For Nell Becker, life is a competition she needs to win. For Jackson Hart, everyone is a pawn in his own game. They both have everything to lose.
Nell wants to succeed at everything—school, sports, life. And victory is sweeter when it means beating Jackson Hart, the rich, privileged, undisputed king of Cedar Woods Prep Academy. Yet no matter how hard she tries, Jackson is somehow one step ahead. They’re a match made in hell, but opposites do attract.
Drawn to each other by their rivalry, Nell and Jackson fall into a whirlwind romance that consumes everything in their lives. But when a devastating secret exposes their relationship as just another game, how far will Nell go to win?
Visceral and whip-smart, Laurie Devore’s Winner Take All paints an unflinching portrait of obsessive love, toxic competition, and the drive for perfection.
An Imprint Book
"Intense and fiercely smart, this volatile love story is both timely and classic." —Maurene Goo, author of I Believe in a Thing Called Love
"A bold, incisive, timely examination of the high price girls often have to pay for daring to want it all...Clever, romantic, and absolutely unputdownable." —Courtney Summers, author of Cracked up to Be and All the Rage
"Darker and weightier than many stories about rivals falling in love, Devore’s second novel draws a blurry line between honest emotions and calculated moves...a hard-hitting message about the pressures placed on teens to succeed." —Publishers Weekly
“Heartbreakingly real… an unrelenting, incisive look at one young woman's highly pressurized world." —Kirkus Reviews
"A clever plot twist reveals just how quick we are to judge the behavior of girls more harshly than that of boys...A winning choice." —School Library Journal
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|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||17 - 18 Years|
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I can't stop staring at the back of Jackson Hart's head.
Trust me, it's something that most of the girls (and I'm sure some of the boys) at Cedar Woods Preparatory Academy would admit to — in fact, a few have probably made it a pastime. But I have very little interest in the back of Jackson Hart's head or much else about him. I'm not staring because Jackson Hart is six foot two with hair so dark it might as well be black, or because of his pretty blue eyes and tanned skin, altogether making him look like a beautiful boy raised on the river. I couldn't care less that he's amazing at baseball or can talk any girl out of her dress faster than you can say skinny-dipping. And you'd never catch me saying Jackson Hart is charming, though I might admit he's too smart for his own good.
I'm staring because what's coming out of his mouth right now is so ridiculous, I can't believe it's real.
"I mean, at its heart, isn't The Scarlet Letter really about our worst impulses as a society?" Jackson is saying. "Puritanical viewpoints controlling female sexuality? We always seek out what's forbidden. Alcohol. Sex. Sin. And then we condemn those who want it. Commit violence in the name of hypocrisy. One could argue it's a historical dystopia."
"That's an interesting point, Jackson," Mrs. Wesley says.
I can't take it. I raise my hand.
"Yes, Miss Becker," Mrs. Wesley says.
The thing is, I can't let something so utterly, immensely wrong go unchallenged. And no one knows that better than Jackson Hart.
"On a fundamental level," I say, and the class's eyes turn to me, "calling The Scarlet Letter a historical dystopia doesn't make any sense, since that's how things were in the past. Most times in history would be considered dystopias by today's standards."
"Well, of course this kind of puritanical viewpoint doesn't feel as reality-based for Nell, but consider reading this in conjunction with something like The Handmaid's Tale and examining it from that angle. As for Nell, she's so perfect that she doesn't experience temptation," Jackson says, and the class laughs. I bite the inside of my cheek. "Which is, of course, an admirable quality, but maybe limits her ability to relate to the point I'm making —"
"I understand the point just fine." I cut him off. "And yes, I agree that Hester Prynne is asked to bear the sins of a puritanical society, with its secrets and hypocrisy — but your reducing the entire thing to 'keeping female sexuality down' and equating that with all of society's worst impulses is so completely intellectually lazy, especially in relation to The Handmaid's Tale. What about Hester's own agency? She chose to have sex, and she lives with that decision. Look at the way she isn't afraid of these men who are so terrified of her. She's not ashamed. She bears the brunt of what she and Dimmesdale did and what all the men around her have done. And that's why you're just fundamentally wrong."
