"You," Elena says, pointing directly at me. "Come with me. Alex, I want you and your brothers to sing."

Alex shakes his head. "Elena, I don't think--"

Elena holds up a hand in front of Alex, silencing even him. "I didn't ask you to think. I asked you to join your brothers in singin' to me and my new husband."

Elena opens the door and yanks me through the house, stopping only when we reach the backyard. She lets me go only to grab the microphone from the lead singer.

"Paco!" she announces loudly. "Yeah, I'm talkin' to you," Elena says, pointing to Paco talking to a bunch of girls. "Next time you want to take a dump, do it in someone else's house."

Paco's entourage of girls backs up and giggles, leaving him alone.

Jorge rushes to the stage and attempts to pick up his wife. The poor man struggles while everyone laughs and claps.

When Elena is finally off the stage and Alex talks to the band leader, the guests cheer for Alex and his brothers to sing.

Paco sits next to me.

"Uh, sorry about the bathroom thing. I tried to warn you," he says sheepishly.

"It's okay. I think Elena embarrassed you enough." I lean over to Paco and ask, "Seriously, what do you think of Alex and me together?"

"Seriously, you're pro'bly the best thing that's ever happened to the guy."

CHAPTER 40 Alex

After my dad died, our ma tried to cheer me, Carlos, and Luis with music. We'd dance around the house, taking turns singing with her. I think it was her way to forget her sorrow, at least for a little while. At night I used to hear her sobbing in her room. I never opened the door, but I itched to break into song and make all of her hurt go away.

I talk to the band before taking the microphone. "I wouldn't make a fool out of myself by doin' this, but the Fuentes brothers can't ignore this special request from the bride. Elena can be pretty persuasive."

"Yeah, I know!" Jorge yells back.

Elena punches him in his arm. He winces. Elena knows how to land a punch. Jorge kisses his bride, too happy to care.

My brothers and I start to sing. It isn't a serious song. We ad lib songs by Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, and even my favorite, Mana. When I crouch down to sing to my little cousins, I wink at Brittany.

That's when I notice a hush in the crowd and whispers of shock. It's Hector. He made an appearance, which is rare. He winds his way through the yard wearing an expensive suit while everyone stares at him.

I finish the song and take my place at Brittany's side. I have an urge to protect her.

"Want a smoke?" Paco asks me as he pulls Marlboros out of his back pocket.

I briefly glance at Brittany before answering, "No."

Paco looks at me curiously, then shrugs and takes one for himself. "Great singin', Alex. If you would've given me a few more minutes I'd have your novia in the palm of my hand."

He called her my girl. Is she my girl?

I lead her to a cooler full of drinks, Paco in tow. I'm careful not to steer her toward Hector.

Mario, a friend of one of my cousins, is standing over the cooler sporting Python Trio gang colors and big, baggy jeans that hang off his ass. The Python Trio are our allies, but if Brittany saw him on the street, she'd probably run in the opposite direction.

"Hey Alex, Paco," Mario says.

"I see you dressed up for the wedding, Mario," I mutter.

"Cabron, monkey suits are for white guys," Mario says, ignoring the fact that my date is in fact white. "You suburban gangstas are too soft. In the city are the real broth'as."

"Okay, tough guy," Paco says with pure attitude. "Tell that to Hector."

I glare at Mario. "Mario, you keep talkin' shit like that and I'll give you firsthand proof of how tough we are ... never underestimate the LB."

Mario backs up. "Well, I've got a date with a bottle of Corona. Catch you later, guey."

"It looks like he's carryin' a load in those pants," Paco says, staring at Mario from behind.

I look over at Brittany, who looks paler than she usually is. "You okay?"

"You threatened that guy," she whispers. "I mean, seriously threatened him."

Instead of answering her, I take her hand and lead her to the edge of the makeshift dance floor, which is really a section of grass. Slow music is playing.

When I pull her close, she backs away. "What are you doing?"

"Dance with me," I order. "Don't argue with me. Put your arms around me and dance." I don't want to hear about how I'm in a gang, and how it scares her, and how she wants me to be out of the gang in order for her to date me.

"But--"

"Don't think about what I said to Mario," I say close to her ear. "He was feelin' us out, checkin' how loyal we are to Hector. If he senses any dissension, his gang might take advantage. You see, all gangs are separated into Folks or People. Every gang is affiliated with one or the other, and those affiliated with Folks are rivals with those affiliated with People. Mario is affiliated--"

"Alex," she interrupts.

"Yeah."

"Assure me nothing's going to happen to you."

I can't. "Just dance," I say quietly as I guide her arms around me and we dance.

Looking over Brittany, I see Hector and my mother in an intense conversation. I wonder what they're talking about. She starts walking away from him, until he grabs her arm and pulls her back and says something in her ear. Just when I'm about to stop dancing to find out what the hell is going on, mi'ama smiles at Hector playfully and laughs at something he said. I'm obviously being paranoid.

