chapter 20 - why don't you stay for dinner?

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ACE

"Alright, son." My father says, shuffling around legal documents and court materials spread across his desk. "We're going forward with the law suit with Mr. Caldwell's help."

"Are you guys best friends all of a sudden?" I ask with a hint of suspicion. His trust in Mr. Caldwell's expertise feels convenient. It seems that this whole thing is going according to my dad's plan—dating a scholarship student with good grades and her dad, who's a lawyer.

My dad shoots me a sharp look, his brow raising at my tone. "I'm just helping him with another case, is all." He snaps the file shut a little too forcefully, clearly not wanting to elaborate.

"Didn't he lose a case to the Richards?" I press. I didn't care about it before, but now I'm a bit curious. This was all public news—an article that I read about Caldwell & Associates Legal Group, who got trounced by the lawyers representing Richards Finance Group. Apparently, the Caldwell Group took a major media beating after that, and everyone had something negative to say.

They also say there's going to be an appeal. Did Elle say something to my dad? Is Mr. Caldwell using my dad to help him with the Richards case and get his company back on its feet? Why would Dad know something about the case?

Either way, everyone knows the Richards' MO. They're aggressive, ruthless, and sore losers. They'll fight tooth and nail to rewrite the ending. Maybe that explains the entire Richards family's behavior.

"Let's just say the case with the Richards wasn't exactly a clear-cut defeat."

His response is more confirmation than denial—there's definitely something going on. If Mr. Caldwell isn't the one pulling the strings here, then why is Dad so damn invested in helping him? Is this his way of buttering up Elle's father—a weird thank you for agreeing to the whole fake-dating contract?

"Is he going to be able to win my case after that loss?"

"Mr. Caldwell is a well-respected lawyer. He may have had a setback with that case, but that doesn't negate his experience." Dad defends. "You know the media doesn't always tell the whole story. Sometimes, they focus on sensationalism over facts. Mr. Caldwell may not have won the case in court, but that doesn't mean he won't get justice for his client."

I clench my jaw. If only you'd seen my dating scandal headlines the same way, Dad, is what I want to say. The hypocrisy stings. After this blows over, I hope he'll realize how wrong he was to react the way he did. Maybe that's why I let him take some control. He's not happy the case is going forward, but he's willing to help me with the case. It doesn't seem like he's 100 percent certain of my words. He just hopes I'm telling the truth.

Dad tells me a little more about the process and says we'll have a meeting with Mr. Caldwell and his team to go over details and proof. If only there was some way to get this woman to fess up, I wouldn't have to go through this whole thing. It's a waste of time. I'd rather throw all my energy into faking this relationship with Elle. The kiss with Elle at Justin's place was impulsive, but I couldn't put Cassie on mute when she kept telling people Elle and Justin would look better together.

My father and I step out of his office, the smell of food wafting all the way down the hall to where we are. We both exchange a knowing glance—tonight is a Marcello night, our personal chef. The thing is, my mom isn't that skilled as a cook. Sometimes Jade and I would stall or use any excuse we could come up with to get out of eating. Something could be overly salted, or stir-fry could resemble charcoal more than vegetables.

Following Dad into the kitchen, I glance down at my phone, a new text from Justin catching my eye.

Justin: You should bring Elle to the game tomorrow.

He's been mentioning Elle an awful lot lately. He even mentioned he might finally give The Walking Dead a shot because Elle "highly recommended" it. Funny, considering he always seemed uninterested when I'd turn on the show when he'd come over. He's more into the mindless comedy of The Office or Family Guy.

He's my best friend, the one person I can usually tell anything to. But this secret feels too fragile to share. It's easier to keep the contract under control when fewer people know. Just like everyone else, he believes what I said during the press conference. I filled in the missing blanks when he asked more about it, building a believable backstory on the fly, and thankfully, he didn't push much harder.

But why would he want Elle to come to the game?

"Thank you for cooking, Elle." My mom chirps, the mention of Elle's name pulling my eyes away from my phone screen. My mom is looking at me with a smug smile before turning her attention back to Elle. At the stove, Elle stirs a pot full of red sauce. Her hair is twisted up in a messy bun.

"Elle, good to see you." My dad says. "How'd you end up being the chef tonight?"

Elle glances up, a genuine smile lighting up her face as she greets him. "You too, Mr. Daniels," she replies. But then her eyes dart over to me, and the smile fades instantly. Recovering quickly, she shrugs and looks back at my dad. "I just mentioned that I enjoy cooking." Her voice trails off playfully, but a subtle tension lingers in her posture.

Jade and my 3-year-old sister, Giselle, sit at the island, giggling as they swipe crayons through a coloring book. The carefree laughter only makes the silence between us feel heavier. Dad takes a seat at the head of the dinner table with a hearty sigh. I linger for a moment, sliding my phone in my pocket, before shuffling over and taking my usual spot at the table.

"I have to get home for dinner." Elle sets the ladle to the side with a clatter.

"Why don't you stay for dinner?" My mom cut in, her voice laced with honeyed persuasion. "It's only fair since you cooked. Besides," she adds, a knowing smile playing on her lips, "we have to make plans for you and your mom to share cooking secrets."

Elle seems unsure, her gaze darting between me and my mom. But under my mom's pleading look, which can melt glaciers, Elle gives a hesitant nod. "Alright, I'll stay."

She's acting like a scared rabbit again.

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