|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.56(d)|
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By Kendra C. Highley, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Kendra C. Highley
All rights reserved.
"All in all," Mr. Granger said, "the scores on the midterm were pretty good, so I didn't feel the need to grade on a curve."
Paige clenched her fists in her lap, already feeling the sting of tears in the backs of her eyes. No curve? That test had read like it was written in Greek Wingdings for all she understood of it. Trying not to hyperventilate, she sneaked a few quick glances at her AP calculus classmates. Most of them didn't look worried. A few even looked relaxed and confident.
Oh God, oh God, oh God ...
Mr. Granger paused by her desk. He didn't let anything show by his expression, but she could tell he was puzzled. She had a reputation of being one of the most organized, most reliable, and very best students at Alderwood. Popular, pretty, and smart, she'd heard people say. The girl who'd been voted Most Likely to Succeed in her class four years running.
But her teacher's expression said the exact opposite.
He slid the test onto her desk ... facedown.
Facedown? She'd never had a test handed to her facedown. They didn't hand back A tests facedown. Swallowing hard, she waited until he'd moved to the desk behind hers before braving a look.
Her stomach rolled. She'd made a sixty-eight — a D. She'd gotten a D. She'd made exactly two Bs in her entire time at Alderwood before this semester, and so far in calc, she had two Cs and now a D on a test that was twenty-percent of her semester grade. Her final transcript was due to Stanford in January. Without at least a B in this class, she'd fall out of the top ten in her class. That might be enough for Stanford admissions to deny her application.
Calc was doing its best to ruin every dream she'd written in the little red leather notebook her mom had given her last year. Stanford for premed. Harvard for medical school. Residency with the best neurologists in Texas. Fellowship at UT Southwestern. Then go into medical practice with Daddy and take over for him when he retired. He was counting on her, and she couldn't disappoint him.
Tears welled up in her eyes while Mr. Granger went over three of the most missed questions on the exam. Ironically, she'd gotten one of those right. Even more ironic — she had no idea how. Lucky girl was lucky.
Flashes of her parents' horrified faces as they read her denial letter from Stanford kept replaying in her head. "Oh, Paige, what happened?" Mom would croon, crestfallen. "You know your father's alma mater only takes the best."
"You tried, Sweet Pea," Daddy would say, crushing her with his inevitably sad expression. "That's what counts."
A sob threatened to tear free from her chest. How could she possibly tell them? She'd always tried to live up to their expectations and the examples they'd set — especially Daddy's. Her mother would be so disappointed.
Oh no, she was going to cry right here at her desk. Paige Westfield never lost her cool in public, and she wouldn't let that change now. She flung her hand in the air.
"Yes, Paige?" Mr. Granger asked.
Don't cry. Do not cry. "May I go to the restroom?"
Did she imagine the pity in his eyes, or was it real? "Of course."
She burst from the classroom, head down, and hurried around the corner toward the girls' bathroom at the end of senior hall. Red lockers lined the wall like witnesses to her failure. Now that she was alone, she let the tears seep down her cheeks. What was she going to do? There was no way anyone could know about this.
The hallway seemed to stretch out ahead of her, longer and longer. Would she ever make it to the safety of a bathroom stall — someplace she could silently cry her eyes out, then fix her makeup before a soul saw how upset she was? No, today was the day the universe had decided to spit in her Cheerios, because she snagged a toe on a loose spot of carpet and went sprawling. She landed flat on her stomach, arms stretched out too late to break her fall, and her breath whooshed out in one great gust.
For a moment, she couldn't do anything but force air into her lungs. Once she could breathe, though, she pushed herself to her knees, praying no one had seen her. The sound of running footsteps told her those prayers had gone spectacularly unanswered.
"Oh my God, that was a crazy fall," a guy said, sounding breathless. "You okay?"
Paige looked up at a concerned face — a boy with glasses, messy brown hair, and a frayed T-shirt. Not purposely frayed, but old and worn out, something you didn't see at Alderwood very often. "Fine," she snapped. "I'm fine."
The corner of his mouth lifted, as if he knew she couldn't stand looking foolish in front of anyone. "You have skid marks on your elbows and you've been crying, so I'm calling bullshit on that one."
"I was not crying." She glared up at him. "What are you even doing out here? Don't you have class?"
"You definitely were crying, and I could ask you the same question, Paige. My excuse is that I'm off sixth hour for work release." He held out a hand. "Here. Let me help you up."
She reached for his hand, frowning. "Do I know you?"
He rolled his eyes. "You ought to, since we've been in AP English together three of the last four years, and honors math for two."
She shook her head. "Sorry, I don't remember your name."