Jackson looks back and grins with all of his white, white teeth, his thick dark hair effortlessly messy on his head. He's always purposely baiting me in this class. His whole face comes to life when refutes me — just last month, we had it out over the role of imperialism in the absolutely wretched Heart of Darkness. He enjoys it: the way our classmates always turn on me, the fact that he can pull any ridiculous interpretation out of his ass and everyone — even the teachers — will be mesmerized by his words. The way I can't ignore him.
I won't stop until I win. It's my fatal flaw, and Jackson Hart reads me like a book.
He's a monster.
"I just think if Nell were to take a step back and see things from, I don't know, my perspective," he continues now, "she could see why this still feels so relevant and hits home in an environment like Prep."
"Yes, let's hear how the twenty-first-century rich boy relates to the nineteenth-century man writing about feminism through the lens of male pain. Spare me."
"The isolation Hester suffers for her actions —"
"Is just a punishment for having sex and being a woman, you said that already," I tell him. "I know. We all know. Seriously, Jackson, no one believes you read the book."
I appeal to Mrs. Wesley as Jackson turns away from me in his seat, looking, if anything, more pleased than when we began the conversation. "Surely you can't buy this."
I can feel the rest of the class laughing at me. Know-it-all Nell Becker. Boring, perfect Nell Becker who wears her school uniform exactly as per regulations. Whose mom is head of school and whose family is hilariously middle class.
Boring, perfect Nell Becker doesn't even belong here.
Mrs. Wesley is looking at me as if what I'm doing is horrifying. "Mr. Hart is making a solid analysis, Nell. To presume he didn't read the book because he disagreed with you is not scholarly and not acceptable in this classroom."
One of Jackson's best friends, Doug Rivera, is laughing behind his hand because he knows the same thing we all do. Jackson couldn't give a shit about The Scarlet Letter and he certainly wouldn't waste his valuable time reading it. Not when he could be out being a Quintessential Rich Kid, drinking and getting laid and being his typical giving-zero-fucks self.
Except Jackson somehow manages to stay right behind me in the class rankings, sleepwalking through class with perfect grades. Sometimes I swear he does it just to annoy me, too.
"I think you need to apologize," Mrs. Wesley says.
I sit back in my seat, waiting.
I almost laugh. She can't be serious. "You think I need to apologize?"
"Yes, to Jackson."
I do laugh.
"It's fine, Mrs. Wesley," he has the nerve to say. "Don't worry about it."
"Nell?" she repeats.
The only thing I can't stand more than the idea of Jackson getting away with the world's most absurd faux-feminist nonreading of The Scarlet Letter is the idea that I might be the one to get in trouble because of it. I bite back the thrum of anger coursing through my veins as I say, "My apologies, Jackson. Your reading of the book is certainly just as ... valid as mine, if somewhat shallow." A piece of auburn hair has escaped my long, messy ponytail and I moodily attempt to shove it back into place.
"Thank you," Mrs. Wesley says. I feel the happiness radiating off the class. Perfect, know-it-all Nell Becker got what was coming to her.
"Clearly this book has inspired passion in some of you, which is all I could ever really ask for as an English teacher." As Mrs. Wesley turns to walk to the front of the room, spouting nonsense, Jackson looks over his shoulder one last time and winks at me.
The bell rings ten minutes later and I shove my used copy of The Scarlet Letter into my worn-out book bag, stalking out the door before anyone else can say something preposterous to me. I stop at my locker halfway down the hall and switch the book out for my precalc and biology textbooks.
"You know, it's really simple, actually," says a smooth voice to my right. Jackson is leaning into the locker next to mine, watching me. "In the environment of The Scarlet Letter, a man could show half the mental fortitude and bravery of a woman — if any at all — and would be praised for it. A society that praises male voices over female ones. I was only testing the text in a modern setting."
