Rules of attraction, p.23
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       Rules of Attraction, p.23

         Part #2 of Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles
Page 23


  I’m standing at my locker and hear her. Carlos is supposed to go with me to The Highlands to help with the painting class tonight. Will he blow me off for her?

  “I can’t,” Carlos tells her.

  “Why not?”

  “I’ve got plans. ”

  She steps back, shocked. I don’t think anyone has ever rejected her before. “With a girl?”

  “Yeah. ”

  “Who?” she says, her word as sharp as a knife.

  Before I know what’s happening, Carlos pulls me to his side. “With Kiara. ”

  While I’m still in shock, Madison sneers at both of us. “That’s a joke, right?”

  “Actually—,” I start, ready to out him, but Carlos squeezes me closer and almost cuts off the circulation in my arm.

  “We’ve been secretly datin’ since last week. ” He gives me a smile and a look that says I’m his one-and-only. That smile might deceive Madison, but I know he’s full of it. “Isn’t that right, K. ?”

  He squeezes me tighter. “Uh-huh,” I squeak out.

  Madison shakes her head fast, as if she can’t believe what she’s hearing. “Nobody in their right mind chooses Kiara Westford over me. ”

  She’s right. We’re busted.

  “Wanna bet?” My eyes go wide when Carlos bends his head down to me. “Kiss me, cariño. ”

  Kiss? In the hallway in front of everyone? I can’t even talk in front of Madison, let alone kiss the guy she’s interested in, in front of her. “I-I-I d-d-don’t . . . ”

  I try to come up with something, but keep stuttering. As if Carlos doesn’t even notice I’m struggling with my speech, his fingers cup my cheek, then trace a gentle path down to my lips. It’s something a boyfriend would do to a girlfriend that he’s crazy about and . . . and . . . and Carlos is full of complete bullshit. I know it. He knows it. But Madison doesn’t know it.

  I can feel his hot breath on my face, and hear an almost silent word of thanks before he tilts his head and puts his lips on mine. I close my eyes and try to shut out the rest of the school and just focus on trying to savor the moment. Even if the kiss is fake, it doesn’t feel fake. It feels exciting and sweet. I know I should push him away, but I can’t.

  I reach up and wrap my arms around his neck. At the same time, he pulls me closer and without warning teases my mouth open with little erotic licks of his tongue. I don’t know where he learned to kiss like this, but it’s hard not to moan into his mouth and feel something deep in my body awaken when our tongues touch.

  When Carlos pulls back and unwraps my arms from his neck, he sighs. “She’s gone. ”

  “W-w-what was th-th-that all about?” I ask.

  He looks around to make sure people aren’t eavesdropping. “I need you to be my girlfriend. There, I said it. ” When I don’t respond, he takes my elbow and pulls me down the hall until we get to the computer lab. It’s empty, except for the thirty computers in neat little rows.

  The guy is confusing me, and it doesn’t help that my lips are still tingling from his erotic kiss. I compose myself and think about the words before I say them. I’m not going to stutter. “What about Madison? You had sex with her in her parents’ bed. ”

  “I didn’t have sex with her, Kiara. That’s a rumor she started, not me. I knew her for a whole five days before I went to her stupid party. Give me a little credit. ”

  “Why should I? You’re always t-t-talking trash. ” I turn my back to him and start walking out of the computer lab. I guess I’m getting mad because it looked and felt like a real kiss, when in reality Carlos kissed me as a ploy to dupe Madison.

  “Okay, I admit it. I talk trash. But I didn’t have sex with her, and the only reason she’s after me in the first place is because she wants to make Ram jealous. I need her off my back, so will you pretend we’re a couple or what?” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “Name your price. ”

  “Why me?”

  “Because you’re too smart to fall for my bullshit, and I don’t want a real girlfriend. I had one once, and it was a complete disaster. Come on, name your price. ”

  I don’t care about dressing up every day, but just once I’d like to go to a school dance with an actual date. It’s my last year at Flatiron, and I might not get another chance.

  “Go to Homecoming with me. ”

  “I don’t do dances. ” He shakes his head. “Homecomin’ is out of the question. And don’t even think about makin’ me go to prom. ”

  “Then forget it. ”

  I head for the door, but he grabs my elbow and urges me to face him. “I don’t know anyone else here who can help me. ”

  “Homecoming or nothing,” I tell him, staying firm.

  Carlos gnashes his teeth. “Fine. Homecoming. But you have to wear a dress . . . and heels. And I’m not talkin’ those thick granny ones. ”

  “I don’t own heels. ”

  “Then go buy some. ” He holds out his hand. “Deal?”

  I take a second to think about it, then put my hand in his and give it a hard shake. “Deal. ”

  I try to hide my excitement, but I can’t just shake on it. I open my arms wide and hug him tight. I think he’s surprised, but I don’t care. I’m going to Homecoming! And not just with any boy . . . with Carlos, a boy who might just be the most perfect fake boyfriend. Now if I could only cut out the fake part . . .

