Read crush du jour epub format

Authors: Micol Ostow

crush du jour

Advertising Download Read Online

Crush du Jour

How NOT to Spend

Your Senior Year

BY CAMERON DOKEY

Royally Jacked

BY NIKI BURNHAM

Ripped at the Seams

BY NANCY KRULIK

Spin Gontrol

BY NIKI BURNHAM

Cupidity

BY CAROLINE GOODE

South Beach Sizzle

BY SUZANNE WEYN AND DIANA GONZALEZ

She’s Got the Beat

BY NANCY KRULIK

30 Guys in 30 Days

BY MICOL OSTOW

Animal Attraction

BY JAMIE PONTI

A Novel Idea

BY AIMEE FRIEDMAN

Scary Beautiful

BY NIKI BURNHAM

Getting to Third Date

BY KELLY McCLYMER

Dancing Queen

BY ERIN DOWNING

Major Grush

BY JENNIFER ECHOLS

Do-Over

BY NIKI BURNHAM

Love Undercover

BY JO EDWARDS

Prom Crashers

BY ERIN DOWNING

Gettin’ Lucky

BY MICOL OSTOW

The Boys Next Door

BY JENNIFER ECHOLS

In the Stars

BY STACIA DEUTSCH AND RHODY COHON

Available from Simon Pulse

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

SIMON PULSE

An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
www.SimonandSchuster.com

Copyright © 2007 by Micol Ostow

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

SIMON PULSE and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Designed by Ann Zeak

The text of this book was set in Garamond 3.

Manufactured in the United States of America

First Simon Pulse edition October 2007

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Control Number 2007928438

ISBN-13: 978-1-4169-5027-1

ISBN-10: 1-4169-5027-3

For my father, who worships Paul Prudhomme

Contents

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Sixteen
Acknowledgments
About the Author

Prologue

My mother always tells me not to bite off more than I can chew.

“You run yourself ragged, Laine,” she says. “You've got too much on your plate.”

She’s wrong.

I’ve got an appetite for achievement, fine. That much I’ll give her. But these days, that’s par for the course. I mean, college applications are up by, like, a million percent. It’s a cutthroat competition. It used to be that your GPA or test scores were the most important aspect of your candidacy, but now they’re just the appetizer, or a playful sort of
amuse-bouche
. You’ve got to bust your butt on extracurricular activities and knock it out of the park with your interview
and essay questions. And if you happen to score well on an advanced placement exam or two? Well, that’s merely the icing on the cake.

If I sound like a girl obsessed, there’s a reason. My parents split when I was little, and when it comes to tuition, it’s really just Mom and me footing the bill. And while my mother’s got a great job as the chief restaurant critic for the
Philadelphia Tribune
, we’re not exactly millionaires. I need to qualify for financial aid if I’m going to go somewhere other than Penn State.

Talk about type A, right? A junior in high school, and my cups—and my transcripts—already runneth over. Between AP courses, SAT prep, extracurricular activities, and part-time jobs, I don’t have a lot of free time. But, you know, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

I can stand the heat. Trust me, my life sometimes feels like one major pressure cooker.

My mom would love it if I spent this summer at the pool club with my best friend, Anna, who’s working as an au pair for a Cabana Club couple, flirting with boys, and lazing in a lounge chair. That’s
what I did the last three summers, despite being highly allergic to sun. Anna and I had a good time—no, make that a
great
time—but times have changed.

But maybe I was having a little too much fun. When it comes to boys, I guess I have sort of a love-’em-and-leave-’em reputation. I can’t help it: I see a cute guy and I immediately go all mushy. It’s a disease. But now that we’re revving up for senior year, it’s time to get serious. I’m way too busy to let a guy distract me. No matter how yummy he is. I mean, I do date, but it’s never anything serious. I reserve my seriousness for college planning and all things related. Crushes are just a tasty little candy bowl to dip into when I’m running low on spice in my life. Or, if my life is a giant sugar cookie, then crushes are the rainbow sprinkles on top. If life is like a pizza, then crushes are the pepperoni topping. If life is … a cheeseburger, then crushes are a side of fries.