I slam my locker door. "Are you seriously trying to make me believe you were being a jackass as some kind of clever meta statement on society?" "I thought it was a compliment," Jackson tells me with a shrug. "The patriarchy is keeping you down, Nell. I didn't even read the CliffsNotes."
"Really? Were those above your reading level, too?"
"Oh, come on, Becker," Jackson says. "I'm one measly hundredth of a GPA point behind you."
I decide to exit the conversation, marching away from him down the hall, my fingertips skimming the edge of my navy plaid uniform skirt. He tails me like some sort of megalomaniacal puppy. He's got two inches on me tops, so I take the steps two at a time to make sure he has to work a little to keep up. "Do you want something?"
"You shouldn't let me get to you."
I stop so fast he almost walks right past me. I face him. "You honestly think you get to me?" I can feel the heat building, my fair skin turning red.
He grins. "I know it."
"You're delusional. We both know I'm the best, and deep down, you can't stand it."
"You can't stop arguing with me, can you?" he asks as if he's genuinely excited by the prospect. "You want to feel like you're somehow superior to me even though we both know that I'm enjoying life in a way you can't even imagine. Someday I'll look back and have interesting stories to tell, and all you'll be able to talk about is when you were stressing over my fake interpretation of The Scarlet Letter. That's kindergarten-level jealousy, Becker."
It is physically painful to stop myself from arguing again, but I have to let it go. It's a psychological game: If I don't let him have the last word, I'll be proving him right.
Instead, I roll my eyes, walking around him to my class. My skin is practically vibrating with irritation against the textbook I'm holding, as if the book itself is holding me together. And I realize that, by not getting the last word, he still got me — I can't win.
I glance behind me to see he's already engaged in something else, his arm thrown around one of his friends as they walk away, talking animatedly, as if whatever he's saying is the best thing anyone's ever said.
I hate everything about him.
I hit the ground hard, diving for a ball on my left side, and then roll back over my right shoulder, getting both my feet back under me as I spring up again, teetering slightly.
"Too slow, Becker," Coach Madison yells at me, slamming the volleyball with her open-handed palm, the crack telling me to clear out of the way. I shake my head, running to the end of the line behind Lia, towering over her by about eight inches.
"You're fine," Lia Reagan says preemptively. I sigh, tugging on my ponytail. "You're fine," she repeats because she knows I need to hear it. I wish I didn't. "You rolled over the wrong shoulder. It would've been faster over your left but you're afraid to go to your weak side."
"I'm not focused," I say, my voice rising with frustration.
"Anything to do with your little tête-à-tête with Jackson Hart in Mrs. Wesley's class today?" Lia asks, careful not to smile.
"You heard about that?" I ask, staring straight ahead as I edge back to the front of the line. Lia dives for the ball ahead of me, her curly blond hair bouncing on top of her head.
As I take my turn, I swear Coach Madison puts my ball five feet farther out than anyone else's has been, but I do my very best to catch up to it, flipping over again. Not bad.
Lia turns around to me once I follow her to the end of the line. There's a bruise blooming against the pale skin on her knee. "Everyone was talking about it."
"About how I'm a freak?"
Lia doesn't look me in the eye. "People just think you're intense."
"Right." I nod. "Intense."
Coach Madison blows her whistle, signaling the end of practice. She gathers the team in a circle and proceeds to tell us we're "shit," yelling so much, I'm worried she may go into labor. Spring conditioning is supposed to go through the end of the school year, but there's no way she won't have the baby before then. We have club ball practice — our competitive summer league — starting up soon, but not soon enough, considering our first major tournament of the summer is in less than two months. All the biggest college scouts from around the country will be there. I've been training overtime for it: runs in the morning and conditioning plus spring drills with the volleyball team in the afternoon.
It never feels like enough.
