Look up the word "nerd" and you'll find Lily Bailey's picture. She's got one goal: first stop valedictorian, next stop Harvard. Until a stint in the hospital from too much stress lands her in the last place a klutz like her ever expected to be: salsa dance lessons.
Look up the word "popular" and you'll find Stone Torres's picture. His life seems perfect—star of the football team, small-town hero, lots of friends. But his family is struggling to make ends meet, so if pitching in at his mom's dance studio helps, he'll do it.
When Lily's dad offers Stone extra cash to volunteer as Lily's permanent dance partner, he can't refuse. But with each dip and turn, each moment her hand is in his, his side job starts to feel all too real. Lily shows Stone he's more than his impressive football stats, and he introduces her to a world outside of studying. But with the lines blurred, can their relationship survive the secret he's been hiding?
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||2 MB|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
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"Ms. Bailey, are you with us?"
Tearing my gaze away from my guidance counselor's creepy cat clock that was two minutes slow yet confirmed I was at least fifteen minutes late for AP English, I silently counted to three and then said, "I'm listening."
Mrs. Cooper gave me a quick, indulgent smile. "I'm sure it feels like we're ganging up on you, but I promise that's not our intention. Believe it or not, we're all on the same team."
Unfortunately, the smile on her face didn't match the worry in her eyes, so I figured I was screwed regardless.
Mrs. Cooper had gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me since Mom died. She was the kind of guidance counselor Hallmark made cards for, and it was tempting to hope she could pull out another miracle now. But as I watched her tap-tap-tapping her red-ink pen against the open file on her desk — a file that revealed the totality of my high school accomplishments and my near-stellar record, minus the freshman-year glitch — and scrunching her eyebrows in contemplation, I couldn't help feeling like the world as I knew it was about to be flipped.
For five long seconds, I inhaled oxygen, along with the sweet smell of jasmine from her diffuser. AP and Dual Credit courses. Tied for highest GPA in the senior class. National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta.
All that hard work.
Slowly, I let it out. History Club. DECA. Key Club. Debate.
Crap. They'd better not take away tutoring.
Over the past seventy-two hours, I'd had strangers poke and prod my body and lecture me about my life choices. Up had become down, left had become right, and my workaholic, taciturn dad had started saying things like, "Getting into Harvard isn't absolutely essential," when he knew how much it meant to me ... and when he hadn't really spoken to me otherwise in more than three years. At least not about anything important. Now he was here, at my school, keeping me from class and teaming up with my usually supportive, go-with-the-flow counselor, who was currently biting her lip and tiptoeing around the dreaded S-word.
Mrs. Cooper raised her eyes from my file and, after exchanging a glance with the imposing man seated in the stiff leather chair next to mine, said softly, "Your father and I are concerned about your stress level."
And there it was.
Honestly, this whole situation was ironic. When I'd woken up this morning, the only thing on my mind had been getting back to normal. Well, as normal as I could since Dad had found me puking blood. He'd vehemently refused to let me even so much as peek at my schoolwork since Monday night, and I knew for a fact I'd missed a statistics quiz yesterday. Every minute I spent in this room was less time I could be spending in class catching up on the last three — going on four! — days I'd missed.
And they wanted to discuss my stress level?
"I'm fine," I assured her, assured them both, and forced a smile onto my face that hopefully said I was breezy. "I mean, I'm not gonna lie, this week has sucked. It's sucked huge. I took a couple of classes at the community college this summer to spruce up my applications, and it took a week or so to adjust to my advanced course load here this year. The combination of the two back-to-back, well, I guess they made me a little wonky, but I promise, Mrs. C, I've got everything under control now."
With my eyes, I pleaded for her to understand, and as she looked at me, I saw the softening. This woman knew me better than anyone else in Brighton High, other than my best friend, Sydney. I'd darkened her doorway too many times to count since I pulled myself out of the pit freshman year, asking for advice on the best ways to set myself up for success. She'd seen what I could handle; she knew what I could accomplish. What had happened on Monday was just a minor blip.
"I've got a hospital bill that says it's most certainly not under control," Dad contradicted with a grunt, and Mrs. Cooper flinched. The softness in her eyes dissipated, and her gaze darted back to the top sheet of my file, probably as much out of discomfort as to avoid the look on my father's face, and I slumped back against my chair. So close.
More than throwing up blood, it was the hospital that spooked him. Ever since Mom had gotten sick, neither of us could stand stepping through those chilling automatic doors, and I had to go and become a patient there for two days. Total overkill, in my opinion, but hey, no one listened to me. All it took for Dad was one look at me lying in the bed and clearly all those memories had come flooding back.
Mrs. Cooper cleared her throat. "Lily, I have to say, your father might have a point about your schedule. Looking over your transcript, it wouldn't be a horrible idea to drop a class or two. You already have more than enough credits to graduate come May, and what's important is for you not to be overly stre —"
"No," I interrupted, not wanting to hear that stupid word again until I was at least thirty. "I can't risk it. Harvard's not exactly a safety school, Mrs. C. Next semester, once I know for sure I've been admitted Early Action and won't need these grades on my transcript, maybe I can look into cutting back. But now's not the time to slack off. I need to focus."
