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She rubbed her hands together and took off her leather jacket. This date was already more fun than her usual “drinks at a hipster bar, dinner at the upscale pizza place next door afterward” L.A.-style dates.

She took bites of each taco in succession, and then second bites of all six.

“Okay.” She looked down at all of her tacos, and then across the table at his; while she’d been tasting each one carefully, he’d decimated his.

“First, I have to say, ranking these from number six to number one doesn’t give number six enough credit. I would eat this taco every day if I could, let’s be clear.” He motioned for her to get on with it. She picked up a plate and set it at the far end of the table against the window. “Six.”

“Carne asada, but I’m sure you already knew that.” She nodded and tried not to smile like her favorite teacher had just complimented her in front of the whole class. She put another plate next to the first one.

“That’s tripas. Are you sure that wasn’t too weird for you?”

Tripe. Huh. Okay, that was a little weird. She hadn’t really expected tripe to be one of the things she’d eat tonight. Or that she’d rank it over steak.

“If it had been too weird, would I have kept eating it?” She hoped he didn’t notice that she didn’t quite answer the question.

She hesitated for a few seconds with the next selection, then moved a third plate over.

“Carnitas!” He pulled the basket of chips toward him and squirted salsa on one of his empty plates. “Only fourth place for carnitas, wow.”

She couldn’t tell if that was a good wow or bad wow.

“I loved the carnitas! I’ve always thought carnitas was my favorite before, and it hurt me to put it in fourth place, but . . .”

He dipped a chip into his salsa with a huge grin on his face.

“This is fun. Keep going.”

None of the guys she’d dated in the past five years would have even imagined ordering this much food for two people. Not even for four people. Thank God she wasn’t here with any of them.

She moved a fourth plate into line.

“Cabeza in third place!” Carlos said.

And she’d never dated anyone who would have ordered her a cow head taco. A delicious cow head taco, to be clear.

He rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, and she couldn’t hold back a sigh at the sight of his forearms. Did men have any idea how sexy it was when they did that?

She moved the next plate in line.

“Lengua.” He dug into the bowl of guacamole with a chip. “Well, you should have ranked that one the first, but you can’t get everything right.”

Why was she not surprised that his favorite was the tongue?

“As much as I love that one . . .”

“Mmmm, you sure do. I know that now.” He smirked at her, and she tried hard not to laugh.

“As I was saying, as much as I love that one . . .” She pushed the last plate into line. “This is my favorite.”

He held out his hand, and she slapped it.

“Respect. Al pastor is an excellent taco favorite to have, especially here.”

She finished the al pastor taco and raised an eyebrow at him.

“So did I pass?”

He stopped, a guacamole-laden chip halfway to his mouth.

“What do you mean pass?”

She rolled her eyes at him.

“This test. I know it was a test, don’t even try to pretend it wasn’t.”

At first he shrugged and didn’t meet her eyes. Then he gave her a puppy dog smile.

“Okay, yes, you definitely passed, but I didn’t really intend it to be a test. It was just that . . .”

Nik spooned some rice and beans onto a plate. She was already so full that putting more food on her plate seemed ridiculous, but she couldn’t not try the rice and beans, could she? When she had a little bit of both on her plate, she sat up straight and looked Carlos in the eye.

“It was just that what? I’m going to make you finish that sentence now.”

* * *

• • •

Carlos sighed and put his fork down.

“It was just that you kind of seemed like a girl who stayed in the safe parts of L.A. and who moved in bougie kinds of circles, and who . . . who . . . I wasn’t sure how you would react to a place like this and food like that.”

She didn’t break eye contact. He’d thought that maybe she’d get distracted by the food on her plate, but she’d clearly listened to every word he’d said.

“And who . . . dates the whitest of white guys? Is that what you were going to say?”

Well, yeah, but he’d caught himself at the last second.

“I was, but I thought the better of it!” Shit, she was going to get mad at him for this, wasn’t she? She had every right to.

She laughed and reached for another chip.

“Don’t judge me by Fisher, come on now. I’m not going to claim that he’s the only white guy that I’ve dated, but he’s definitely one of the worst.”

He’d take her word for it. She seemed more relaxed about the Fisher thing than she had the last time they’d talked about it. Maybe it was her self-defense class making the difference.

“How’s your self-defense class going? Are you kicking some ass?”

She put up her fists.

“I sure as hell am,” she said, before putting her fists down. “I didn’t really expect to enjoy the class; I think I expected it to be some empowerment bullshit, but I feel like I’m learning a lot, and it’s actually really fun. The instructor is the owner of the gym, and she’s pretty fantastic.”

He’d kind of expected her class to be some empowerment bullshit, too. His dad had made Angela take a self-defense class when she went off to college, and Angie had complained about it the whole time. She’d said it was just talking about your feelings and beating up a dude covered in padding, but that she hadn’t really learned how to defend herself. He’d had to take her into the backyard and show her how to throw a punch to feel comfortable with her leaving.

“Oh man, I’d love to hear more about that. That’s the kind of place I’d love to silently pass their brochure to some of my patients. And their moms, though I bet it’s outside their price range.”

She shook her head.

“Probably not—that’s one of the interesting things about it. She has a sliding scale for membership and all of the classes. Pretty great.”

“Wow.” As he well knew, it was hard for low- or even moderate-income people in L.A. to access a lot of the stuff that hipster L.A. took for granted. “Are you planning to write about it? I read that Anna Gardiner thing you told me you wrote for Vogue; it was great.”

“You read it?” If he had known she would look so flattered when he told her that, he would have told her days ago. “Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I actually hadn’t even thought about writing about Natalie’s Gym, but that’s an idea.” She shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“What other kinds of writing do you do? Is it all freelance, or are you on staff somewhere?”

“All freelance. After college, I got a job at the New York Times, which was overwhelming and amazing. I learned a ton about writing and researching there, especially about investigative reporting, just from listening to some of the reporters there and asking them a lot of questions.” She made a face. “And asking for feedback on my own work, which was horrible at the time but ultimately very valuable.”

He grinned at the look on her face.

“They were very blunt, huh?”

She dropped her head into her hands.

“You have no idea. God, I still get humiliated sometimes when I think about the draft of a story I gave one guy. Oh, it was so bad, and he told me, in lots of detail, why it was so bad. But you know, that one terrible conversation was probably worth at least an entire class of journalism school.” She took a sip of her water. “Then I came back here to be an editor for the L.A. Times entertainment section. It was such a different job, but I learned a ton about the ins and outs of the industry here in L.A.”

Hers was a very different part of L.A. than the one he’d grown up in. The part with the movie stars and the rich people that he’d always known existed, but it seemed so foreign compared to his life that it could have very well been across the country.


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