You get the point. I may like my french fries (and I do), but they’re never going to take the place of a solid main course.

I know some girls think I have my priorities mixed up. And I’ve been called a
tease by some of the boys I’ve dated, boys who wanted to be more than a side dish in the menu of my life. But college isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, and as I’m constantly reminding Anna, too many cooks spoil the broth.

My life, my broth. Boys will have to be back-burnered.

For now.

One

You’re probably wondering why I pepper my vocabulary with so many cooking puns.
(Pepper!
Ha!) Or maybe you’re curious as to why I’m named Laine. The answer to both of those questions is sort of the same.

Laine Harper. That’s me. My mother—clearly hallucinating on the aftereffects of some major drugs—named me after her favorite restaurant in New York City, the one that inspired her to worship food enough to want to write about it, extolling its many tasty virtues.

That’s right—I’m named after Elaine’s, the scary Upper East Side outpost that caters to the Manhattan literati.

I don’t care how fancy the place is—I’m
named after a
restaurant
. Don’t try to tell me that’s not weird. I have no idea how she got my father to go along with this lunacy.

I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been called Emeril.

Whatever. The point is, Mom was off critiquing haute Philadelphia eateries and Dad was just, well, off. I was all alone. Had been for quite some time.

Being on her own, a girl develops some hobbies. Early on, while Mom was playing Iron Chef judge, I was left with little to rely on beyond my own grilled-cheese-making skills. Around age eleven, I dragged out my childhood Easy-Bake Oven and experimented with my own creations, like Easy-Bake quiche and Easy-Bake biscuits. Some projects were more successful than others, but an artist knows that mastery of the craft requires a willingness to take risks.

These days, I was well beyond cooking with a twenty-watt lightbulb. I wasn’t exactly Emeril, but I knew my way around the kitchen. If I hadn’t taught myself the basics, I probably would have starved to death ages ago. The fancy cookies that Mom brings home from some of her restaurants
are
so
never enough to keep a growing girl coasting through the late stages of puberty.

That simply wouldn’t do.

Obviously, cooking was two parts survival tactic, one part yet another garnish on my college applications. I’d even figured out a way to turn something that most people saw as a carefree hobby or just a chore into yet another fascinating Thing About Me that would distinguish me from the hordes of other qualified students madly rushing forward with their own collegiate agendas.

While Anna and our other friends squeezed in tanning sessions around diaper duty at the Cabana Club, I was going to be leading a cooking workshop for preteens at the local community center.

Or so I hoped; I still had to actually audition for the gig. But, I mean, come on. It was a done deal. This job was right up my alley. I’d been babysitting for neighbors’ kids for the past few years, so I had plenty of experience with kids. And, while I admit that my style in the kitchen can best be described as … whimsical, I would think whimsy would be a quality that my supervisor—and my students—would appreciate. Any
monkey can follow a recipe. But being able to improvise in the kitchen? To think on your feet?
That
takes some serious skill.

Bravery, too. A heaping spoonful of bravery. And maybe a dash of foolhardiness as well. Then blended together slowly, left to simmer over a low flame, and eventually served at room temperature.

Bon appétit!

The good thing about Anna being at the pool all day was that, as much as I missed our gossip sessions, she wasn’t around to distract me. I needed to focus and practice in the kitchen if I was going to wow the people at the rec center enough to get the job. Mom’s name carried a certain amount of weight, but it wasn’t, like, a given that the position was mine. To be honest, I was really into my practice sessions, and I quickly fell into a comfortable routine of disregarding trivialities like brushing my hair or even changing into actual clothing as I floated through the kitchen well into the early summer evenings.

“Tell me you just changed into your pajamas, and haven’t been wearing them all day,” my mother said one night when
she was unexpectedly blessed to be home by ten.

I couldn’t lie to her. I still hadn’t even brushed my teeth that day, but somehow, I wasn’t embarrassed.

“You should talk,” I replied, eyeing her up and down.

The thing about being a food critic is that most of the good chefs in town know exactly who you are, and they brief their staff on your stats—sometimes even going so far as to paste your photo somewhere in the kitchen. This way, everyone can recognize you.