"No, I'd guess not, since I don't fly in your orbit." He steadied her on her feet. "My name's Ben —"
That triggered her memory. "Franklin! Ben Franklin." She laughed. "How could I forget that? Any relation, or do your parents have a sick sense of humor?"
"Both," he said, looking amused and annoyed. "So what gives? You were practically running down the hall, and you look upset. Did something happen to you?"
Her cheeks flushed hot. Was this the point when she crawled in a hole and hoped he forgot the whole thing? "No, just in a rush."
Ben cocked his head and stepped in front of her. "Are you sure that's all?"
She had to look up to see his face. God, this boy was tall, but his eyes were a warm brown behind the glasses, and he looked genuinely concerned. Some of her humiliation faded. "Yes. That's all."
He peered at her and she squirmed under the scrutiny. He seemed to see all the way down to her bones. As he put it earlier — he was totally calling bullshit on her.
"I'm fine," she repeated, wishing he would just go. She didn't know if he was the kind of guy who would happily tell his pack of science-geek friends all about this episode or not, and every minute he stared at her only made that fear worse.
"This is the part where I'm supposed to agree with you and walk away, isn't it?" he asked, that tiny smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Because Paige Westfield said so, and she knows best?"
If he hadn't said that in the nicest teasing tone she'd ever heard, she might've stomped on his foot for being a jerk. "I don't know best."
"But you aren't denying that you want me to go away." He leaned against the wall of lockers. "You know, you could always leave. I'm fine right here."
Of all the infuriating ... "I was on my way to the bathroom."
"Then go," he said. "Unless you want to talk?"
She stood there, her shoes practically glued to the rough carpet. Her brain kept insisting that she pull it together already and walk away, but the temptation to talk to someone who might not judge her was pretty strong. "I don't know you that well."
He shrugged. "I know you. You liked To Kill a Mockingbird but hated Julius Caesar last year. You always wear a ponytail on Fridays. And you're best friends with Zoey Miller."
Okay, he was either a stalker or totally observant. "How do you know all that?"
Ben caught her eye again. "I pay attention to pretty much everything. Annoying habit, I guess."
Huh. "If I talk to you, who are you going to tell?"
"Not a soul."
Funny enough, she kind of believed him. Kind of. Even if he wasn't in her orbit, as he'd put it, Ben seemed like a nice guy. The kind of quiet, hard worker who didn't socialize much at school but never made trouble, either. The kind of boy who wouldn't make fun of her for crying or for belly-flopping in the senior hallway.
"Come on," he said with a sudden, disarming smile that made her flush again. "You can tell me what's wrong. I'm like the Fort Knox of secret keepers. Seriously."
She found herself wanting to tell him. There wasn't really anyone else to talk to. Zoey would roll her eyes and tell her not to stress, and the rest of the student council thought she was crazy for taking AP classes in general. Before she could reconsider admitting a weakness to another person, she blurted out, "I think I'm going to fail calc. None of my friends would understand — they aren't even taking math senior year. But I care a lot."
He nodded, and she could see her own fear of failure lingering in his eyes. "It matters, right? Because you're on final transcript watch for college."
"Exactly." Some of the stress knotted in her shoulders relaxed. He understood — she couldn't even believe it. How did this boy she hardly knew understand her? And why hadn't she noticed him before? He was actually kind of cute — lean, with good shoulders and arms, and that sweet, quick smile. And what about the way he was looking at her? It was like he really saw her, not the "Perfect Paige" everyone else expected. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I left in the middle of class because I just couldn't ..."
The thing was, she didn't know what to say next, but instead of letting an awkward silence grow, Ben said, "I get it. I do. I'm trying for a scholarship at A&M. I want to go to their engineering school, and I need every A I can scrape together right now."
The frayed T-shirt made a little more sense after that admission. Money wasn't her problem, but they both needed the same thing to get what they wanted. "You're not in my calculus class. Are you taking it this year?" She paused. "Of course, you have to. Engineers need it."
"Yeah, I have it third period instead of sixth."
"So you know what I mean about how hard it is."
He shifted a little, looking uncomfortable. "I ... uh, I made a ninety-four on the last exam. Now, to be honest, that's my lowest grade so far, so the test was hard. But —"
He was kidding, right? Right? "A ninety-four? No wonder Mr. Granger said there was no curve. You blew it for the rest of us!" He held up his hands, smiling a little. "Sorry. Math's my favorite subject. I can't help it if I'm kind of brilliant."
"'Kind of brilliant.'" She shook her head. "It takes balls to say something like that to a type-A overachiever. Because I'll make you prove it."
Ben laughed — he had a nice laugh, deep and totally real. No, there wasn't anything fake about Ben Franklin, Paige decided. What you saw was what you got, and that was different.
