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The Ruse

The Ruse

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What’s the first rule of getting the lead in the school musical? Don’t fall for your bad-boy co-star.

Main Tropes

  • Bad Boy
  • Mystery to Solve
  • One Bed
  • Steamy-Clean Kisses
  • Forbidden Romance
  • Love Triangle
  • Debutante Ball
  • Snowed In
  • He Keeps Her Warm

Synopsis

What’s the first rule of getting the lead in the school musical? Don’t fall for your bad-boy co-star.

When Elyse Cohen gets the lead in her school’s winter musical, she thinks it’s a dream come true. That is, until she finds out she’s playing opposite Asher Park—the bad boy rumored to have been involved in the mysterious disappearance of his ex last spring. Soon, what seemed like a dream role has her worried she’ll be the next girl to get close to her enigmatic co-star and go missing.

After getting run out of the only home he had left, the last thing Asher wants is to return to Eden Falls Academy. But since a theater scholarship is his only hope for getting into a good college, he returns halfway through the school year to face the rumors swirling around him. As long as he keeps his head down and continues the ruse he started the year before, he might make it to graduation without too many scars.

He never anticipated Elyse in any of his plans.

But as the pair play love interests on stage and sparks ignite, the less Elyse wants to believe the rumors about Asher. And even though Asher knows letting people close leaves him vulnerable to being burned, he finds himself wanting to tell Elyse all his secrets.

Chapter One Look Inside

“Ready for your first Thanksgiving with your father?” Mom asked when we stood on the doorstep of the Hastings’ family estate, hesitating just a moment before we rang the doorbell.

“I guess,” I said, even though a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttered in my chest. “At least, I guess I’d better be since it’s happening right now.”

Mom stepped closer and put an arm around my shoulder, pulling me close. “It will be great.”

But even as she said it, a look of apprehension filled her dark-brown eyes.

Which should have been expected.

While Ava, my identical twin sister, and I were still getting used to the idea of Dr. Brendon Aarden, a world renown neurosurgeon, being our father—after not knowing who he was for the first seventeen years of our lives—my mom was probably a little more nervous than I was right now. She’d be eating dinner with not only one of her high school exes but two—Joel Hastings, Brendon’s neighbor and best friend, was hosting the meal with his wife Dawn.

“Should we ring the doorbell then?” I asked, glancing down at my mom who was several inches shorter than my five-foot-nine-inch height.

“Let me just take another deep breath.” Mom inhaled through her nose and released it slowly. Then she pulled her shoulders back and stood a little straighter in her black Jimmy Choos, the skirt of her navy-blue dress swishing around her knees. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

I transferred the apple pie we’d brought to my left hand and reached out to press the doorbell.

While we waited for someone to answer the door, I looked up at the gigantic stone country house that my friends Cambrielle, Nash, and Carter Hastings lived in. 

When I’d first come to the Hastings’ mansion in September after starting my senior year at Eden Falls Academy, I’d been in awe of the house. My grandparents, who were very well-to-do in Israel, had a pretty-good-sized house that I’d visited during a few summer vacations growing up, but it had nothing on this place with its gray stone exterior, dozens of windows with white shutters, and tall white columns that held up the portico above us.

Did I mention that Mr. and Mrs. Hastings were billionaires? And that their home and grounds could fit right in with Mr. Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice?

Yeah. They were crazy rich.

And even though hanging out with the top one percent in the country was becoming more normal since most of the kids at my private school came from money, it hadn’t always been that way for us. My mom’s career as a fashion designer hadn’t taken off until this past year.

The door opened, bringing my attention back to what was in front of me. In the entryway stood a woman with dark-brown hair and brown eyes: Mrs. Dawn Hastings.

I’d expected one of the many staff members to answer the door, since they usually answered it whenever Ava and I came by, but the Hastings must have given all their staff the holiday off.

“Welcome,” Mrs. Hastings said, stepping back and gesturing for my mom and me to come in. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Thanks,” Mom said, nodding her head slightly at the woman who had married her high school sweetheart. “We appreciate you inviting us.”

And if Mrs. Hastings felt any sort of threat at having her husband’s old girlfriend joining them for Thanksgiving dinner, it didn’t show. She just smiled warmly at us and said, “Any family of Brendon and Mack is our family, too.” 

Family.

It was still so weird to have Brendon and Mack as part of what had always just been my mom, Ava, and me.

“If you’d like to hang your coat in the closet, it’s just right there.” Mrs. Hastings pointed to the closet door to our right. 