Naturally, when a restaurant critic is recognized, he or she is suddenly given the VIP treatment, which compromises the review.

So Mom came up with her own rules (and by “came up with,” I mean “borrowed them from a big
New York Times
critic”). First, she always visits a restaurant three times before she writes up her review. That way, she’s got a sense of the average overall performance of the place, and she can judge more fairly.

Second, she retains her anonymity by wearing costumes. There’s genius in its simplicity.

Wait—did I say simplicity? I meant simplicity of concept, not execution. Because her costumes are more elaborate than a Vegas showgirl’s. I’m not saying that she dresses like a stripper, of course, but when she goes undercover, Mom really goes whole hog.

Today, for instance, she wore her Muriel costume. Muriel looks like a distant relative you see only at Christmas, when she pats you on the head as if you are permanently eight years old and regales you with the details of her latest low-grade health concerns.

There was not a lot of vanity involved in becoming Muriel, so I felt that my mom had earned my arched eyebrow. No matter how many times I saw her dressed up—and believe me, it was a lot of times—the success of her transformation always took me by surprise.

She rolled her eyes right back at me. “I’ll have you know that Muriel very much enjoyed her dinner at the Blue Pelican tonight.”

“The Blue Pelican? Isn’t that the place where they only serve raw foods?” I shuddered. Who in their right mind would leave
the house and pay good money to be served food that hadn’t even been cooked?

“Yes, it is, and believe it or not, the food was outstanding. I had a lasagna made from pureed zucchini.”

I made another face, this one gaggier, with sound effects. “I like my pasta made with pasta, thank you,” I told her.

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” my mom insisted. She paused, finally starting to take in the disaster zone of the kitchen, and slowly shook her head.

“Laine,” she said, “what exactly happened in here?”

I smiled sheepishly. “I had a fight with some slow-simmered tomatoes, and the tomatoes won.”

While my mom was out eating “lasagna” made out of sliced squash, I’d been home creating a carbo-loaded lasagna masterpiece with actual noodles that needed no sarcastic air quotes. Yes, the kitchen was a tad bit messy. But whatever. The sauce had been divine. And everybody knows that if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.

“I see,” she replied drily. “I suppose this house is going to be a disaster zone until you have your interview?”

“Uh-huh. And probably even after that. If I get the job, I’m still going to have to test recipes at home, you know?”

”Just try not to demolish the kitchen.
Please?”
She sighed.

“Would I do that to you?” I asked.

“Do you really need me to answer that?” she shot back. She gestured limply to the carnage that surrounded us, making sure to point out some dried chopped spinach crusted onto the front left hip of my pajama pants.

“I have no interest in disasters,” I assured her. Rogue chopped spinach notwithstanding, of course. “This was more like a minor tremor.”

Yeah, so it turns out? Cooking a lasagna? Can be tricky.

I hated to play out my mother’s worst expectations of me. And yet, in my attempt to become the teen Mario Batali, I somehow managed to coat every available kitchen surface in spatters of tomato (marinara sauce from scratch), cooking spray (to prevent sticking), and—I really have no idea how this happened—a thin crust of ricotta-spinach mixture that was rapidly hardening into a stubborn paste. Scraping away at it
with a butter knife, I had to entertain the possibility that I might never be able to restore the kitchen to its previous state of order. That was going to be a problem.

“Forget the cleaning for right now,” my mother said kindly.

“Thanks.”

“I think we’re going to have to buy some of those special Brillo pads if we really want to make a dent in this mess,” she added.

Right.
”Thanks,”
I sniffed, slightly offended. “Keep in mind, Mom, that a good meal is like a work of art,” I reminded her.

She wrinkled her forehead skeptically. “Hence your decision to transform my kitchen into a Jackson Pollock.”

“It’ll be fine.” I waved my hand dismissively. “And as you always say, traditionally, the kitchen was the heart of the family.” I batted my eyelashes at her beatifically. “I was just trying to bring a little more heart into our home.”

Mom almost had an aneurysm trying to stifle her laughter.

