- Pub. Date:
This year, Essie Green's life is going to be different. She's made the cheerleading squad and caught the eye of the captain of the football team. However, she didn't expect her estranged cousin to join the football team. Micah is instantly branded a freak for praying during games, and Essie doesn't want anything to do with him. As the football team's teasing of Micah shifts into hazing, Essie is forced to make a choice between the boy she might love and the cousin she barely knows.
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About the Author
JENNY MEYERHOFF loosely based this novel on The Book of Esther. The author of Third Grade Baby, she lives in Riverwoods, Illinois.
As a child in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Jenny Meyerhoff often read a book a night. In third grade, she read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret twenty-one times. Her first attempt at a children’s book, The Leprechaun Who Never Found a Pot of Gold, was written when she was in first grade. From that moment on, Jenny has dreamed of becoming a professional children’s book writer.
Jenny studied creative writing at the University of Michigan, and received her master’s degree in education at Northwestern University. She then became a kindergarten teacher because, in addition to loving children’s books, Jenny enjoys sitting on the floor. (That’s also why she practices yoga.)
Jenny is now a full-time writer and a full-time mom, which means that she never sleeps. She lives in Riverwoods, Illinois, with her husband and three children.
Read an Excerpt
Queen of Secrets
By Jenny Meyerhoff
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Jenny Meyerhoff
All rights reserved.
I didn't know how I managed to make the varsity cheerleading squad. I only knew that if Austin King was ever going to notice me, I had to have one of those purple-and-gold uniforms. They gave the girls who wore them an aura of extra prettiness. Even the girls who didn't need the help, like Hayden Walsh. Tall, blond, perfect: she was the image that popped in my head whenever I thought of the word cheerleader. I, on the other hand, probably never popped into anyone's mind at all. At least, I hadn't last year, but this year, I hoped, would be different.
Monday morning, when Nana dropped me off for the first preseason cheerleading practice, Hayden and her best friend, Lara, walked right by our car.
"Hi, Essie," Hayden called. She was my cheerleading big sister, a senior, and one of Austin's good friends. I couldn't believe my luck when Ms. Young paired us together at cheerleading camp last month, but I jumped when she called my name. I hadn't really expected Hayden to do anything more than help me learn new cheers, and maybe decorate my locker on my birthday.
"Hi!" I called back, my voice shaking. I said goodbye to Nana and jogged to catch up with them.
"How was the rest of your summer?" Hayden asked me, opening the school door.
"Fantastic!" I said, even though I'd spent most of it helping Nana garden, dancing alone in my bedroom, and daydreaming about Austin. Sara, my best friend, had spent most of her vacation working at Faber's Art Supply, and Zoe and Skye, our other two friends, had both gone away for the summer. I was more than ready for school to start next week. "How was your summer?" I asked.
"Amazing," Hayden said as she went inside. Then she stopped short. "I need to tell you guys something." She glanced at Lara. "Remember those soccer players who crashed my party on Saturday? I hooked up with one of them last night."
Lara shoved Hayden playfully on the shoulder. "No way. Who?"
"John Barstow," Hayden whispered, taking a deep breath. "It got intense."
The thrill of Hayden confiding in me tingled, but I had no idea what to say. I hadn't been at her party. Or even been invited. And I'd never kissed anyone. My friends weren't really the kinds of girls who hooked up. I wasn't sure I even knew exactly what Hayden meant. Kissing, or something more? "Congratulations!" I spluttered.
Hayden stopped walking and looked at me funny. Not congratulations? "Uh, who's John Barstow?" I asked.
"He's a junior," said Lara, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something rotten.
"He's hot," said Hayden. "He's an amazing kisser, and, unlike most guys at this school, he's taller than me."
"He's still a junior," Lara answered.
When we got to the gym, most of the other cheerleaders were already there. Hayden tossed her gym bag into the corner. I put mine next to hers and followed her and Lara to the equipment closet. I held my breath as we helped carry out the mats. They smelled like my grandfather's feet.
"You aren't thinking of making this into something more than a hookup, are you?" asked Lara. "Because that would look really desperate."