“Thank you,” Mom said, already slipping out of the fitted wool coat she’d gotten on a recent trip to Paris. She hung her coat inside, and then I handed her the apple pie box so I could hang mine beside hers in the closet.

“Anyway, if you wanted to join the adults in the kitchen, we’re still waiting on the turkey,” Mrs. Hastings said to my mom. Then looking at me, she said, “And I think most of the kids are upstairs, if you want to go up and find them.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

I glanced back at my mom to make sure she was fine with me leaving her with the people she hadn’t been close to since high school.

“Go ahead and find your friends and sister,” Mom said with a look that told me she was going to be fine.

“Okay,” I said. The two women disappeared around the corner, my mom carrying the pie with her. 

I was about to head up the grand staircase to find my friends when the sound of a piano playing a familiar tune caught my attention. I stopped with one foot on the bottom stair and listened, picking out the melody of “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera musical.

Was that Nash playing the piano?

I hadn’t heard of him being a pianist, but if anyone in this house would know that specific song, it would be him, since he was set to play the Phantom in our school’s upcoming winter musical. He had been immersing himself in the music for the past few months leading up to auditions.

When the drama teacher posted the cast list for the musical two days ago, I’d been nervous that my being new to the school might hurt my chances of being cast as the female lead, since she hadn’t seen me in the productions at my old school in Ridgewater, New York. The part of Christine was such a demanding role, and so casting someone she hadn’t seen perform in front of an audience could be considered a big risk. 

But Miss Crawley had apparently been okay with taking a risk on the new girl, because when my eyes scanned down the list Tuesday afternoon, my name was next to the role of Christine Daaé.

I had been so relieved and happy. Because while I hadn’t dressed up like the character for Halloween the way Nash had dressed up like the Phantom, I had wanted that part just as badly.

I’d dreamed of playing Christine on Broadway ever since I watched the 2004 movie version with my mom in our tiny living room in Ridgewater. And while the stage at Eden Falls Academy was an hour-long train ride from Broadway, it felt almost as cool to get the part.

The music continued to drift down the hallway to my right, so I decided to follow it to see if it was Nash playing the piano in his family’s music room.

I’d gotten a little bit of a crush on my blond-haired, blue-eyed friend as we’d hung out the past few weeks. There was nothing more attractive than a musician to me. I wanted to catch a glimpse of him playing so I could add it to my little mental file of moments when Nash was looking extra hot.

The music grew louder as I approached. After glancing around to make sure no one was around to watch me spy on Nash, I leaned closer to the small opening in the door and peeked my head inside to take a look.

Only, instead of finding Nash like I’d expected, it was a guy with jet-black hair and broad shoulders sitting on the piano bench with his back to me.

Who was this? A cousin of the Hastings, perhaps? Someone from Mrs. Hastings’ side since she had the dark hair, maybe?

I hadn’t heard of them inviting their extended family today, but it was Thanksgiving, so it made sense that they would, I guess.

I was about to head back the way I’d come—I didn’t want to be the creepy stalker girl who spied on strangers—when the melody shifted into something much more complex. Instead of continuing to follow the tune of “Think of Me,” it evolved into “All I Ask of You.” 

I paused and listened to the guy at the piano play the elaborate arrangement, and as cold chills raced up my arms, all I could think of was, wow. As the music swelled at my favorite part of the melody—the part where Raoul and Christine sing about wanting to always go where the other went—another wave of chills flowed from the crown of my head and all the way down to my toes.

Who was this guy playing the piano? And where had he found this arrangement? I’d never heard anything so beautiful—I felt like it was speaking to my soul.

The music came down from the big crescendo, softened, and then slowed, becoming more simplified as it returned to the original melody. As I waited for his fingers to play the last long note, I found myself holding my breath.

It wasn’t until the stranger at the piano lifted his hands from the keyboard of the grand piano that I realized where I was. The music had temporarily transported me away from reality.

But when he started to swivel his body around on the piano bench, I knew that if I didn’t move away from the crack in the door in the next instant, I would be caught spying on him.

I quickly pulled away from the opening in the doorway and took a few steps back. I was just turning around to run back the way I’d come when my butt bumped against a fancy side table along the wall. I watched in horror as a vase of fresh flowers wobbled, but my reflexes were quick, and I stopped it just before it could tip over.

Crisis averted, I sighed with relief. The relief only lasted a split second though, because just when I was about to dart down the hall like a kid who’d just stolen some chocolate from her grandma’s candy jar, I heard the sound of someone stepping onto the marble floor behind me.

So much for not getting caught and looking like a creeper.