"You can see my grades online if you want," he said, like it was all a big joke.
"No, I believe you." She leaned against a locker and checked out the carpet burns on her elbows. God, the guys in StuCo were going to make some lovely comments about those. Good thing she was wearing jeans, because skinned knees would've been the topic of the night. "It sucks for me, though. Because now I'll never have a shot at a decent grade."
"Maybe you just need some help or something," he said, frowning. "You're not stupid, Paige. And math is solvable."
"Did you just make a math joke about math?" she asked. Of course he did. "I tried going in for tutoring with Mr. Granger. If anything, he confused me more. Maybe he's just a sucky teacher."
"No," Ben said in a voice that suggested she was acting like a five-year-old. "He's a good teacher. Calculus is just one of those subjects that can be hard to understand at first. It's only October. It's been what, nine weeks?"
"Yes, and nine weeks from now we have semester exams!" Her pulse stuttered and her lungs felt tight. Maybe she should find a paper bag to breathe into. "I'm doomed."
"That's a little melodramatic, don't you think? What about asking a friend from class to help you? Maybe someone could explain it better than Mr. Granger. Sometimes it's easier to learn from a peer than from your teacher."
She gave him a questioning look. "What, you mean ... you?"
"What? Uh, no." Ben's eyebrows shot nearly to his hairline. "I meant for you to ask one of the ... uh, the ..."
"It's okay, you can say 'popular kids' without it sounding like a slam." Sure, she was popular by default because of her best friend, but that didn't mean she felt like she was one of them. "First off, none of them are taking calc. And second, they can't know I'm having trouble. No one can. There are plenty of people who would love to hear all about my failures in math."
"If your friends think you failing a class is funny, they suck," he muttered.
"Maybe, but I can't even tell my parents. My father ... well, he's the one who wants me to go to Stanford, and if I'm failing, he'll be so disappointed. I can't disappoint him. And my mom ... she doesn't understand failure. Like, not at all." She took a shuddering breath, scared she might cry again. "I can't screw this up, Ben."
His expression faded into something sympathetic. "I know a little about that kind of thing."
Did his mom and dad have high standards, too? "I bet you do."
"Yeah ..." He paused, looking deep in thought. It was funny — he looked almost nervous, plucking at the frayed hem of his T-shirt. "Okay, I'll do it."
"Do what?" she asked.
"Tutor you," he said.
She sucked in a breath. Oh, she hadn't meant ... "That's nice, but ... uh ..."
"I'm the best tutor you're going to find, Paige," Ben said. "You can trust me on that one."
Would this work? Could it work? She didn't know, but it was worth asking what he'd charge while she thought about it — and looked for other options, just in case.
"I can pay you," she said. He could probably use the money, right? "Most of my tutors charge twenty bucks an hour. How's that?"
"I work two jobs. I can always use more money, but I can work more hours, too." Ben was watching her, his forehead wrinkled in concentration. "I was thinking about a knowledge trade instead."
What kind of knowledge did she have that he didn't? "Like what?"
He bit his lip. "It's kind of weird."
This might end in pain, but desperate girls took desperate action. "Okay ... let's hear it."CHAPTER 2
Paige stared at him, a skeptical look on her face. And why not — Ben, some crazy math geek, had appeared out of nowhere to witness her falling down in the hallway. Her angst over being caught in an embarrassing moment made him feel bad — she really didn't like anyone seeing her being less than perfect. He'd always admired her spirit — she was one of the few rich kids around here who wanted to succeed as much as he did. And she worked hard for it. He respected that. And now — now he could be her knight in shining armor. Armed with a graphing calculator and a sharp pencil, he would help her pass calc ... and maybe get something even better in return.
Who knew forgetting his physics book would've been the best thing to happen to him all senior year? He was going to be late for work at the tire store, and there would be hell to pay with Kent, but this was too perfect a chance to miss. Paige was in trouble, and he could help her out of it. The hard part would be convincing her to help him with a quest he'd had since his sophomore year — going on a date with Zoey Miller, the blond goddess of all his daydreams.
The problem was, Zoey was upper-stratosphere popular. Like homecoming queen, student council president, everyone-was-in-love-with-her popular. Like if there was a supreme deity of Alderwood High, she'd be sitting at its right hand, passing out blessings to the mere mortals around her. It took a crazy-special guy to be in her league.
And he ... wasn't. He wasn't bottom caste, because he kept his head down at school, but he definitely wasn't her type. No, she probably liked guys who looked — and dressed — like Hollister models. Guys who played football and drove new cars. Ben wouldn't even be a blip on her radar.
Excerpted from Finding Perfect by Kendra C. Highley, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2015 Kendra C. Highley. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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