"Everyone start stretching!" Hayden shouted to the room without answering Lara. Ms. Young, our coach, still hadn't arrived. As the captain, Hayden ran practice when Ms. Young wasn't around. She sat between Lara and me and reached forward to touch her toes. "I don't care how it looks. I'm having fun. Worry about your own love life."
Lara straddled her legs and stretched sideways without answering.
"You can pretend you don't know what I'm talking about." Hayden winked at me, then turned back to Lara. "But I saw the way you were looking at Austin on Saturday night."
Lara ignored Hayden again and touched her toes. I froze in the middle of my stretch. Lara liked Austin?
Hayden teased, "What do you think, Essie? Wouldn't they make a cute couple?"
Ms. Young ran into the gym and saved me from having to answer.
"Sorry I'm late, everyone! When you've finished stretching, I want five laps and then twenty each of crunches, lower abs, push-ups, and squats."
Ms. Young went into the equipment closet to get her clipboard, and Lara and Hayden stood up to start the laps.
"You coming?" Hayden asked me.
I shook my head. "I still need to stretch my calves," I said. I didn't want to hear any more about Lara and Austin.
Hayden ran off, and I tried to calm my heart. It beat like I'd just run a marathon.
I watched the other girls jogging. Lara glanced at Ms. Young to make sure she wasn't looking, then imitated the cheerleader in front of her running with splayed legs. She and Hayden cracked up.
Last year, I used to watch Austin and his friends from a million miles away, a lowly freshman with a huge crush. This year, I'd convinced myself that things could be different. I'd finally grown some curves. (A lot of curves, actually.) I'd made the cheerleading squad. There was an outside shot that Austin might notice me. But Lara was a senior. She was tall and willowy, with shiny brown hair that swung in a perfect bob. Even more important than that, she had experience. She knew how to talk to guys, to flirt with them, to make them like her. If she liked Austin, then cheerleading uniform or not, I'd never be more than a sophomore nobody.
AFTER CHEERLEADING, some of the seniors decided to watch the end of football practice. Hayden called to me from the gym doorway as I was packing up my bag.
I looked up at her. Her smile was genuine.
"Come hang with us." She motioned me over with her head.
My thoughts raced. Us? Us could mean Austin. I shoved my gym shoes in my bag, slid on my flip-flops, and ran to catch up with them.
As we headed over toward the field, a bunch of football players turned to check us out. But when we sat down on the squishy rubber surface of the track, just to the left of the players' bench, my stomach twisted. They probably weren't checking us out, I realized. I couldn't be included in that group. The other girls wore sexy workout clothes. Sports bras and shorts with the tops folded over, their limbs perfectly tanned. Their hair hung long, smooth, and neat.
Secretly I'd been believing that once I was a cheerleader I'd suddenly turn into someone else, a Cheerleader with a capital C. A girl with sleek hair, a perfect body, and a perfect life. But here I was, in my baggy T-shirt and gray sweat shorts, still me. My grandmother wouldn't buy me tight clothes. I grabbed the edge of my shirt and tied it in a knot. Then I felt my ponytail and tried to smooth back the frizz. I couldn't just slip the rubber band off and brush my fingers through my hair like they had. Curly hair didn't work that way.
Suddenly I felt small and out of place. If Austin ever looked over at us, I would stand out in the worst way. Four gorgeous girls in a row, and then me.
I searched the field for him and saw him settle in behind center, quarterbacking for the gold team in a scrimmage. He took the snap and dropped back for a pass. The left tackle and left guard both missed their blocks. The defensive end came in from Austin's blind side and drove his helmet into Austin's back. I drew a sharp breath in, then looked at Hayden next to me, hoping she hadn't noticed. She was leaning back with her face turned to the sun and her eyes closed.
Coach Ryan was all over the guy, yelling at him for hitting the QB during practice. Austin hobbled over to the bench, wincing and trying not to show it. I could have stared at him all day, but then I heard Coach Ryan yell, "Gruenberg!" My eyes jerked away. What was he doing here?