Even though I knew I’d been seen, I still considered running down the hall anyway. I could just pretend it was my identical twin sister who had been doing the creeping, if this guy were to ask around later, right?

But before I could flee, a deep voice behind me said, “I see they sent the new girl to spy on the enemy.”

Busted.

Then I processed what he’d said.

Had he just called himself the enemy? And hinted that my friends had sent me to spy on him? So did that mean the Hastings’ siblings weren’t friends with this cousin of theirs?

I planned to ask the guy what he meant by his statement…right up until I turned around and saw his face. 

And suddenly, all I could think was, Holy heck, this guy is hot.

I mean, he’d looked pretty good from behind while playing the piano. He had broad shoulders, a muscular build, a long torso that made me assume he was taller than average for a guy—always a bonus for a tall girl like me. And his black hair was slightly curly and tousled in a way that I loved.

But from the front… From the front, he was basically the kind of guy who every girl from the ages of twelve to sixty would leave their boyfriend or husbands for if he asked.

I swallowed as I took him in, momentarily wondering if he was even real because I had never seen anyone so physically attractive in my entire life.

Which was saying something, since Eden Falls seemed to be a breeding ground for the world’s most beautiful people.

This guy had a jawline that could cut glass; his light tan skin was smooth and almost glowed. His eyebrows were dark, bold, and defined. 

Everything about him was gorgeous.

But it was his large, hooded eyes that made me lose all coherent thoughts when they locked with mine. Because while his eyes were dark brown—a completely normal color for eyes—there was something in them that instantly drew me in. There was almost a dangerous quality to them.

Something that made me think he had secrets. 

But that was a strange thought to have about a complete stranger, wasn’t it? To assume someone had secrets from one look in their hypnotizing eyes.

Stop staring at him, Elyse, I told myself.

I pressed my eyes closed for a moment. Forcing my brain to remember that it knew how to say words, I said, “S-sorry if it looked like I was spying on you. I wasn’t. I just heard the music and I had to see who was playing…” I shrugged. “You’re really good.”

“Oh, that?” He glanced behind him at the music room, and then back at me. “I was just playing around.”

“That was ‘playing around?’” 

If that was the case, what did it sound like when he was being serious?

“Yeah.” He narrowed his eyes like he was uncomfortable. “Just testing out the Hastings’ piano while I wait for dinner. Is there something wrong with that?”

“N-no. I’m sure it’s fine,” I hurried to say, even though I really didn’t know if the Hastings had rules on who could and couldn’t touch their piano. “I-I’m Elyse, by the way.”

I held my hand out for him to shake, but he just stared at it like he was confused about what to do with it. He lifted his gaze to meet my eyes, and with a frown on his perfectly shaped lips, he said, “I thought you said your name was Ava. Now you’re Elyse?”

Ohhhh. Okay. So that was why he looked confused. He thought I was my twin.

Ava had come over early to hang out with her boyfriend Carter, while my mom and I had opted for a slower morning in my mom’s hotel suite. This guy must have met Ava already. And since we looked identical—even our own mother sometimes got confused about who was who when we dressed and did our hair alike—I could see how it could be confusing.

Especially if he didn’t know Ava had a twin.

“Ava is my sister. I’m her twin, Elyse Cohen.”

“Oh.” The guy whose name I still didn’t know nodded his head slowly. “That makes sense, I guess. I thought it was weird that you changed outfits.” His gaze slowly ran up and down my body, taking in my clothes.

And not for the first time, I wished that I’d taken more after my fashion-savvy mother. Instead of wearing an amazing dress like Ava had worn when she’d left with Carter this morning, I’d gone for the comfortable route with a simple sage-green T-shirt and plain jeans.

But I couldn’t magically snap my fingers and have a better outfit appear, so I shrugged and said, “Nah, I like to keep things simple.”

He seemed to study me for a moment, as if trying to compare me with whatever opinion he’d formed of my sister earlier. Then he said, “So, if you’re not the girl I met earlier, I’m guessing this means Carter and Nash didn’t send you to spy on me and report back.” He arched a dark eyebrow.

“No?” I frowned, remembering his initial greeting when he’d assumed I was spying on the enemy. “W-why would you think that?”

He rolled his broad shoulders back and sighed. “Ah, it’s nothing.”

But it didn’t seem like nothing.

Who was this guy, and why did he think Carter and Nash would have it out for him when he was at their house for Thanksgiving?

Didn’t people usually spend the holidays with people they liked?

But then again, he was downstairs all by himself while the rest of the people our age were upstairs.

“Are you related to the Hastings?” I asked. “Is that why you’re visiting today?”

