Rules of attraction, p.17
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       Rules of Attraction, p.17

         Part #2 of Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles
 
Page 17

 

  My mom comes out to chat with customers. I watch as she makes conversation with each and every person as if she’s their personal friend. When she reaches our table, she leans down to make sure we’re drinking our tea.

  “I see you liked it,” she says to Carlos. My mom takes such pride in her tea blends that if she finds the right custom blend for a hard-to-please customer, it makes her feel like she’s won the lottery. “I understand Kiara wants to ask you to be a model for her on Friday at The Highlands. It should be fun. ”

  Carlos gives me a what the hell is she talkin’ about? look.

  “Want more tea?” my mom asks him.

  “No, thanks. ”

  “Kiara can drive you home. Right, sweetie?”

  “Yeah. Let’s go,” I say before my mother says anything more.

  When we reach my car, Carlos tries to pull on the passenger-door handle.

  “You have to climb through the window,” I tell him.

  “You’re kiddin’ me, right?”

  I shake my head. “I’m not kidding. ” That’s my next project, after I fix the clock and radio. ”

  Carlos climbs in the car with ease, his feet entering first before his whole body slides into the vinyl bucket seat. I wish the radio or old tape player worked, because I think Carlos is getting anxious after five minutes of me driving in silence.

  He shifts in the seat. “What’s this modelin’ thing about?”

  “It’s modeling for a nursing-home painting class on Friday night. You don’t have to do it. I wasn’t even going to ask you. ”

  “Why not?”

  We’re at a stop sign, so I turn to him and say the truth. “Because you’d be posing with me, and I knew you wouldn’t agree to do it. ”

  23

  Carlos

  I get it. She wouldn’t want to pose with a guy who’d get busted for drugs. “I can bring Madison,” I tell her in the cocky tone I know grates on her nerves. “She’d pose with me. On second thought, she invited me to her house Friday night, so I can’t make your little paintin’ party. ”

  “I don’t know what you see in her. ”

  “A lot more than I see in you,” I lie to push her away. Truth is, I don’t see anything in Madison. I’ve been trying to avoid the girl since she puked at her party, but since she’s on my list of people who might have framed me, I’ve got to get closer to her. Kiara doesn’t need to know that. Hell, Kiara shouldn’t know I’ve been thinkin’ about her and her cookies way more than I ever should.

  When we arrive at the house, Kiara storms out of the car.

  I get a snack in the kitchen a little while later and see Kiara cutting vegetables. I wonder if she’d like to see my head on that board along with the carrots.

  “Hey, Carlos,” the Professor says when he walks in. “How was REACH?”

  “It sucked. ”

  “Can you be more specific?” my guardian asks.

  “It really sucked,” I elaborate, sarcasm dripping from every word.

  “Your vocabulary astounds me,” he says. “Hey, I need both your help today after dinner. ”

  “With what?” I ask.

  “Pulling weeds. ”

  “Don’t you rich people have gardeners to do that?” I ask.

  The answer is no, because after dinner Westford escorts us to the backyard with big paper bags.

  He tosses canvas gloves to me and Kiara. “I’ll take the side yard. Kiara, you and Carlos tackle the back. ”

  “Daddy!” Brandon yells out from the patio door. “Carlos said he’d play soccer with me today. ”

  “Sorry, Bran. Carlos has to help pull weeds in the yard,” Westford says to the little kid.

  “You can help,” Kiara says to him. Brandon looks all too happy to help her.

  I remember when I was younger and Alex invited me to help him do yard work. He always made me feel useful. “Yo, Brandon, I could use your help, too,” I say. “After you help me, I’ll play with you. ”

  “Really?” the little kid says.

  “Yeah. Just make sure the bag is wide open so when I toss in the weeds they fall in the bag. ”

  He rushes over to the bag and holds it open. “Like this?”

  “Yeah. ”

  Kiara is on her hands and knees, pulling weeds and tossing them in her own bag. I can’t imagine Madison ever kneeling in dirt and subjecting herself to manual labor. I also can’t imagine her having a vintage car that doesn’t even have a usable passenger door.

  “You’re going too slow,” Brandon observes. “I bet Kiara has more weeds in her bag than you have in yours. ” The kid runs over to inspect the inside of Kiara’s bag. “She’s winning. ”

  “Not for long. ” I grab a bunch of weeds and rip them out of the ground. A few have prickly stems pokin’ me through the gloves, but I don’t care.

  I look over at Kiara, workin’ faster than before. She’s definitely showing her competitive side.

  “Done!” she yells out, standing up at the left side of the yard and pulling the gardening gloves off with attitude. She picks Brandon up and twirls him around until they both fall on the grass laughing.

  “You better be careful, Kiara,” I call out to her. “Your personality is startin’ to show. ”

  While Brandon’s back is turned, Kiara flashes me the one-finger salute as she walks to her car.

  I have definitely gotten on her bad side.