I tried my best to appear accommodating, but the truth was, I had zero intention of cutting back or changing my schedule in January, either. My entire academic life had been carefully built and prepared over years of thought, and I couldn't let one tiny hiccup derail my plans.
Looking between them both, I fought the urge to fidget with my glasses and attempted to look as confident as possible while I said, "I can handle it."
Surprisingly, Dad caved first.
"All right, then. Keep your classes."
The concession was so abrupt and so completely out of left field that all I could do was blink. When his peculiarly neutral expression didn't morph or flinch after a few seconds of holding my stare, I added the ever-so-articulate, "Eh?"
He shrugged. "The courses are important. I understand that, and you're a bright student. You deserve to be challenged. I'm not on a mission to damage your future here, Lily, I just want you to find a balance."
That ... well, that was awesome. It's what I'd been fighting for the last few days. A boulder-size weight floated off my shoulders and bounced, metaphorically speaking, against the cheap plastic frame guarding Mrs. C's poster on the wall.
Live today. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Just today.
It was a quote from Jerry Spinelli's Love, Stargirl, and my guidance counselor had an annoying habit of pointing to it whenever she felt I'd become too focused on the future.
I looked at that poster now, thought about the past week, and felt my eyes narrow.
The thing was, I appreciated the quote — heck, I loved the book — but I'd honestly never fully agreed with it, at least not for the day-to-day, in-the-trenches life of your everyday teenager. Every choice, every decision we made today affected and shaped our tomorrow. What college would we get into? What career path would we choose? Would the college we select be the best springboard for that career? As for our past mistakes, those bitches followed us forever on our transcripts.
Jerry Spinelli's sentiment was nice, but I wasn't so sure it applied in the real world.
Regardless, Dad had been preaching that same message for days now. Suddenly deciding my long-established plan of being valedictorian and getting into his alma mater, the same school where he'd met my mother and I'd planned on going my entire life, wasn't vital and harping on my, admittedly, tough school schedule.
I swung my gaze back toward his. "What's the catch?"
Dad shifted on his hip to face me, the stiff leather of the chair creaking under his solid weight. "I have an alternative proposal," he said, sounding every bit the high-end technology consultant he was, only this wasn't a board room, and it was my future we were discussing. "You can keep your full list of AP and Dual Credit courses, along with your tutoring duties" — I couldn't help it; I exhaled in relief and sagged against my chair — "if you take off on Saturdays and pick up a new activity. One that has nothing to do with books."
My head tilted in confusion. "What do you mean take off on Saturdays? I don't tutor on the weekends." Peer tutoring happened during lunch periods, and I worked with Liam on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Something he'd know if he was ever around, but that was a topic for another day.
"Take off from studying," Dad clarified with a shrewd look. "No school projects, either. No books, no worrying, no stress. In fact, I don't want you doing anything at all, unless it's for fun."
My eyebrows scrunched together like an accordion. "Fun," I repeated. Not a word I'd associate with clubs or activities, unless you counted things like pep squad, which I most certainly didn't. "Er, Dad you might not realize this about me, but school spirit isn't exactly my thing."
Honestly, I wasn't trying to be a brat. But in my opinion, the whole high school experience outside of learning and a few key student activities was a huge waste of time. These four years were nothing but a stepping stone to bigger and better things, things just on the horizon if I could only get past this final hurdle. Who had time for pom-poms and drunken orgies?
I knew I should bite my tongue, take the extended olive branch, and run. It could've been a heck of a lot worse, and I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. He was letting me keep my schedule, after all. But ... "I can't write off an entire Saturday every weekend of my senior year. I'm gonna have papers and tests to study for."
"Things you always get done days or weeks in advance anyway," he told me with a strange spark in his eyes, and my entire body froze.
That spark was the first sign of life I'd seen in my father, other than fear and grief, in more than three years. I missed my dad, nearly as much as I missed my mom, and seeing that emotion was almost enough to stop me from pushing back. But I needed my Saturdays.
"I know you think I don't follow what's going on with you, kid, but I do. Your teachers say you could teach half your classes, you're so prepared. You turn in assignments before they're due, you accept every chance at extra credit, and you study more hours than should be humanly possible. One day off a week won't signal the end of the world."
I openly gaped at him, struck speechless that he knew all of this about me. Nevertheless, I wanted to argue that it could. You never knew what life might throw at you tomorrow. He and I understood that better than anyone. The only way to be prepared was to stay ahead of it, and the best way to do that was to keep on task. But before I could tell him that, Dad leaned forward and covered my hand on the arm rest.