“Mock me all you want,” I said, spooning up a bite of my masterpiece for her. “We’ll see who has the last laugh.”

Mom convulsed, chortling, all over
again, but she did somehow manage to extend her fork with a shaky hand and shovel up a healthy bite. “H-h-ot,” she said, waving her hand in front of her mouth.

“Yes, steam does generally indicate heat,” I said, quickly pouring her a glass of ice water. I really wasn’t looking to destroy her taste buds. For one thing, her taste buds were kind of our livelihood. For another, well, that just wouldn’t be very nice. And she was being a pretty good sport about the condition of the kitchen.

She chewed thoughtfully for a moment. I watched her curiously—I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking for some sort of validation. She swallowed very deliberately and took a long sip of her water.

After a moment of watching her Adam’s apple bob up and down, my floss-thin thread of patience disintegrated. “What do you think?” I asked.

She cocked her head at me. “Did I taste pesto in there?” she asked.

I nodded proudly. “Homemade. I added it to the cheese and spinach to give it a little kick.”

“Huh,” she said, as though she’d never considered that before. Maybe she hadn’t.
I mean, even restaurant critics hadn’t tasted every single food in the world, right? I mean, that would be, like, a lot of food.

She smiled at me warmly. “What a great idea,” she said. “I love it.”

“Enough to forgive me for trashing the kitchen?” I asked.

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Don’t push your luck, Laine.”

Over the next few days, I put my culinary skills to the test. After all, I’d need to be in top form if I wanted to wow the folks at the rec center. I dug out old recipe books (in perfect shape, since my mother rarely cooked), and slogged my way through them, trying to add my own twist here and there when I could. Sure, there were a few missteps. My enchiladas with mole sauce, for example, were more like enchiladas with mole cement. I had to call for an emergency backup pizza that night. And when I tried to make chocolate chip cookies with white chocolate chips, the entire batch came out so sweet that I nearly went into sugar shock. My goal was to figure out both what I enjoyed cooking most and what I was best at cooking. The interview was Saturday
morning, and I wanted to be 107 percent prepared.

Gradually, I progressed from simpler dishes like pastas and casseroles to more elaborate, elegant fare, like pan-seared lamb chops and pureed parsnip and leeks. And, other than a
tiny
misunderstanding regarding the Cuisinart (Who knew that the plastic thingy had to be securely fastened to the top of the machine when in use?), nothing that I made really seemed all that toxic or dangerous if ingested. I was growing and stretching and learning, which I felt made me the perfect candidate to teach little kiddies how to spruce up their PB and J sandwiches.

I was putting the finishing touches on a goat-cheese tempura salad one evening when my mother walked through the front door.

“The place smells amazing,” she called from the foyer. “What are you making?”

I dashed to meet her. “It’s a salad. Fried goat cheese. But it’s for one,” I admitted guiltily. “You said you weren’t coming home.”

“Muriel was supposed to visit Hype, that new place off Rittenhouse Square that’s billing itself as ’eclectic.’”

Mom shivered. She always says that restaurant critics learn to be wary of terms like “eclectic” or “fusion.” Both are trends that can easily veer off course in the hands of a less skilled professional. “But the opening was delayed by a week.”

I sucked my breath in quickly. The only thing potentially worse than amateur fusion cuisine is a much-delayed restaurant opening. “Wylie Dufresne is the only man who can get away with that,” was my mother’s mantra (he’s some big-time New York City chef).

“Unfortunate,” was all I could muster.

“Tell me about it,” Mom said. She hung her coat up in the hall closet and followed me back into the kitchen. She stuck a finger experimentally into a hunk of goat cheese tempura.

“Excuse me,”
I growled at her playfully. “Has someone forgotten her manners?”

“Your texture is perfect,” Mom said approvingly. “And it’s not too greasy. Well done.”

Okay, then. If she was going to compliment my cooking, then I’d let her poke at my cheese all she wanted.

“I think there’s some leftover lentil soup from last week in the freezer,” I said. “Why
don’t we heat that up, and we can split the salad as a first course?”

“Now you’re talking,” Mom agreed. “I’m so glad that I taught you to share.” She opened up a cabinet and pulled down place settings for the both of us. She smiled at me. “Table for two.”

