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The Secret Life of a Dream Girl
By Tracy Deebs, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Tracy Deebs
All rights reserved.
Huh. So this is what a high school dance looks like.
Interesting that it's both exactly — and nothing — like I expected.
I know it's crazy that I've made it to the ripe old age of seventeen without ever going to one of these things, but there you have it. Even girls who look like they have it all, don't. And those who look like they've done it all ... well, they actually haven't. No matter what people say about them. No matter what they say about themselves.
I should know.
I've spent the last seven of my seventeen years having all variety of untrue things said about me, all while I smile and pretend it doesn't matter. Sometimes — a lot of times — I even go along with it. At least when my father tells me to.
It's just a small sacrifice, he says. Just something to keep me interesting. Just something to put up with in exchange for "having it all." Of course, that's easy for him to say — he's not the one making the sacrifices.
Then again, that's why I'm here, at NextGen Academy. So that I don't have to make those sacrifices anymore, either. Just other ones.
I'm still waiting to see if they're harder ones.
But I don't want to think about any of that now, not when I'm finally free. And not when I finally have a chance to be normal — even if it's just for one year.
And after that ... well, after that, who knows? Everything — or nothing — can change in 365 days. There's only one way to find out which it's going to be, and that's to live it.
Right here, right now, that doesn't seem so bad. At least not until the guy next to me suddenly bends over, braces his hands on his knees, and starts taking a bunch of deep breaths — in through the nose, out through the mouth. I back up a little, inch to the side. It doesn't take a genius to see he's going to puke any second now.
Just the thought has my stomach rolling and I back up a little more. These are my favorite Jimmy Choos, and I'm not about to have them ruined because some high school boy can't hold his liquor.
I'm all the way in the shadows now, my back pressed up against the edge of the huge white event tent at One World Theatre where the dance is happening. Wallflower isn't my normal role — I've spent most of my life being too high-profile for that — but I'd be lying if I said I didn't like it back here in the dark. It's easier to see everything that's going on ... and easier to hide, too. I look nothing like the girl I used to be, but still. It never hurts to be cautious.
The music changes abruptly, going from slow and sexy Ed Sheeran to a song by Taylor Swift, and I smirk a little at the groans and complaints, even knowing it's more about the change in tempo than the singer herself. The crowd adjusts quickly, though, and soon most of them are shaking it off in rhythm to the song.
Despite the fact that a bunch of them can't dance for shit, it's fun to watch. Most of my female classmates are in semiformal dresses in exotic colors while the guys are in suits with bright shirts or ties that, more often than not, match their dates' dresses. A group of them — I still don't know anyone well enough yet to decide which group it is — have their faces painted like skeletons to match the Dia de los Muertos theme, while other individuals have bright flowers or shiny stars or little sugar skulls sketched on their cheeks.
I'm a little in love with the look and can't help wishing I'd known about the face painting. With all my experience with makeup, I could have come up with something really elaborate. Maybe then, with my face hidden, I wouldn't feel honor bound to stand on the sidelines studying the dancers and the decorations. Maybe then I'd be right in the middle of it instead of lurking here watching it all and trying not to notice how the real thing doesn't quite measure up to how it is on TV.
Then again, almost nothing does.
Still, I know the student committee put a lot of effort into tonight — the very artistic homemade decorations attest to that. But if the Disney Channel had been in control of this dance — if it had been the ones picking the theme, setting up the room, dressing the attendees — everything would be a million times more elaborate. More exciting. More shiny and beautiful and ... sanitized.
No, if Disney had control, there wouldn't be a bunch of students grinding on the dance floor. There wouldn't be a kid puking up his alcohol into the nearest trash can. And there definitely wouldn't be a lonely girl standing in the shadows wondering how she's supposed to get past who she was to become who she wants to be.
But this is real life, not a sanitized fantasy, I remind myself as "Shake It Off" morphs into a song by current pop sensation Cherry. And I need to experience it — or so the judge told me when he granted me conditional emancipation from my dad in exchange for me attending an actual high school for my senior year. I've been here almost two months, and so far it's been exactly like this dance. Nothing and everything like what I expected.
A couple more minutes pass before the Cherry song finally winds down — thank God — and Avicii comes on. The rest of the crowd must feel the same way, because a cheer goes up and within seconds the dance floor is flooded by a bunch of kids jumping and waving their hands in the air. Even I'm tapping along to the beat. Then again, when it's done right, EDM makes it just about impossible not to.