He looked me in the eye, really looked at me, as if he could see the real me and not the version I pretended to be most days. As I looked back, it was easy to see the man he used to be, too, before salt infected his pepper hair and his shoulders weren't stooped with grief. Guilt, fear, and hope swirled in my stomach, almost making me dizzy, as I imagined what he could be thinking.
"I love you, Lily. I might not be the best at showing it, especially since your mom ..." My eyes burned as his gruff voice broke, and I blinked rapidly. The muted thud of footsteps in the hall marked the time while he cleared his throat and visibly pulled himself together. "But I love you. More than that, I want what's best for you. Letting life pass you by as you make yourself sick over the future, sweet girl, isn't it."
My heart pounded in my chest. Dad hadn't called me sweet girl since Mom died. With one simple pet name, a rush of love, memories, and dreams flooded my veins, splintering all my protective barriers and sending electric sparks to my fingertips. The drama of the hospital was forgotten. The worry about class and my health didn't exist. All that mattered was my dad, looking at me the way he used to and telling me he loved me. My hand flipped over on the arm rest and linked with his.
Swallowing hard, my body swaying forward, I found myself asking, "What kind of activity?"
* * *
At Sydney's shocked squeal, every eye in the crowded hallway turned in our direction. I flinched back against the wall, attempting to fade into the fresh cream paint while her fit of musical laughter ensured everyone got a good, long peek.
Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see.
For the record, I was aware of where I stood in the social hierarchy at Brighton High and, for that matter, the great big crazy world at large — and that was with the giraffes. Genetics had blessed me with long legs, skinny arms, and a neck I hoped would one day be classified as graceful but currently was anything but. In layman's terms, I was tall and awkward, and whenever possible, I preferred to fly under the radar of public scrutiny. Way, way under.
Tucking my chin against my chest, I kept my eyes low and grabbed hold of my pint-size friend's pointy elbow, steering her past the gawking underclassmen. "I didn't think it was that funny," I hissed, heading toward my locker and towing her tittering butt behind me.
Luckily, it was game day in southeast Texas, which meant everyone was obsessed with pigskin. Conversations quickly returned to the beatdown we were expected to give the Cypress Panthers, and as little as I cared about football — and that was to say very little — I was grateful. The last thing I needed on top of the spectacle that had become my life the past week was more questions from the peanut gallery.
As we pushed our way farther down a hall littered with bright blue posters for this afternoon's pep rally, I shuffled past two dance team members marking their routine. My steps slowed as I took in their smooth, synchronized moves. They were adorable, and they had rhythm along with that all-important quality known as ability, of which I had none. I released a sigh and picked up speed, sending Sydney into another round of hysterics.
"You'd think my best friend would try being supportive," I muttered, failing to fight off a small smile of my own. Objectively speaking, any feat involving me and expected agility was hilarious. But still. "Where's my pep talk and platitudes of solidarity?"
"Oh, please, you know I've got your back," she chided, elbowing me with a teasing smile. "You and me, we're like clownfish and sea anemone." At my blank look of huh?, she explained, "We go together. But let's be real for a minute. Ballroom dancing? Have you even seen Dancing with the Stars? That shit ain't easy, sweetheart, and you —"
"Have a tendency to trip on air," I finished for her, gesturing toward today's tee of choice. Fittingly, it was emblazoned with a bright pink flamingo and the words "Majestically Awkward," and I'd paired it with one of Mom's flowy pink skirts and my comfy, worn-out Converse. It was eclectic and weird and about as close to a power outfit as I got, seeing as I'd guessed I would need the extra boost today. "Tell me about it."
I'd told Dad as much, once the initial shock of his suggestion had worn off, but he'd waved away the very real concern as it if was nothing more than a gnat. Mom had loved musicals and dancing, and apparently once upon a time she had even mentioned it was great for relieving stress. Who knows, for her it probably did. She glided through life like a graceful swan. I stumbled through it like a newborn colt.
We stopped in front of my locker, and I dialed the combination, my two-ton book bag falling at my feet. Despite the future chiropractic bills, I found comfort in the weight. School made sense to me. It was my happy place where two plus two equaled four, history was remembered, and scientific mysteries were explained. If only the rest of my life could've fallen in line so easily.
"Unfortunately, ballroom is the lesser of two evils," I explained over the sound of slamming metal echoing off scuffed tile. I exchanged my AP statistics book for government and surveyed the array of snacks I kept stashed inside. "It was either agree or drop something from my schedule, and you know I can't do that. Cameron's panting at my heels as it is, and after falling behind this week, I can't afford any more mistakes."
Cameron Montgomery had been my rival since freshman year, and she was just waiting for a chance to leapfrog me into the valedictorian spot. If everything went as planned, I'd surge ahead by the end of the semester, but if I dropped a class like Dad had originally wanted, or even slacked off a smidge, it was game over. Cameron would win top spot, and I'd have nothing to show for the insane workload I'd carried for the last three years of my life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eyes on Me"
Copyright © 2019 Rachel Harris.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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