"Let's see what you can do." Coach motioned him onto the field.
Gruenberg was Micah Gruenberg, my first cousin. I barely knew him. His family had just moved back to Pershing, Michigan, from New York a week ago. I hadn't even known he was on the football team until now. He ran over from the side where he'd been taking practice kicks. He was going to make a field goal attempt for the gold team. Coach wanted him to try a long one — maybe forty yards. I scooted forward to watch.
"I hope he's decent," said Hayden, sitting back up and nodding her head toward Micah.
"I know him," I said. "He's —"
Lara cut me off. "Compared to Keith, anyone would be decent," she said in a low voice. "But I heard he's weird."
I bit my words back into my mouth. Where had she heard that? Austin?
"Weird how?" asked the girl to Lara's left.
Hayden leaned over to me. "See number 27?" She pointed to one of the players, and I nodded, but I was still thinking about weird.
"He was our kicker last year," she said. "He sucked."
Micah stood behind the holder and rubbed his hands together. The cheerleaders on the other side of Lara started talking about the best way to do smoky eyes and Lara and Hayden turned around to join the conversation. I had nothing to add. I knew zero about makeup; Nana still wouldn't let me wear it. I kept watching the field and eavesdropping on the players near the end of the bench.
Number 33 said, "No way he makes that."
On the field, Micah rocked his body back and forth. His lips moved silently, almost like he was praying. What if he was praying? His family was very religious.
The center snapped the ball and Micah took three steps forward and let his kick loose. He kept mumbling until the ball soared cleanly between the goal posts, then he let out a deep exhale and jogged toward the sidelines.
"Sweet," said number 27, patting Micah on the back.
I was about to tap Hayden on the shoulder to brag about my better-than-decent-new-kicker cousin when I heard Harrison, Austin's best friend, shout, "Hey, Rabbi! Nice kick!"
A flicker of irritation twitched across Micah's face, but he shook it away and said, "Thanks."
Harrison turned to the player next to him. "What? What'd I say?" He called to Micah. "Hey, it was a compliment."
Micah nodded and went to sit on the bench.
When football practice ended, Harrison came over and sat down in front of Hayden and Lara. He motioned for Austin to join us, but Austin was busy cleaning the dirt and grass out of his cleats. He made eye contact with Harrison and shook his head ever so slightly. His damp shaggy blond hair fell over his forehead in clumps as he went back to work on his shoes.
"King," Harrison called this time. Austin looked up slowly, and Harrison motioned him over again. Finally Austin rolled his eyes and tossed his cleats on the ground. Then he joined us and sat down facing me.
It was the closest I'd ever been to him, our knees practically touching. His eyes were two different shades of brown, darker in the center, then lighter at the edges. I inhaled deeply and caught the scent of the sweat on his forehead. Little sparks of electricity hovered around my body. I smoothed my hair back as much as I could.
"What are you guys doing later?" Harrison asked Hayden.
"Going to the club, maybe." She stretched her arms out, admiring them. "Work on my tan."
He leaned forward. "I'll work on your tan."
"You wish." Hayden laughed and pushed him back. He bumped into Austin, and Austin's knee knocked against mine. The polyester of his football pants scratched against my skin.
"What are you guys going to do?" Lara asked, turning to Austin.
Harrison looked at Austin, too. "What do you want to do? Go swimming?"
Austin shrugged. "I'm not in the mood to swim. You guys should go without me."
For a split second, I thought I saw Lara give Austin a dirty look. Then she put her hand around Harrison's bicep. The bottom of his sleeve hugged the top curve of his muscle. "I think you got bigger this summer," she said.
He puffed his chest. "Two hundred push-ups a day."
I looked at Austin's biceps. They weren't as big as Harrison's, but I liked them better. I wondered what he'd do if I put my hand around his arm. Probably think I was crazy.
"Two hundred? Yeah, right." A junior named Eric, almost as big as Harrison, stood a couple of feet away from us. Another junior, Wyatt, stood behind him, like a shadow.