Two

“So, on a scale of one to ten, how prepared are you for the rec center interview?” Mom asked, pausing for a moment from scarfing down her half of our salad.

“Fourteen,” I said. I winked at her.

“I worry sometimes about your self-esteem.” Mom grinned, so I knew she was joking.

“Yeah, I’ve got too much of it. But the thing is, I’ve been practicing in the kitchen for weeks now. And I’ve done up a bunch of sample menus. I mean, there’s no way I’m not qualified for the gig. I just have to charm the interviewer. Make her want me more than any other qualified candidate.”

“Who’s the interviewer?”

I shrugged. “Nora something. The info is written down somewhere in my bedroom. I’ve been trying to save my mental energy for the interview itself.”

“Fair enough,” my mother said. “Just as long as you give her actual name as much study attention as your whole spiel.”

“I will, I promise.” I took a sip of Diet Coke. “I have to get this job. It’s one of the only gigs I could find that would look good on a college transcript that also pays cold, hard cash.” I wasn’t too proud to admit it; the money actually meant something to me. Most counselor-y sorts of positions were either volunteer or so low-paid that they might as well have been volunteer.

“You know,” Mom began casually, “the Lifestyles section has a pretty tight relationship with the community center. I could probably put in a call—”

I groaned. “Not necessary. I don’t need any favors.” Besides, my last name spoke volumes as it was. Everyone knew about my mother. I figured it was classier to let my family tree speak for itself, rather than to call in a favor.

“Fine with me,” my mother said. “It just
so happens that I’ve got some friends on the Halliday board.”

Halliday is shorthand for the Miles Halliday Community Center. I have no idea who Miles Halliday was, but in addition to a community center, he also at some point seems to have funded a library, a town hall, and a community pool just outside Philly. The last time I’d been to the community center was for gymnastic lessons. I was seven.

“‘Friends on the board?’ Are you part of some sort of Philadelphia culinary mafia?”

She waved her hand at me impatiently. “Sweetie, I know that you’re great in the kitchen, but for this job, you need to be great with kids, too.”

I stared at her in disbelief. “You don’t think the Robinsons would vouch for me?” I’d au paired for them for the past three summers—at the Cabana Club, as a matter of fact.

“I know that you’re great with kids. I’m just saying that it wouldn’t hurt for the folks at Halliday to know too.”

“Hence the References section of the job application,” I reminded my mother.

She nodded at me. “Gotcha. You’ve clearly thought this through.”

I gave her a look.

“Not that I’m surprised,” she added hastily. “You were born prepared.”

Nora Ellwood sounded accommodating enough on the phone, but as it turned out, she and I had very different ideas as to how to interpret the phrase “You can’t miss it.”

For instance, in reference to her office on the second floor of Halliday, what she obviously meant was, “You’ll need a divining rod, a miner’s cap, and possibly a bloodhound to find it.”

Unfortunately, I had none of those things on me, which meant that at 2:16, fully one minute late for our meeting, I was blindly groping my way out of a supply closet and back into the hallway in the direction of a placard marked ROOMS 220-230.

It was
much
more likely that she was somewhere in rooms 220-230 than in the supply closet. So clearly I had a problem. I stepped back out of the supply closet, unsure of what to do next. I really needed to brush up on my navigational skills.

A face framed in salt-and-pepper curls peeped out from one of the offices that dotted the hallway. “Lost?”

I shook my head vigorously. “No.” I blushed. “More like … directionally challenged.”

She laughed. “Laine Harper?”

“That’s me.” How humiliating. I hoped she wouldn’t hold my deficit sense of direction toward my eligibility for this job.

“Come on in.” She waved me toward her.

I followed Nora into her office and seated myself at the proffered chair that sat facing her desk. The room was cluttered, but in a comfortable sort of way. If the place had been big enough for a bed, I could easily have camped out there. Various posters featuring endearing animals and encouraging affirmations adorned the walls alongside dry-erase calendars and multicolored cork boards.

“So, Laine, tell me a little bit about yourself,” she began, smiling kindly at me.

