of our time together.’

I frowned as I looked at the words printed on the page.

Carter cleared his throat and pointed to the paragraphs he had printed there. ‘So, it basically just goes over some of the expectations that I have for our tutoring sessions.’

‘Are you going to grade me, too?’ I asked, the whine in my tone coming out more prevalently than it probably should have.

But he shook his head and said, ‘No, nothing like that.’ He leaned over the table and pointed to the bullet points about a third of the way down the page.

He had really nice hands for a guy. Long fingers. His nails short and clean. And the veins crawling up from his knuckles and disappearing into the sleeves of his white shirt were very nice to look at, too.

Okay, focus, Ava.

‘The first bullet point talks about how I expect you to come to our sessions willing to work hard and learn,’ Carter said. ‘Basically, to make the most of our time together, I need you to be cooperative. I don’t like wasting people’s money, and I don’t like having my time wasted, either.’

He lifted his gaze to mine, as if waiting for a verbal agreement. But with him leaning forward with his gaze intent on me, I suddenly found it hard to breathe, because having his face only a foot and a half away was kind of overwhelming.

I’d thought his eyes were just plain aqua-blue before, but now I could see little flecks of turquoise in them, too.

‘Do you think you can agree to that first expectation?’ he prodded when I didn’t say anything.

‘Um, yes.’ I cleared my throat, hoping it would also help me clear my head of the impulse I had to agree to anything he said if he would promise to keep looking at me like that forever. ‘I can try to do that.’

‘Good.’

If he noticed how much his close proximity dazzled me, he didn’t show any signs of it.

His index finger pointed to the next bullet on the list. ‘The second item says that I expect you to be on time to our tutoring sessions. I have my own classes to study for, along with some other obligations. So if you’re late, it just means we’ll have a shorter session because I won’t be able to change my schedule around it.’

‘Sounds fair enough,’ I said.

Mack had warned me about how anal Carter was about his schedule.

His finger moved down to the next and final bullet point on the list. And when my gaze ran across the words he had typed there, I wondered if I was seeing things because I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

I looked up at him with wide eyes. ‘You have a rule about not dating the people you tutor?’

He frowned momentarily as he read over the last rule, as if he couldn’t remember what he’d written.

After a short pause, he pressed his lips together and tilted his head back up to look me in the eyes. ‘Ah yes, the most important rule of all.’

‘The most important rule?’ I furrowed my brow, so confused why such a rule was even necessary in the first place. ‘Is this your way of saying you’d never deign to fraternize with people who need tutoring?’

Was his talk about understanding what it was like to struggle with something all just an act, and he was actually silently judging me for my stupidity?

Were people who admitted that they actually needed help somehow inferior to this ‘Mr. You Can’t Date Me?’

And to think I’d just thought he was as dazzling as Edward Cullen a minute ago.

Ugh. Looks could be so deceiving sometimes.

The arrogance that it would take for someone to actually write that rule down was mind-boggling to me.

‘I can see you think I’m a pompous jerk for even listing that last rule,’ he said, picking up on the shift in my mood. ‘But…’ He paused, seeming to think. Then as if remembering something, he continued, ‘I can’t tell you how many girls have pretended to be bad at math just to work one on one with me.’

Seriously?

Sure, he was obviously hot. But who in their right mind would choose to do more math if they didn’t have to?

Even I wasn’t that dumb.

I shook my head. ‘Well, lucky for you and unluckily for me, I actually am terrible at math,’ I said. ‘I mean, they only let me come to this school if I promised to have tutoring right from the start.’

‘So…you’re not going to try to date me?’ He arched an eyebrow, as if he was actually worried I wanted to jump his bones.

And sure, maybe I’d gotten lost in his eyes for a few seconds here and there. But that was just because his eyes were interesting: light against his tan skin and full of secrets.

I definitely didn’t want to drown in them or anything.

I sat up straighter, and in the most indifferent tone I could muster, I said, ‘I’m not interested in dating you. I’m just using you to keep my grades up.’

‘You’re sure about that?’ He narrowed his gaze, clearly not believing the words I’d just spoken. ‘Because we’ll be spending a lot of time with each other and I don’t want this to become an issue.’

Okay, wow. He certainly had a high opinion of himself.

Did he really think he was so amazing that girls couldn’t help but fawn all over him like they were Cinderella’s stepsisters and he was the prince?

Sure, I’d been thinking that the definition of his forearms deserved to be immortalized in marble just like the David statues in the corner, but that was only because I appreciated art.

Instead of answering his question, I folded my arms across my chest and said, ‘Who’s to say it shouldn’t be the other way around?’ I arched an eyebrow for effect. ‘Maybe I should be the one with the contract that says you aren’t allowed to fall in love with me .’

Take that, you egotistical narcissist.

He didn’t respond at first—just stared at me unblinking, like he couldn’t believe what I’d just said.

Then, after looking me up and down with an appraising eye that made me feel like he was seeing and weighing my every flaw, he leaned back against his cushioned seat and said, ‘I don’t think that will be an issue.’

Okay.

Ouch. Talk about a slap to the ego.

But I wasn’t about to let him know how much his words stung, so I uncapped my pen and said, ‘Well, it looks like we’re on the same page with things then.’

It took everything in me to keep my hand steady as I signed his stupid contract when all I wanted to do was climb under the table and hide.

After signing my name and taking a deep calming breath, I decided to drive the point home that I was not the one who’d be left wanting in this arrangement of ours. So, at the bottom of the contract, I added in purple ink the words:

I, Carter Hastings, vow that I won’t fall in love with the beautiful and alluring Ava Cohen, even though she is a Goddess on earth. I will be on my best behavior during our tutoring sessions and not let her enchanting personality, charming wit, or captivating eyes distract me from doing my job.

And just below that, I drew a line where he could sign his name.

I slid the paper back to him. ‘I’m going to need you to sign my little addition,’ I said, capping my pen.

A half-smile formed on his lips as he read my amendment to his contract. But then he signed his name in a nice, flowing scrawl.

‘Looks like we’ve come to an agreement,’ he said, tucking the contract back into the front folder of his notebook. ‘How about we get to those questions now.’


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