Page 28

“Hey! I’m outside. Sorry I’m late,” he said when he called. “Should I come up, or . . .”

“No, I’ll come down,” she said. She felt ridiculously high school. She rolled her eyes at herself. This wasn’t a date, remember?

Carlos was standing at the door when Nik walked outside. She’d kind of expected him to be waiting for her in the car. That made her feel even more high school, but in a good way.

“Hi,” she said to him.

He grinned at her.

“Holy shit, you look great.”

She tried to keep her smile from stretching across her entire face but may have failed.

“Thanks! So do you.” She reached up to hug him and he leaned down to kiss her. She hadn’t quite expected them to be at the kiss hello stage yet, but she liked kissing him so much she’d take any excuse to kiss him.

“Hungry?” he asked, when they finally pulled away.

She wiped her lip gloss off his mouth with her thumb and walked with him to his car.

“Starving. I only had a salad for lunch in preparation for this meal.” In retrospect, she should have at least had a snack after yoga. Oh well, at least she knew there would be plenty of food where they were going.

He opened the passenger door for her.

“That is one of the biggest compliments anyone has ever given me,” he said.

She smiled at him as he started the car.

“You said you were the food expert. I’m trusting you here.”

“You were right to trust me, and I’m very grateful, especially after I insulted you so gravely by questioning your allegiance to Mexican food.”

She shook her head sadly.

“I’m still not over that. You’re going to have to give me a little time.”

He squeezed her thigh before moving his hand back to the gearshift.

“Take all the time you need.”

He accelerated as he got onto the freeway.

“You know, I never learned how to drive a stick.” She traced the outline of his fingers with her fingertips. “But boy, do I like watching other people do it.”

He glanced down at her hand, then looked back up at the road.

“My dad made both me and my sister learn to drive stick before we could learn an automatic. He said if you learned an automatic first, you got too lazy to really learn how to drive, but if you learned how to drive on a stick, you’d be a better driver for life.” He frowned at her, but still with a smile in his eyes. “I still can’t believe you had the gall to say I drive too fast. Me, of all people.”

She lifted her hand from his and pointed at the speedometer.

“You’re currently going fifteen miles over the speed limit, Mr. Safety First.”

He shrugged.

“I can’t help it if everyone else on the road is so timid, can I?”

She laughed and shook her head and settled back into her seat.

“I hope you have passenger-side airbags and good insurance.”

Fifteen minutes later, after a drive through some of the less gentrified parts of the Eastside, they pulled up in the parking lot at his new favorite taqueria.

“Here we go,” he said. “Taqueria de los Campos. Before we go in, really, is there anything you don’t won’t eat? I mean, other than blue cheese and olives.”

“Oh, there are plenty of things I won’t eat other than blue cheese and olives, but I don’t think those things are going to be at a taqueria.”

He narrowed his eyes at her.

“What do you mean? Have you never been to a real taqueria? There are lots of things there that plenty of people don’t eat.” He paused. “Wait. Do you go to . . . Chipotle?”

She laughed and opened the car door.

“Okay, yes, I have been to Chipotle in my time, but I’ve also been to a lot of real taquerias. I’ve lived in California most of my life, I told you!”

He got out of the car and came around to her.

“Hmm, okay. Where in California?”

He still sounded very suspicious.

“I grew up in Sacramento. My parents still live there and are very confused about why I live in L.A. now without what they see as a stable job, instead of moving back home. They’re very supportive of my career, even though they don’t understand it.”

Carlos grinned at her.

“I’ve seen how that goes with some of my cousins who have jobs their parents have never heard of. Sacramento is respectable, but I’m still reserving judgment on your taqueria cred. What are the other things you don’t eat?”

They walked the short way up to the entrance, and he opened the door for her.

“Jell-O in all forms, custard in all forms, but especially when it’s inside of a doughnut, chicken breast, carrot cake, raw peaches—cooked ones are fine—and shredded coconut. There, are any of those things going to be inside of a taco?”

He sighed in relief.

“Chicken breast could potentially be inside of a taco, but don’t worry, I would never order it here. And I promise, this place does not have any Jell-O or carrot cake tacos.”

When they got up to the front of the line, Carlos ordered in Spanish without consulting her. She regretted her inability to speak the language. Sure, she spoke a little Spanish, just from living in California, and the bits that she’d learned from listening hard when she did interviews of Spanish-speaking sources with the assistance of interpreters. She’d taken French in high school and college, a decision she’d lamented for years once she realized how useful even semi-fluency in Spanish would have been to her life.

“What do you want to drink?” he asked her.

“Pineapple agua fresca, por favor,” she said to him, in her not terrible but also not good accent, which Carlos and the counter guy both laughed at.

He paid, and they slid into an empty booth with their drinks and their order number on a stick.

“Did you grow up speaking Spanish?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“No. My parents emigrated when they were both young—my mom was three; my dad was eight. They both grew up only speaking Spanish at home and English at school, and they got teased a lot for their accents and not speaking English well enough. They didn’t speak Spanish to me or Angela when we were kids because they didn’t want the same things to happen to us. I wish . . .” He sighed, and she resisted the impulse to grab his hand. “That’s a long way of saying that no, I didn’t, and I wish I had. Especially growing up in L.A., everyone would look at me and hear my name and speak to me in Spanish, and I couldn’t respond. I didn’t really learn until college. I took it in high school, but I always felt self-conscious about it there, I guess.”

She took a sip of her agua fresca. She’d had other friends who grew up with Spanish-speaking parents who had the same thing happen, and they’d both hated and understood the choice that their parents had made.

“Sixty-three?” A man picked up their number and put two huge trays of food in their place.

“Oh my God.”

There were so many tacos in front of her. Thank God she was hungry. She counted at least six different kinds, but there were at least two of each kind. And there were chips, and guacamole, and a big dish of refried beans and rice. It was a good thing her jeans were stretchy.

He laughed at the look on her face.

“I can’t decide if you’re excited or horrified.”

She shook her head and kept her eyes on the food.

“I can’t, either.”

He picked up the squirt bottles of salsa at the corner of the booth. She reached for another, but he took it out of her hand.

“Wait. Only certain salsas go with certain tacos.” She started to object, to say that she could select her own salsa, thank you very much, but she reconsidered.

“Okay, food guru, tell me what to do here.”

He touched her hand and flashed a smile at her. She’d last seen that smile on Wednesday night, right before he pulled off her underwear. She was not in the habit of asking men to tell her what to do, but apparently, they liked it.

She wasn’t planning to get in that habit, but it was always good to know these things.

“Well, when you put it that way . . .” He lined up the plates of tacos in front of her and added the salsa of his choosing to each one. “Now. Rank them. I’ll tell you what everything is afterward.”


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