I don't know most of them — I've spent most of my time at NextGen too concerned with hiding who I am to make friends with anyone — but still, I recognize a few from my senior seminar class. Keegan Matthews, who somehow manages to be both class president and the hottest guy in school, is living it up in the center of the dance floor with a bunch of his friends. He looks really good in his skinny-legged black suit and sugar skull tie, his shaggy blond hair shaking with the music.
Computer guru Himesh is dancing with a guy with a painted skeleton face, and a girl I'm pretty sure is Mariely — our own little drama queen — is joined at the hip with a dark-haired guy with a really fine ass. And Willa, the girl who came up with the totally kick-ass idea for our senior project, is dancing with Damien, another guy from senior seminar. I roll my eyes and resist — barely — the urge to cross the dance floor and bitch-slap some sense into her.
She seems pretty cool from what I know of her from class, but she's got the worst taste in guys. I mean, seriously, the worst. Damien is a tool, completely stupid and obnoxious, and I can't figure out what she sees in him. I mean, sure, he's good-looking, but she doesn't strike me as someone for whom that would be enough. So why him instead of somebody — anybody — else?
It's absolutely none of my business, but that doesn't stop me from wondering. Or worrying. I've seen a lot of girls taken advantage of by guys — in my line of work it's pretty much a given — and it pisses me off. I don't know for certain that's what's going on, but it definitely looks that way from the outside, and I'm not sure how Willa could miss it. I'm contemplating whether or not he's enchanted her with his magic penis (though I'm betting not) when a low, deep voice asks, "This is about as far from last Halloween as you can get, huh?"
I start to tell whoever has decided to talk to me that I don't know, since I wasn't here last Halloween, but then I catch sight of the guy's face and I'm torn between laughing and panicking. Because it's Finn McCain — the only son of Hollywood goddess Mia McCain — who is grinning down at me. And the look in his eyes says he knows exactly who I am.
For a second I think about trying to feign ignorance, but we've known each other ever since I did a cameo in one of Mia's movies when I was thirteen. We've never hooked up, because the attraction has never been there, and we don't exactly run with the same crowd, but we do have a lot of mutual friends. Plus, the entertainment industry is pretty insular, and we've definitely been at some of the same parties and awards ceremonies and VIP concerts. It's why I've spent so much of my time at NextGen trying to stay off his radar.
But since it's obviously too late for that, I just shrug and answer, "Well, it's no yacht in the Caribbean, but it's kind of fun, isn't it?"
"Not as fun as listening to Avicii live, like we did in Paris last year."
"I hate to burst your bubble, Dorothy, but we're not in Paris anymore."
He snorts. "Isn't that the truth?"
"Not to mention that concert was more like two years ago."
"No way. Really?"
"Really. The yacht was last Halloween."
He pauses for a second, obviously thinking. "Oh, yeah, I remember now. Mike dressed up like Kendall Jenner."
"And you dressed up like Cara Delevingne. The two of you spent so much time shouting CaKe forever that the rest of us turned it into a drinking game."
Finn laughs, low and long. "That's right. You won, if I remember correctly."
"I did." It's my turn to grin. "What can I say? I've got a high alcohol tolerance."
"Yeah, you do. It's impressive, especially considering you only weigh about ninety pounds." He shakes his head. "How can that possibly have been a whole year ago? It feels like I was just in Saint Croix."
I shrug. "I guess time flies when you're fleeing from the paparazzi."
"Yeah, well, if anyone should know ..." He slings an arm around my shoulders, pulls me in for a hug that is unexpected, but definitely welcome. I've been here two months and this is the first real conversation I've had with someone. As I hug him back, I try not to think about how pathetic that is.
"So, when did you figure it out?" I ask when he finally lets me go.
"About five minutes after I walked into senior seminar for the first time and you answered a question. Your speaking voice is really distinctive in person, and so is the way you move. What blows my mind is that nobody else has copped to it."
"People see what they expect to see. I've made sure not to sing in front of anyone, and I've changed my whole look."
"That you have," he says, brushing a finger over the short brown pixie cut that replaced my long, rainbow-streaked blond hair two days before I started here. "Even your eye color is different."
"Yeah, well, violet's pretty rare, so I got brown contacts to cover it up." Which has to be the strangest part of the whole transformation. Between wigs, extensions, and just plain old experimentation, I used to change my hair almost as regularly as my clothes. But looking into the mirror and seeing brown eyes staring back at me? That's been really weird. Add in the fact that I wear flannel now instead of sequins, holey jeans instead of short skirts, and boots instead of stilettos (tonight being a onetime exception) and I think I've done a pretty good job of hiding my identity.
