Authors: Melody Mayer
In memory of my great-grandfather,
“You are just so … white,” Jorge Valdez teased as Kiley McCann chewed her first bite of huevos rancheros
—fried eggs on floury tortillas, with chiles and sautéed Pacific shrimp—definitely the most interesting thing she'd ever had for breakfast. It was so far afield from her usual Cream of Wheat or a toasted English muffin with jelly.
Kiley managed to sputter through her mouthful of eggs.
“You should see your face,” Jorge went on, grinning. “It's priceless. Like a little girl on Christmas morning who just got a pony.”
girl,” Kiley corrected, sipping some orange juice and digging in for another bite. She knew he was teasing her, and didn't really mind at all. “What can I tell you? It's the best thing I ever tasted.”
Kiley sipped her coffee and looked around Bettina's Café, which, according to Jorge, was the best breakfast joint in all of Echo Park. This Los Angeles neighborhood was known for its high crime rate, gangs, and drive-by shootings.
was the lingua franca, and Kiley was the only white person in the place.
Bettina's might as well have been ten thousand light-years from Kiley's birthplace of La Crosse, Wisconsin—home of the world's largest six-pack. Her father worked at the La Crosse Brewery and drank too much. Her mother was a waitress who was prone to panic attacks. The closest they'd ever come in their gustatory experience to what she was experiencing at the moment was the Taco Bell next to the La Crosse Wal-Mart.
“So, it's good, eh?” Jorge sat across from Kiley in one of Bettina's utilitarian orange plastic chairs. He was seventeen, just like Kiley. Skinny, of medium height with surprisingly broad shoulders, Jorge had very high cheekbones and amazing deep-set eyes the color of light just before dawn. They shone with intelligence and kindness. He had certainly been kind to Kiley, considering he barely knew her. In fact, she'd met him for the first time the night before.
Now she was living with him.
To make matters even more surreal, her maybe-in-the-process-of-becoming-boyfriend, Tom Chappelle, had been the one who dropped her off at Jorge's house. Tom had seemed to size Jorge up, as if Jorge could turn out to be a romantic rival. Or maybe that was all Kiley's imagination; the way she wanted
things to be. Tom was a freaking
, for God's sake. A famous model. And she was plain old Kiley McCann from Wisconsin. Pretty much on a daily basis she asked herself why Tom was dating her. His former girlfriend, she knew, was a supermodel like him.
From the moment Kiley had met Tom at the Hotel Bel-Air, all she could think of was Brad Pitt in
Thelma and Louise
, a movie from the eighties that she and her mother loved to rent and watch together. Brad Pitt in that movie was the sexiest guy on the planet. That was one of the few things upon which she and her mom agreed.
Tom's face and torso were currently gracing dozens of billboards all over Los Angeles, including a fifty-foot one directly above Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where he wore nothing but Calvin Klein boxers and an “I want you” look on his chiseled face. Thousands—hundreds of thousands!—of Los Angelenas were currently lusting after the blond-haired billboard guy in the blue boxers. That makeup-free, not-exactly-skinny Kiley McCann from La Crosse, Wisconsin, was with him was bizarre. That Tom would consider any other guy competition was insane.
It has to be all in my imagination
, Kiley decided.
Her eyes went to Jorge as she swallowed a bite of shrimp. He wasn't nearly in Tom's league in the looks department. Still, there was just something about this guy. A presence. A stillness in the midst of the chaotic restaurant. She could definitely see why girls would be attracted to him. Not
, of course.
“You're looking at me like you're about to eat me for breakfast,” he commented.
Kiley blushed. “Oh, sorry. Lost in thought.” She took
another bite of huevos rancheros. “This is so good. Can we come back for lunch?”