"Are you calling me a liar?" Harrison stared hard at Eric. "You wanna see?"
Austin's shoulders drooped, like he was tired, and he sighed. "Don't," he said to Harrison. "He's not worth it."
Eric glared at Austin, but Austin didn't seem to notice. His eyes were on Harrison. So were Wyatt's, but his expression wasn't concern. It was more like awe.
"Harrison, what happened when you visited MSU last week?" he asked. "Doesn't your dad know the coach? He played there, right?"
"They offered me preferred walk-on." From Harrison's tone, I guessed that wasn't so great. Austin tilted his head and watched Harrison carefully.
"Isn't that a glorified no?" Eric asked.
Harrison's jaw twitched.
"Best-case scenario, you'd be on the practice team," Eric said. "Anyway, their roster's probably been full since June. Everything happens junior year."
"Not everything, loser. There are still plenty of schools looking for players," Harrison said, but his voice didn't sound convinced.
"If you want to play Division Two," said Eric.
Harrison turned to Austin, his face a snarl. "I don't think these guys understand the respect they owe seniors."
Austin stood up. The barest wave of annoyance washed across his face before he set his jaw and stepped close enough to Eric that they were eye to eye. "You think you can do better? You'll be lucky if you get to play this year. Especially if you keep missing blocks like today. My ribs thank you."
"That wasn't his fault," Wyatt began, but when Austin glared at him, Wyatt lowered his eyes and kept his mouth shut.
Eric shrugged. "You weren't supposed to be live during that drill."
"You still should have protected me." Austin glanced over at the messy players' bench. "Clean up the water bottles and bring all the towels back to the locker room."
Eric narrowed his eyes at Austin. "Are you serious?"
Austin folded his arms. "You need to respect the seniors."
"Let's just do it," said Wyatt. He started picking up the bottles while Eric watched.
Austin sat back down a little farther from me. I shifted positions so that if he moved our knees would bump again, but he was lost in thought. Then Micah walked over and squatted next to me.
"Hi, Essie," he said.
"Hi," I answered. Everyone shifted to watch us. The word weird pulsed in my thoughts.
Lara squinted at me, then at Micah. One of her eyebrows arched up, and a half-smile crept onto her lips. She was looking at the thing on Micah's head, the little hat. He called it a kippah, and it was a Jewish head-covering. He wore it all the time. I thought it was really strange the first time I saw it, too. Maybe that kind of thing didn't stand out much in New York, but I'd never seen anyone wear one in Pershing. Especially not at football practice. The Jewish people in my town probably wore them at synagogue, but I wouldn't know. I never went.
"Beanie," Austin said, raising his hand to Micah for a high five. "You rocked it."
Micah hesitated for a second, then slapped Austin's hand. "Thanks." He turned back to me. "How's it going?"
"Good," I said. "Your kick was great. I thought most high school kickers used a two-step approach and a straight-on kick."
Micah started to answer, but Austin let out a snort of laughter. I looked over at him, my cheeks on fire. I'd been reading everything I could about football and watching instructional videos on the Internet so that I wouldn't say something stupid if I ever got to talk to him. That obviously hadn't worked.
I turned back to Micah, "Do I have it backward?"
He shook his head. "No, you're right. I'm just more used to kicking soccer-style because I played soccer at my old school. It's more accurate, too."
"Sorry," Austin said. He'd stopped laughing, but his eyes still twinkled. "You caught me off guard." He angled his head toward Hayden and Lara. "These two usually comment on who looks hot, not on playing technique."
"You should have tried out for football instead of cheerleading," Lara said to me. Then to Austin she added, "Maybe she secretly wants to be a guy."
"Or tackle one." Austin waggled his eyebrows.
I looked down at my feet. I'd have to remember to keep my football thoughts to myself. When I looked back up, Austin was smiling. I tried to smile back, but panic seeped through my body. Why was he still looking at me?
"What's your name again?" Austin asked.
My stomach dropped into my lap.
Excerpted from Queen of Secrets by Jenny Meyerhoff. Copyright © 2010 Jenny Meyerhoff. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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