Finn's nodding along, like my trying to hide my identity is the most normal thing in the world. Then again, to him, maybe it is. With all the press he's been getting since his mother moved to town to marry Willa's dad, he probably wishes he could put on a disguise, too. Still, I brace myself for a question about why I'm doing this. It's a normal inquiry, one anyone would ask in a situation like this.
Except for Finn, it turns out, because all he does is jerk his chin toward the dance floor and ask, "Wanna try it out?"
I do. I really do. There's a lot I don't like about who I am — about who my father has turned me and my stage persona into — but the dancing is by far my favorite part. Except ...
I'm trying to keep a low profile, and getting on the dance floor with Finn is pretty much the opposite of that. Especially since half the school would probably trample me in an effort to get his attention. It's the one downside of going to a fine arts high school — most of the people here would sell their souls for a shot at being famous.
When it comes up in class — which it does often — I want to tell them that it's not worth it. That being famous is pretty far from what it's cracked up to be. But it's not like they would listen anyway. No one ever does.
"I probably shouldn't," I finally answer. "I don't want to call attention to myself."
"That's why you should dance with me," he tells me with a smirk. "Everyone will be so busy staring at me that they won't even notice you."
"Wow." I burst out laughing. "Arrogant much?"
"It's not arrogant if it's the truth. I'm Mia McCain's son. Right now, I'm the hottest ticket in this place." He doesn't even try to hide the bitterness in his voice as he wraps his hand around my wrist and starts dragging me toward the dance floor.
Someone else might be tempted to make a poor little rich boy quip, but I get what he's saying — and what he's not — better than most.
We make it to the edge of the dance floor just as "Video Games" from Lana Del Rey comes on. I'll give the DJ credit — he's playing something for everyone tonight.
"Really," I tell him as he pulls me into his arms and sweeps me into the center of the dance floor. "We shouldn't do this."
He just looks down at me with gray eyes that are both amused and concerned. And then he asks the question I've been dreading all along. "What are you doing here, Cherry?"
"Stop!" I hiss even as I glance around to make sure no one's heard. "Don't call me that!"
"Okay, Dahlia. Why exactly are you at NextGen, pretending to be just a regular high school student?"
"Because a judge told me I had to be. She granted me emancipation, but I have to spend this year in a real school where I have some semblance of supervision, instead of 'jet-setting around the world.' Her words, not mine. She wants me to experience something normal, since I've been famous since I was a kid."
Finn whirls me around at the chorus and I hold on tight, letting him lead. As I do, I try not to notice the fact that half the dance floor is looking at us, just as I feared. Even Willa, who has pretty much unrestricted access to Finn, is staring at the two of us like she's seen a ghost. Or a cockroach.
"Wow. Emancipation, huh? That's pretty heavy."
"I know. But I couldn't take it any longer. I had to get my brand away from him before he destroyed it — and me — completely."
"Okay," Finn says, bending down to whisper the next words in my ear. "I get that. But why the disguise? Why not just come here as yourself?"
I shoot him an incredulous look. "And what exactly would be normal about that? Considering you're just the son of someone famous and paparazzi are pretty much camped out on the school steps twenty-four-seven."
"It's a little more complicated than that and you know it."
"Maybe, but are you telling me that Cherry filing for emancipation from her manager father and going to high school isn't news?"
"So what? How am I supposed to have a normal life here if everyone knows who I am? I've already had three or four close calls with the paps since you got here." I try to keep the bitterness out of my tone. After all, it's not his fault his mom is famous.
He whirls me around again, even dips me a little. And even though we're talking about serious stuff here, I have to take a moment and say that I'm impressed. I've known Finn for four years and had no idea he could dance like this.
"You think what you're doing is normal?" he asks. "Hiding in the background? Refusing to talk to anyone but me?"
"I talk to people."
He pulls back a little, shoots me a look. "I'm talking about more than giving a teacher an answer in class when he or she calls on you."
Okay, fine. If he's going to be picky, then no. I don't talk to anyone unless I absolutely have to. Is it optimal? No. But it makes hiding in plain sight so much easier, and right now, that's a lot more important to me than making friends I'll probably never see again after this year.
I sigh and start to try to explain my reasoning to Finn. But I can tell from the look on his face that I don't have to. He already knows.
Excerpted from The Secret Life of a Dream Girl by Tracy Deebs, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Tracy Deebs. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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