I cleared my throat, the thick, gagging sound filling the room awkwardly. “Um, well, I’m sixteen, and I go to Hillsdale Public—not now, obviously, since it’s the summer, but during the school year, that’s where I go—”

Okay, so I babble when I’m nervous. What of it?

“—and I love to cook, and I love kids. So I think the chance to work with kids and teach them to cook would be the ideal summer job for me.” I finished my spiel and almost hiccupped, I was so out of breath. I was going to have to pace myself if I didn’t want to hyperventilate. I wasn’t exactly screaming professionalism.

Why
hadn’t I let my mother call in a favor?

“Aha,” she said, in a tone that suggested she wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. “And it says here that you’ve been babysitting for the past three years?”

“Yup,” I confirmed. “I’ve done a lot of babysitting. It’s all on the application. I have references. The ages were five, eight, and eleven. The kids’ ages. Not mine.” Obviously.

“Yes, well, these children will be somewhat older,” Nora warned me. “The age range for our beginning class is eleven to thirteen.”

I couldn’t see any real problem with this, so I just blinked involuntarily for a beat and hoped that I was projecting the
vibe of a person qualified to teach cooking to a bunch of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds.

“You realize that preteens are often rowdy? That this position requires a lot of responsibility and hard work?” she pressed.

“Hard work is my middle name.”

(It’s actually Agnes.)

Nora spent what felt like five hours but was probably more like five minutes shuffling a pile of papers around on her desk. It did not look as though there was any rhyme or reason to this shuffling, other than to make me nervous. Which I was. I mean, when I stack and restack big reams of recycling around in my bedroom, it’s usually to make room for my latest project. No one’s employment fate rested on my own semi-obsessive stacking habits. Finally, she seemed to find what she was looking for.

”I understand that your mother is Madison Harper, the chief restaurant critic for the
Tribune.”

“Yes, she was very excited when she heard about this program,” I said.

“Well, I imagine that you will be a wonderful fit here,” she continued, suddenly peering at me as though I were a gnat under the lens of a ginormous microscope. I couldn’t tell
whether my mother’s job was a good thing or a bad thing. If it got me the teaching gig, then I guessed it was a good thing. But Nora looked as though her personal jury was still out, bubbly though she was.

”Great!” I said, perhaps a shade too enthusiastically. I sat ramrod straight in my chair. I quickly adjusted my posture. I mean, I didn’t want to seem
too
desperate or anything, you know?

“I love the idea of teaching latchkey kids to cook for themselves. I was a latchkey kid, you know. So, I mean, I’m pretty familiar with taking basic recipes and jazzing them up a little bit.”

That was what was going to set me apart from the other contenders, I decided. My jazziness in the kitchen. Anyone could fry up a grilled-cheese sandwich; it took a special sort of visionary to use a hunk of Gruyère instead of American cheese slices.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Nora said. “A few details: The ten-week course runs from mid-June to mid-August. The workshops are held on Saturday afternoons, so you should plan to be working through some of your weekends. We also hold a Fourth of July fund-raiser that’s called Fantastic Fourth;
you might have been to one, or heard of it at one point or another. And our summer programming culminates in a carnival that all of our instructors help plan.”

I nodded briskly, trying to convey seriousness and responsibility. “I’m a good planner,” I offered, fully sincere.

“All that’s left, then, is the mock class.”

My back went rigid all over again. “Urn, huh?” I asked. “Mock what?”

I mean, mock
what?
It was my understanding that I had to walk Nora through a lesson plan; teaching a mock class sounded much more involved. And not a little bit scary.

“The class,” Nora repeated patiently. To her credit, she was being very delicate about the fact that I was clearly slow on the uptake. “You’ll need to improvise a class for me and your potential partner.”

Potential
what-ner?
”Who?”

“Your partner,” Nora said. “Who’s already been assigned. We just need to get a sense of how the two of you would interact together.”

This was starting to make a little bit of sense. Not the kind of sense that I was hoping for, where I’d get the job without having to
jump through any major hoops, but, well, you can’t exactly have your cake and eat it too.