  I pick up Carlos at the REACH facility at five and drive him over to The Highlands. The entire group is waiting for us at their easels, eager to start drawing.

  I take Carlos to Betty Friedman, one of the administrators who schedules the classes. “Betty, this is Carlos,” I say, introducing them. “He’s helping me today. ”

  Betty looks up from her desk. “Thanks, Carlos. I’m glad you’re here. Everyone has been excited to have live models. One of our resident artists is here to supervise and help you out today. ” We follow her to the front of the recreation area, where a guy wearing a black turtleneck and matching tight black pants is setting out different color paints in jars.

  “Here are your models,” Betty tells him. “Kiara and Carlos, this is Antoine Soleil. ”

  “I brought costumes,” I tell Antoine as I pull out a red checkered shirt and cowboy belt for Carlos and a cowgirl outfit for me. I borrowed them from the theater department at school.

  Carlos takes one look at the costume and takes two steps back. “You never said anythin’ about costumes. ”

  “I didn’t?”

  “No. ”

  “Sorry,” I tell him. “We’re wearing costumes. ”

  Betty points to a room off to the side. “You can dress in the conference room, if you want. Or wait until one of the guest bathrooms becomes available, although I just saw Mrs. Heller walk in and it might be some time until she resurfaces. ”

  Carlos grabs the shirt and belt from me, then walks into the conference room. I follow behind with the cowgirl outfit.

  “Remind me why I agreed to do this?”

  “Because you wanted to do something nice for me,” I tell him as I lock us in the room so nobody accidentally walks in.

  “Right. ” He pulls his shirt over his head, revealing a rock-hard stomach any guy would envy and any girl would drool over. “Next time I want to do somethin’ nice, slap me. ” He looks at me and the side of his mouth quirks up. “I was kiddin’. ”

  “I figured. ” I pull the denim and lace cowgirl dress over my head, glad to have the table hiding me at least a little. When it’s in place, I weave my hands through my own shirt and toss it aside, then shimmy out of my pants. Whoa. This dress is short. Really, really short. I look at my bare legs. I try pulling the dress down, but the lace is so layered and frilly it stands out like petals.

  “Please don’t tell me I have to actually wear this ridiculous belt,” Carlos says from across the room as he secures the oversized silver buckle on the belt.

  “Pretend you’re a rodeo champion,” I tell him.

  “More like a champion wrestler by the size of this thing. What are you wearin’? You better look as ridiculous as I do. ”

  I look down at my short, frilly dress with the fake jean vest sewn into the front. “Mine is worse. ”

  “Come out from behind the table and show me. ”

  “No. ”

  “Come on. We’re a couple now, aren’t we?”

  “We’re a fake couple, Carlos. ”

  He sits on the edge of the conference table. “Well, I was thinkin’ . . . I figure as long as we know it’s not goin’ anywhere, we could, you know, hang out. ”

  “What does ‘hang out’ mean?” I ask.

  “You know, spend more time with each other. You make me laugh, Kiara, and right now I need some fun in my life. ” He moves around to my side of the table and looks at my outfit, then whistles appreciatively. “Nice legs. You should show ’em more often. ”

  I shrug. “I’ll think about it. ”

  “What, showin’ your legs more often or hangin’ out with me?”

  “Both. ” While the very idea of being with Carlos is exciting, I need to protect my heart from being broken. Hanging out to Carlos means keeping an emotional wall up so we don’t get too involved. I don’t know if my wall is that strong.

  In the rec room, I introduce Carlos to Sylvia, Mildred, Mr. Whittaker, and the others. Sylvia grabs my sleeve. “He’s a looker. ”

  “I know. The problem is, he knows it, too. ”

  Mildred waves Carlos over. “Let me look at you. ” She eyes him up and down. “I saw you when you walked in. What’s with all those tattoos? Makes you look like a hooligan. ”

  “I suspect I am a hooligan,” he says to her. “Whatever that means. ”

  “It means that you’re trouble,” Mildred says, pointing her paintbrush at him. “Nothing but trouble. My husband was a hooligan. Trouble followed him wherever he went. He used to ride around on his motorcycle like he was James Dean. ”

  “What happened to him?” Carlos asks her.

  “The old coot died ten years ago in a car accident. ” She pats Carlos’s cheek. “You look a little like him. Come closer. ” When he does, she closes her eyes and reaches out to touch his face, almost tracing it with her fingers. Carlos is still, letting her fantasize about going back to a happier time and pretend for the moment that she’s touching her husband’s face instead of Carlos’s. Mildred sighs, then opens her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispers, tears welling in her eyes.

  Carlos nods in silent understanding at the gift he just gave her. I’m standing here in awe of him. On the outside, Carlos is a tough jerk who doesn’t let anyone get close to him. But when I get little glimpses of his hidden warmth and compassion, I feel that inner wall of mine start to crumble.

  “All right, let’s get this class started,” Antoine says.

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