Coach Madison releases us, and Lia and I walk side by side back to the locker room like we always do. "Why did you get into it with him again? After the great Heart of Darkness meltdown of April, I thought you weren't going to do that anymore. Because it's not worth it, remember? Any of this ringing a bell?"
"Should I let him spit out lies, then?" I ask.
"Like complete nonsensical bullshit? Is that fine?"
"It's fine with everyone else," Lia says, reaching into her locker. I can tell she's trying not to laugh.
"Y'all talking about Jackson?" our other middle hitter, Michonne Tyler, asks from the locker next to mine, shaking her braids out of her ponytail. I yank my gym bag free.
"No," I mutter.
"I heard you won the argument, even though no one knew what you were talking about," Michonne says. I grin to myself.
"See?" Michonne tells Lia. "I know how to make Nell happy." Michonne is the only other Prep player on our club team. Her dad is an investment banker, a prominent member of the southeast chapter of the National Association of Black Finance, and her mom a well-known artist, a Taiwanese immigrant. Like most people at Prep, Michonne has been tapped to grow up to "be somebody."
"See, Lia?" I ask.
Michonne grabs her gym bag, pushing it up onto her shoulder. Her naturally light brown skin has darkened from days on the river, a telltale sign of the upcoming summer break. "I'll see y'all later," she says, throwing one last look at us.
"It's pointless, Nell," Lia singsongs to me as her locker door closes.
I sigh, giving in at last. "I know."
"Do you?" she asks, almost under her breath, still shaking her head.
"What?" I ask.
"Nell. You're obsessed with him."
"Oh, get off it," I respond, closing my locker with more force than necessary. I shove my fingers through my hair, pushing it back. "Exams are in a few weeks and he's breathing down my neck. He's just trying to get under my skin. And his whole 'I don't care' thing is such bullshit. He has to study sometime. He can't be that much smarter than me."
Lia looks at me with a slightly kinder expression, something like pity. "He's not. You'll beat him. Don't stress so much." She touches the side of my face. "It'll get stuck like that."
I swat her hand away playfully, and hip-bump her. I know she means well.
"Are we riding with Taylor?" I ask, putting my armor back up. The exposed cracks feel too much like weakness.
I'd ridden to school with my mom this morning — Mom made a comment about how it was probably a good idea I get in early to study and have you thought about putting on some lipstick? — but Lia usually gives me a ride home from practice. But her car is in the shop this week, so her brother is giving us a ride.
She nods and starts walking to the exit of the locker room. I follow her.
Outside, we hear the sound of the spring sports under way. Tennis racquets hitting balls hard, a pitching machine whirring on the softball field in the distance, and the sound of a baseball colliding with a catcher's mitt. All of the equipment state of the art, all the athletes top caliber, built on years of private lessons paid for by their parents. Cedar Woods Prep — the most hated school in lower-state South Carolina.
They pay the best athletes to come to their school — we can't compete with their facilities, the public school parents say. They have donors; they'll always win.
I know what the public schools kids hear. I used to be one of them.
Before Mom got the head job here, that was me, always a couple of steps behind the Prep volleyball players on the court. I may have been the cream of the crop at Cedar Woods Middle School, but that wasn't enough. I had transferred to Prep with Mom and done what I did best, risen to the top. I may have been the middle-class head of school's jumped-up daughter, rated only slightly higher than the scholarship kids in everyone's minds, but even in a world where legacy kids were always expected to win, I never went down without a fight. I still remember my first meeting with the freshman guidance counselor on my first day, staring down at my transcript.
"Smart girl," he said. "You'll fit in just fine here — keep your head down, and Cedar Woods' prestige will put you on your way to a good college."
I remember, too, scanning the sophomores', juniors', and seniors' class rankings posted right outside the admin hall. At the top, all the boys. Right next to pamphlets for the best schools in the country. Not just good colleges.
Excerpted from "Winner Take All"
Copyright © 2018 Laurie Devore.
Excerpted by permission of Imprint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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