She was gratified when he nodded. She looked around the restaurant. The place was small—no more than ten tables—and seemed even smaller because of how jammed it was. The digital Dos Equis clock read 10:30 a.m., but an overflow crowd was enjoying a late breakfast. There were lots of families and couples, their flirting and joking a loud Spanish counterpart to the salsa-format radio station piped through the sound system. As for the décor, Bettina's decorations were unlike any that Kiley had ever seen in an eating establishment: the walls were plastered with posters for soccer teams like Real Madrid, while twinkling Christmas lights hung at uneven intervals across the pale green walls.
Kiley had a sudden realization: she and Jorge were the only two people in the place speaking English. Jorge seemed to pick up on her thoughts.
“So you're a gringa.” He shrugged and took a sip
— a delicious cold rice-based drink he'd made Kiley taste. “They do let white people in here,” he said with a straight face. “Then we beat the hell out of them and rob them.”
Kiley gulped. With her auburn hair in a messy ponytail and her fresh-scrubbed face, no-name jeans, and a La Crosse High School T-shirt, she knew that she was conspicuous. As a girl, she was an easy mark. Not that she had anything for anyone to steal.
“Hey, I'm teasing you,” Jorge said. “Don't worry so much.”
“I wasn't,” Kiley fibbed.
How she had come to this moment seemed dreamlike, since three weeks ago she had been an ordinary girl in ordinary La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Things started to change when she entered a reality-TV show competition to become the live-in nanny for rock superstar Platinum's three kids. She had no real interest in the job, or in becoming a reality-show celebrity but she did have a huge motivation to become a California resident. It was the first step in a master plan that would allow her to apply to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and be eligible for in-state tuition. Scripps was her dream school, but the cost if you were out of state was out of sight. As for a college fund, Kiley had none. Neither of her parents had attended college, and they hadn't given much thought to planning for Kiley.
The miracle was, Kiley had actually ended up as nanny to Platinum's three kids.
Her dad always said that if something seemed too good to be true it probably was, and the disintegration of Kiley's dreams had begun twelve hours ago. Platinum, her boss, had been arrested. Her crime had been to leave drugs in a place where her children could get to them … and they had. Not only had Platinum been jailed for drug possession and child endangerment, but the kids—Serenity (age seven), Sid (age nine), and Bruce (age fourteen)—had been removed from the home by the California Department of Social Services. Calling the children's dad wasn't an option. Each had been fathered by a different guy; Platinum stayed absolutely mum about their identities. For that matter, so did the fathers. Almost as bad as the arrest itself was that Platinum's entire Bel Air estate had been declared a crime scene. Kiley had been given fifteen minutes to gather her belongings and get out.
It was only by the luckiest of breaks that one of Kiley's new friends in Los Angeles, another nanny named Esme Castaneda,
had found a temporary place for Kiley to stay … back in Esme's old neighborhood of Echo Park, in the bungalow-style home of Esme's best friend, Jorge, and his family. Which was how Kiley had come to live with Jorge. Well, in Jorge's house, anyway.
She was overwhelmingly grateful to Jorge's parents, but still she knew she was living on borrowed time. It was only with great reluctance that Jeanne McCann had permitted Kiley to take the job with Platinum. If and when Mrs. McCann heard the news about Platinum, news that would surely be in the papers and on TV she would demand that Kiley return to Wisconsin. And that, Kiley knew, would be that.
No California. No Scripps.
Kiley had tried to head off the inevitable—even mailed a letter home that morning full of lies about how she was still living in Platinum's guesthouse and how Platinum would be home soon, begging her mother not to believe everything that was reported on TV Now, with her head cleared by Bettina's strong coffee, Kiley realized what a feeble effort that had been. Her mom might not be highly educated, but she wasn't stupid.
Jorge swiped a napkin across his mouth. “It'll be okay Kiley,” he reassured her, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I know. Think of yourself as an exchange student.”
She laughed—a bit of gallows humor. “Stranger in a strange land, more like.”
“Get used to it. If we're going to find you a job at La Verdad, you're going to have to. And bone up on your Spanish.”
Kiley sighed. “I took French.”