And what does that even mean, anyway? Of
course
you can have your cake and eat it too. That’s the whole point of even having cake to begin with.
Unless
it’s a Bundt cake or one of those disgusting fruitcakes with the tiny pieces of chopped nuts that everyone’s always trying to unload on each other around Christmastime, and—

Oh, right. The interview.

“That’s fine,” I lied smoothly. I could always do a little practice session with Anna, who loved it when I went all Rachael Ray on her. “When would we do this?”

She looked at me, puzzled, for a beat. My heart sank. I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.

She smiled at me, perkier than she’d been throughout the interview. “We can do it right now!”

Three

When I wandered into the rec center, I’d had no idea that, if I got this job, I would (1) be working with a partner and (2) be forced to perform in front of said partner before I could officially be offered the job.

And yet.

Here I was, at 2:46 on a Tuesday afternoon, being marched down the hallway at a determined clip, on my way to meet a person, probably the same age as I, whose first impression of me would determine the rest of my summer. Or at least the rest of the day.

Not that I was opposed to working in twos, to be honest. It was just sort of jarring to be told that I’d be paired up with some random who’d been hired ages ago. What if
we hated each other? What if she was someone whose boyfriend I’d actually flirted with at the Cabana Club once upon a time? (This has been known to happen.)

What if she liked fat-free ice cream?

I shuddered. The walls were a blur of finger paintings and fliers about racial diversity. I was starting to feel dizzy. Just as I was about to completely pass out, Nora stopped in front of a set of industrial double doors and pulled them open.

“Here we are,” she said briskly. “The kitchen.”

Holy heck, she really was going to make me cook.

It was a good thing I was so comfortable with culinary improv.

Past the industrial doors, the space was actually a little bit sad. I don’t know what I was expecting, since obviously a community center wouldn’t be tricked out like the set of
Iron Chef
, but what I found here amounted to several long cafeteria-style tables set up to face a bare-bones facsimile of a kitchen.

However.

Dismal as the kitchen itself may have been, there was one thing in that room that was absolutely … breathtaking.

It was my would-be partner.

The she was a he.

A very-super-extra-adorable he.

Eat your heart out, Laine
.

Even my
brain
thought he was out of my league, that’s how adorable he was.

Good grief. How in the name of all that is yummy and fatty and very, very bad for you (e.g., ice cream, cookie dough, and white frosting out of the tub) was I going to be able to audition with this dude evaluating my every move? Nora really should have mentioned his debilitating (to me, that is) level of hotness.

“Laine Harper, this is Seth McFadden.”

I sighed dreamily. Even his name was cute.

“Hi, Laine.” Seth pushed his squeaky folding chair away from the table and stood to shake my hand.

I quickly rubbed my palms against the front of my jeans to shield Seth from what seemed to be a recent-onset glandular problem.

“Hi.” I stuck my hand out and grabbed his. He had a firm handshake, which impressed me. I had a sneaking suspicion that my own handshake was more of a deft
impression of overboiled pasta. Everything about Seth was confident and well put together, but not in any kind of aggressive, macho-y way. He was almost perfect, in fact—as near as I could tell. Meanwhile, I was sweaty, scattered, and completely unprepared. Awesome.

Sweaty, scattered, and unprepared was a familiar sensation. It meant something, beyond the temperature in the room.

It meant I was crushing, hard.

This was totally unacceptable. I had officially sworn off crushes for this summer. (Seriously. Anna made me a plaque on her computer and everything. It was
official.)

“What are you going to be teaching us today, Laine?” Nora asked sweetly as she pulled out a folding chair of her own and made herself comfortable.

This was it. This was the moment of truth. I had perfect confidence that I could teach a class smoothly enough—if only I could decide what I would be teaching. I had visions of tumbleweeds blowing gently across the landscape of my brain. This was ridiculous. After weeks of playing with sample recipes and experimenting in the
kitchen, suddenly the jukebox in my mind read TILT.

Five seconds in the room with a cute guy, and my brain was already mush. Do you see why a crush would be way too distracting? Anyway, how does that saying go? “Fake it until you make it?” That’s what I needed to do.