“Naw, we’re not related,” he said. “My brother is buddies with Ian and got me an invite.”

“Your brother is Mr. Park?” I asked, knowing my AP Chemistry teacher was close friends with the oldest Hastings’ sibling after seeing them hang out on a few occasions.

“Yeah, I’m Asher.” He nodded. “Asher Park.”

And even though I’d never met him in person and hadn’t known what he looked like before this afternoon, this was not the first time I’d heard his name.

I swallowed. The short conversation I’d had with Nash after the cast list had been posted came to mind. Nash told me that the guy our drama instructor had cast as Raoul was someone I should be careful around. Someone who didn’t have a reputation for being a good guy.

Asher’s eyes tightened when he saw my reaction to hearing his name. With a slow nod, he said, “So, you have heard of me then.”

“Y-yes,” I said. And when his expression fell further, I hurried to add, “Not much though. Just, um, well, Miss Crawley said you’re coming back to the school and playing Raoul.” 

Which was true. She had said that.

In fact, she’d given such a glowing review of Asher, saying that he was a talented genius when it came to acting, that her description of him had basically been the opposite of the few things Nash had mentioned.

“Miss Crawley was talking to you about me?” Asher’s dark eyebrows knitted together. “Why?”

“Because I saw your name on the cast list she posted and asked who you were.”

“You’re in the musical, too?”

“Yes.” I nodded, my cheeks warming. “I-I’ll be playing Christine.”

Something seemed to flicker in his eyes at my mention of playing the female lead who also happened to be Raoul’s love interest. I didn’t have a chance to decide whether it was a disappointed look or not, because in the next moment, Nash came around the corner. And when Nash’s blue eyes caught on Asher and me standing together, a scowl instantly formed on his face.

Okay, so maybe they really were enemies.

Instead of acknowledging Asher like I expected, Nash just looked at me and said, “I was wondering when you’d show up. How long have you been here?”

“Just a few minutes,” I said. Then, to acknowledge the elephant in the room, I glanced back at the boy behind me and said, “I, um, ran into Asher and we were just getting to know each other.”

Only then did Nash’s gaze go to Asher. When their gazes locked, Asher folded his arms across his chest and stood to his full height, which had to be somewhere in the neighborhood of six-foot-two—an inch or two taller than Nash.

And from that one move, I knew that Nash was not the only one of these two guys who didn’t like the other.

Which was so strange. Nash was like the sweetest, friendliest guy, and everyone at school liked him as far as I could tell. But it looked like these two had some serious beef with each other. 

I really didn’t want to get caught in the middle of their rivalry, so I turned to Nash and asked, “You said everyone was upstairs?”

He turned his bright blue eyes back to me. “Yes. We were just starting a new round of Secret Hitler and hoping you were here to join us.”

“I love that game,” I said with a smile. Secret Hitler was a board game where each player had a hidden identity, and the goal was to figure out who the good and bad guys were—kind of like Mafia. As someone who usually abided by the rules and always tried to make good choices, it was fun to pretend to be the bad guy and trick everyone for once. The actress in me thrived on these types of games because then I could let my walls come down.

“That’s why I came to find you,” Nash said with his signature charming smile—the smile that had been making my heart do somersaults in my chest more often than not lately.

I was about to follow Nash down the hall to join everyone upstairs when I noticed a slight slump in Asher’s shoulders. “Do you want to play Secret Hitler with us?” I offered. Even though it wasn’t my house or my game, it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” His gaze went to Nash who had already turned and started toward the staircase. “I was just going to see where my brother and Ian were anyway.”

I was pretty sure this had more to do with whatever issues he and Nash had, but I decided to let it drop—I was new to Eden Falls and I really had no idea what was going on between these two guys.

So I gave Asher a half-smile and said, “I guess I’ll see you later then.”

He nodded, his brown eyes seeming to take me in for a moment before he said, “It was nice to meet you, Elyse.” He emphasized my name in a way that told me he was making a note to remember that I was a twin and different from my sister whom he’d mistaken me for earlier. 

“It was nice to meet you too, Asher.” 

“Glad to hear I made a good first impression,” he said. He paused, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to say his next words, pressing his lips together. Then he added, “We’ll see whether you think it was nice to meet me or not after your friends fill you in.”

“O-okay.” I frowned as I studied him once more, wondering what this guy’s story must be.

But since it was weird to keep standing there staring at this guy who didn’t seem interested in expounding on his cryptic comments, I turned and followed in the direction Nash had gone. As I walked up the marble staircase to the second story, I couldn’t help but wonder who this Asher Park guy was and why he expected me to automatically dislike him.

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