Hours pass and darkness falls on the city. The party is still going strong when we walk to the car. On the drive back to Fairfield, we're both quiet.

"Come here," I say softly when I park in the auto body's back lot.

She leans over the middle console, closing the distance between us. "I had an amazing time," she whispers. "Well, besides when I hid in the bathroom . . . and you threatened that guy."

"Forget about that and kiss me," I say.

I weave my hands in her hair. She wraps her arms around my neck as I trace the valley between her lips with my tongue. Parting her lips, I deepen the kiss. It's like a tango, first moving slow and rhythmic and then, when we're both panting and our tongues collide, the kiss turns into a hot, fast dance I never want to end. Carmen's kisses may have been hot, but Brittany's are more sensual, sexy, and extremely addictive.

We're still in the car, but it's cramped and the front seats don't give us enough room. Before I know it, we've moved to the backseat. Still not ideal, but I hardly notice.

I'm so getting into her moans and kisses and hands in my hair. And the smell of vanilla cookies. I'm not going to push her too far tonight. But without thinking, my hand slowly moves up her bare thigh.

"It feels so good," she says breathlessly.

I lean her back while my hands explore on their own. My lips caress the hollow of her neck as I ease down the strap to her dress and bra. In response, she unbuttons my shirt. When it's open, her fingers roam over my chest and shoulders, searing my skin.

"You're . . . perfect," she pants.

Right now I'm not gonna argue with her. Moving lower, my tongue follows a path down to her silky skin exposed to the night air. She grabs the back of my hair, urging me on. She tastes so damn good. Too good. !Caramelo!

I pull away a few inches and capture her gaze with mine, those shining sapphires glowing with desire. Talk about perfect.

"I want you, chula," I say, my voice hoarse. She presses against my erection, the pleasure/pain almost unbearable. But when I start to pull her panties down, she stills my hand and pushes it away.

"I . . . I'm not ready for that. Alex, stop."

I move off her and sit back in the seat, waiting for my body to cool down. I can't look at her as she adjusts her straps, covering her body again. Shit, I went too fast. I told myself not to get too excited, to keep my wits when I'm with this girl. Raking my hand through my hair, I let out a slow breath. "I'm sorry."

"No, I'm sorry. It's not your fault. I urged you on and you have every right to be pissed off. Listen, I just got out of a relationship with Colin and I've got a lot of stuff going on at home." She puts her face in her hands. "I'm so confused." She grabs her purse and opens the door.

I follow her, my black shirt open and flying in the wind behind me like a vampire's cape. Either that or the grim reaper's. "Brittany, wait."

"Please . . . open the door to the garage. I need my car."

"Don't go."

I press the keypad code.

"I'm sorry," she says once more.

"Stop sayin' that. Listen, no matter what happened, I'm not with you just to get into your pants. I got carried away with the way we clicked tonight, your vanilla scent that I wanted to keep inhalin' forever and . . . shit, I really messed this up, didn't I?"

Brittany climbs inside her car. "Can we take it slow, Alex? This is going way too fast for me."

"Yeah," I say, nodding. I keep my hands in my pockets, resisting the urge to pull her out of the car.

And dammit if Brittany doesn't drive away.

I'd been caught up in her exploring eager hands and went overboard. I forget about everything except her when her body is close.

The bet.

This thing with Brittany is supposed to be about a bet, not falling for a north sider. I have to keep in mind that I'm only interested in Brittany because of the bet, and I better ignore what I suspect are real feelings.

Feelings can't be a part of this game.

CHAPTER 41 Brittany

I pull into a McDonald's where I can be anonymous, change into jeans and a pink wrap-around sweater, and drive home.

I'm scared because with Alex, it feels too raw. When I'm with Alex, everything is way more intense. My feelings, my emotions, my desire. I was never addicted to Colin, never wanted to be with him twenty-four/ seven. I crave Alex. Oh, God. I think I'm falling in love with him.

But I know loving someone means losing a part of myself. And tonight, in the car when Alex reached under my dress, I was afraid of losing control. My entire life is about staying in control, so this is not good. It scares me.

I walk through the front door of my house, ready to sneak up to my room and put the dress in my closet. Unfortunately, my mom is standing in the foyer, waiting for me.

"Where were you?" my mother asks sternly while holding up my chemistry book and folder. "You said you were working out, then studying with that Hernandez boy."

Busted. Time to either shut up or fess up. "His last name is Fuentes, not Hernandez. And yes, I was with him."

Silence.

My mother's lips are in a tight, thin line. "It's obvious you weren't studying. What do you have in that gym bag?" she demands. "Drugs? Are you hiding drugs in there?"

"I don't do drugs," I respond sharply.

She cocks an eyebrow and points to my bag. "Open it," she orders.

I huff and kneel down to unzip it. I feel like a jail inmate. Pulling out my dress, I hold it up.

"A dress?" my mother asks.

"I went to a wedding with Alex. His cousin got married."

"That boy made you lie to me. He's manipulating you, Brittany."

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