I had it. I took a deep breath and pasted a confident smile on my face. “I’ve been a latchkey kid since I was eleven,” I explained, “and I taught myself how to take basic dishes and spice them up—put my own personal flair on them. That’s what I’m going to do with you today!”

I felt not unlike an idiot, speaking to a room full of imaginary eleven-year-olds, but I forged ahead determinedly.

“Anyone can make French onion soup,” I continued, “but what about baking and toasting your own croutons?”

Nora cleared her throat and waved her hands at me. “I don’t think fresh-baked croutons are very practical,” she said. “We don’t have a bread machine here, and I don’t think you’ll have enough time in class to wait for dough to rise.”

I nodded shortly. “Check. No bread.”

“Seth? What would you choose?”

Seth pursed his lips together, appearing to think the question through. After a moment of concentration, he sat up.

“Well, I think sandwiches are a good way to go for one of the earlier lessons, since they’re versatile and also easy. I’d start with cold cuts and cheese. Peanut butter and jelly or other standards can be tricky because of food allergies.”

Ooh. I wanted to wipe the smug expression off his face with a butter knife. But he must have been going in the right direction, because Nora was beaming at him like he’d just single-handedly carved a twenty-pound Thanksgiving turkey.

“It’s a great idea to start with sandwiches,” Nora gushed. I may have been a little slow this afternoon, but as a general rule I was no dummy. She was totally into Seth and thought he was an awesome instructor. That annoyed me. I liked to be the teacher’s pet. Gross, but true.

“I think week one would be a quick overview of the course, and a refresher on kitchen safety,” Seth added smugly. Nora nodded so enthusiastically that I was afraid
her head was going to snap off at the base of her neck.

OMG, he was
so
the teacher’s pet.

Obviously, sandwiches were not exactly haute cuisine. Technically, sandwiches aren’t even cooking. I had to admit, that sort of bugged me a little bit. Nora and Seth seemed really into precision, whereas I was a little bit more about shooting from the hip in the kitchen. My creativity was the most important thing that I could bring to my students’ table. And it looked like creativity wasn’t what Nora wanted.

But I decided that didn’t matter. The goal, for now, was to get the job. After all, I needed the experience, and I needed the money. I may have found a deli sandwich to be a sort of … uninspired choice for the class, but I needed to find a way to believe in that sandwich, believe in it to my very core.

And believe in that sandwich I did.

“He really said that?
Kitchen safety?”

Anna and I were camped out at Scoops, a local ice cream parlor set up like an old-fashioned soda shop. You know, one of those places that spell it with the extra letters:
SODA SHOPPE. Despite the fact that Anna’s day job had not gotten any easier since the last time I had seen her, my own dire circumstances made an emergency rehash necessary.

Besides, I was doing most of the talking.

“He really did,” I confirmed, slurping forlornly at my root beer float. I narrowed my eyes. “And he disagreed with my choice to teach French onion soup, too. Why, Anna?” I pushed my float away from me and leaned into her, grasping at the collar of her terry-cloth hoodie—
”Why
would someone want to sabotage me that way?”

Anna took a second to pry my vicelike fingers off her person. “I don’t know, Laine,” she replied, pushing me back. “I wasn’t there.”

“But you admit that it’s weird?” I pressed.

Anna sighed. She knew we weren’t going anywhere until she told me what I wanted to hear. “It’s weird,” she agreed, “unless—”

“No, no ’unless’!” I shrieked. A couple at the booth next to us shot me a look. “No ’unless,’” I repeated, this time at a more reasonable volume. “It’s just weird.”

”Unless,”
Anna continued firmly, “he wasn’t trying to sabotage you. I mean,
maybe he just really thinks that cold cuts are the foundation of a healthy latchkey diet.”

“He’s just hot enough to sell that crazy theory, too.” The whole experience had made me extremely flustered and a little bit bitter.

Anna nodded. “That might have something to do with your panic too,” she suggested. “The hotness.”

I snorted. “Unlikely.” She was talking nonsense. I paused for a beat. “How so?” Okay, so I was slightly curious. Can you blame me?