  “Now we can play soccer! Go by the goal,” Brandon says, pointing to the little net in the yard. “Remember, if I get it past you, you said you’d play G. I. Joe with me. ”

  I stand by the goal while Brandon tries kicking the ball past me. I have to give the little dude credit. He tries until he’s sweating and panting, never giving up even though it’s a lost cause.

  “This time I’m gonna do it,” he says for the fiftieth time. He points to something behind me. “Look! Over there!”

  “That’s the oldest trick in the book, little man. ” I appreciate his attempt at cheating, but he picked the wrong guy.

  “No, really. Look!” Brandon cries out.

  He sounds convincing, but I’m still not taking my eye off of his soccer ball. I’d rather block shots all day than play with dolls.

  He kicks the ball, but I block it once again. “Sorry, man. ”

  “Brandon, time for your bath,” Mrs. Westford yells from the patio.

  “Just a few more kicks, Mom. Please. ”

  She looks at her watch. “Two more, then bath time. I’m sure Carlos has homework to do. ”

  After two more unsuccessful attempts, I tell Brandon to give up. He skips into the house. He’s pretty coordinated, but I wonder at what age boys realize they’re just not supposed to skip. On my way upstairs, I pass the dining room. Kiara is sitting at the big table, her head in a bunch of thick textbooks.

  Strands of hair have escaped her ponytail, falling in her face. It makes me wonder what she’d look like with it all down.

  She glances up, then snaps her head back down.

  “You should wear your hair down,” I tell her. “You might look more like Madison that way. ”

  She answers by flipping me off again.

  I laugh. “Be careful,” I warn. “I hear in some countries every time you do that, they chop off a finger. ”

  I wait two days to break into Nick’s and Madison’s lockers, thanks to one of Kiara’s cookie magnets (minus the cookie) and a small screwdriver I took from Kiara’s car. In the middle of third period, I ask to go to the bathroom but end up searching Madison’s locker. In her book bag are books, makeup, and a bunch of notes from Lacey and other girls. In a stroke of luck, she left her cell in the side pocket of her bag. I grab her phone and take it with me to the bathroom, where I scroll through her call log texts, calendar, and contacts. Nothing out of the ordinary here, except that Friday after school she called Nick more times than I can count on two hands.

  I put her phone back before I h
ead to class.

  That leaves Nick. I see him briefly in the halls at school and have been staking out his locker, but I don’t have classes with the guy. During lunch hour the halls are too busy, but right after lunch I sneak into the halls and put the magnet and screwdriver to use again.

  Nick’s locker is a damn mess. In his backpack are a bunch of names scribbled on pieces of paper with codes on them. They’re probably his customers or suppliers, but they’re all written in that stupid code.

  I’ve been here too long already. But I feel close, as if Paco or Papá is driving me to look further. I dig through his backpack, hoping to find his phone or some other evidence that he was connected to my getting busted. But all I find are a bunch of papers.

  Someone is coming up the stairs. I can hear footsteps coming closer. If it’s the principal, I’m busted. If it’s Nick, I’d better be ready for a fight. I quickly thumb through the mess of papers, until . . . yeah, I got it.

  It’s the one scrap of paper that’s not in code. It’s someone’s name that I’m all too familiar with . . . Wes Devlin, a drug lord with deep connections to the Guerreros del barrio, and a phone number written right below it.

  I shove the number in my pocket, then close the locker right before someone comes up the stairs.

  Nick better watch out, ’cause very soon I’m gonna pay him a visit . . . one that he won’t forget anytime soon.

  24

  Kiara

  After school on Wednesday, I’m washing my car in my driveway when Alex drops off Carlos after REACH. Alex comes over to me and picks up an extra sponge.

  “Your dad said you’re havin’ problems with the radio even after I put the spring in. ”

  “Yeah. ” I love my car, but . . . “It’s imperfectly perfect. ”

  “I guess that’s one way to describe it. Sounds like some people I know. ” Alex peers inside the car. “Brittany’s car is fast, but this thing has some juice left. ” He sits in one of the bucket seats. “I could get used to this. One of our customers has a ’73 Monte Carlo for sale. I’m thinkin’ about buyin’ it. Did Carlos tell you he worked at my cousin’s auto body back in Chicago?”

  “No. ”

  “I’m surprised. Carlos always hung out with Enrique at the shop. He loves workin’ on cars probably more than me. ”

  “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Carlos asks. He’s been leaning against our garage this entire time. I know this because, well, when Carlos is anywhere near me I can sense it.

  I’ve purposely been avoiding him since Monday, which has been working out fine for both of us.

  When Alex leaves a little later, Carlos steps forward. “Need help?”

  I shake my head.

  “Are you ever gonna talk to me again? Dammit, Kiara, enough with the silent treatment. I’d rather have you say your little two-word sentences than stop talkin’ altogether. Hell, just flip me off again. ”

  I toss my backpack in the backseat and start the engine.

  “Where are you goin’?” Carlos asks, stepping in front of my car.

 

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