Jorge said, grinning. “But it's no use to either one of us around here.” He sipped his drink again. “After this, we'll go see Geraldo, okay?”
Geraldo was the manager of La Verdad coffeehouse, a place that served coffee and
all day and light meals in the evening. Jorge and his group, the Latin Kings, sometimes performed there. If Kiley was going to stay in Los Angeles, she'd need a job, and that job was obviously not going to be as Platinum's nanny. Waitressing seemed her best and—in this town where eating out was an art form—possibly only option.
Kiley stirred her coffee. “I don't know why you're being so nice to me.”
He draped an arm over the back of his chair and gave her a bemused look. “Why, people usually treat you like crap?”
She flushed. “No, it's just…Jorge, you barely know me.”
“You're Esme's friend. Esme is my homegirl,” he said simply. “Well, she used to be, anyway.”
Something flitted across his face that Kiley couldn't quite read. Anger? Irritation? Disappointment?
“Are you mad at her for taking the nanny job in Bel Air?”
“She's smart and hardheaded and does what she wants to do.” He sucked down the last of his
“But this …” He swept his hand around the room. “These are her people. She doesn't have to give that up to make it out of the Echo.”
“Is that what you think she's doing by working for the Gold-hagens?” Kiley asked, surprised. “Giving it up?”
“You know her for what? Two weeks?” He wiped off his hands and tossed the blue paper napkin onto the table. “I don't expect you to understand, Kiley,” he said, not unkindly. “It's not your world.”
Well, that much was certainly true. Her world was—had been—as boring and colorless as a cold Wisconsin day when the snow was three days old and covered with a fine layer of
soot. Still, she could understand a little about a person wanting to leave something behind. With every fiber of her girl-next-door being, Kiley did not want to go back to her old world.
Kiley studied Jorge for a moment. Interesting. Something about the way he said Esme's name, the syllables melting on his tongue like something delicious—chocolate, maybe. She wondered if Jorge loved Esme. If he did, she also wondered why Esme didn't love Jorge back. Surely his quiet self-confidence, brains, charm and—yes—sexiness couldn't be lost on her when they were so obvious to Kiley.
Of course, if Esme
see Jorge that way, it would complicate an already ridiculously complex situation. Not only did Esme have a boyfriend, a guy named Junior who was a gangbanger-turned-paramedic; she also had a
boyfriend—Jonathan Goldhagen, the extremely hot son of her extremely rich and famous employer.
“Esme is my best friend,” Jorge went on, as if reading Kiley's mind. “You know about Junior?”
Kiley nodded. She'd even met him.
“Junior is decent,” Jorge continued, “I can't say he isn't. But he isn't good for Esme. All his status, everything he is, is tied up in the life.”
“The life?” Kiley echoed.
“Gang life,” Jorge clarified. “I know he's not a banger anymore. But still—”
“¿Jorge, que hay, flaco? ¿Qué pasa contigo?”
A pretty girl with a glistening waterfall of inky hair, who was wearing an orange halter top, orange miniskirt, and matching high-heeled orange pleather boots leaned a hip against their table. Her eyes flicked to Kiley.
“No mucho, guapa,”
Jorge replied in Spanish at least as fluent as his English.
“Escuchas, quiero presentarte a una amiga, Kiley.”
“Mucho gusto, Kiley,”
the girl intoned, coolly looking Kiley over.
Even Kiley could understand that she'd just been introduced, and that the girl's name was Blanca.
“Hi,” Kiley said.
Blanca's eyes flicked over Kiley again, then went back to Jorge. “You coming to Brenda's party tonight, Jorge?” This was in English, presumably for Kiley's benefit.
“I might,” Jorge replied.
She leaned over, giving Jorge a full view of what Kiley could see was a burnt orange silk push-up bra. “I see you there,
Kiley caught the promise of something more in her voice. Blanca straightened up, licked her lips, then swung her way out of the restaurant.