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Authors: Lara Deloza

Winning

BOOK: Winning
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Dedication

For Wendy, my sister from another mister,

who gives me the courage to keep typing.

ONE
Alexandra

Some girls are born to wear a baseball cap without an ounce of irony. Think of those long-legged, gamine creatures whose tans are never fake-baked, whose shoulders are broader than those of their boyfriends, and who tend to have a pair of blindingly white sneakers they save for “dress up.”

Some girls are born to wear a beret, or its sloppy cousin the beanie. Universal symbols that scream “I'm a bohemian—no, really, I am!” These are the girls who believe they belong in the spotlight, only to end up in someone else's shadow every single time.

Some girls are born wanting so desperately to blend in that they spend hours trying to coax their locks into one of those messy-bun-and-elastic-headband combos that are so on-trend. Only these girls a) look like every third person and b) are not fooling anyone because the amount of effort they exert in trying to look effortless is obvious.

And I won't even talk about those girls hiding behind thick bangs, dyed black and ironed straight. As if a curtain of hair
could mask the pain and self-loathing that run so deep, they've turned parts of their bodies into lines of scar tissue.

You may wonder why I have such strong opinions about such seemingly trivial things.

It's because I have to. It's my job to size people up. To see what's hiding beneath the surface—and then use that to my advantage.

You see, I am not like any of those girls.

No,
I
was born to wear a crown.

TWO
Alexandra

I spend fifth period the way I always spend fifth period: stuck in a mint-green box of a cafeteria, besieged by an army of clichés.

Samantha and I are seated at our usual table, one of only three rounds in the entire room.

There are enough chairs to accommodate eight people, but I've opted not to invite anyone to join us today, not even Matt.

This is because Sam and I have serious work. On Monday, the students of Spencer High will nominate candidates for this year's Homecoming court. Principal Frick will post the official ballot by the end of the day, and once she does, the campaigning is
on
. I, of course, am a shoo-in; I've served as class princess every year since I was a freshman. But this year's different.

This year, I'm going to be queen.

I wiggle my fingers in Matt's direction and offer up an appropriately coy-yet-demure smile. My boyfriend grins and, despite being sandwiched between a six-foot-four-inch running back and three-hundred-pound wide receiver, Matt blows me a bona fide kiss. His teammates don't even give him shit about it, because
both of them have wanted to bone me for years. I cast my eyes downward, deepen my smile, and coax my cheeks to flush pink. Matt can't take his eyes off me. But neither can Sam, for that matter.

Yes, I am the future Homecoming Queen of Spencer High, and my underwear model–hot boyfriend is both quarterback and captain of our nationally ranked football team. Together, we're not only high school royalty, we're the stuff of legends.

Does this make me a cliché, too?

Maybe. But clichés are the currency of the world. At the end of the day, I'm the one other girls aspire to be, the one every straight boy—and at least one not-so-straight girl—dreams of being with.

I look up and catch Sam frowning in Matt's direction. Her new distaste for him aggravates me. She's been like this since junior prom—the night I granted Matt full passage to my promised land. As though the first eight months of our relationship didn't matter to her, or at least didn't matter as much. Sealing it with sex?
That
apparently mattered.

I thought she understood. But perhaps I shouldn't have given her so much credit.

“Hey,” I say softly, snaking my hand over to Sam's to give it a little squeeze. “You okay?”

Her head whips back to my direction and she pulls her hand away. “Yes. Of course. Why?”

“No reason.”

Sam sighs and opens her pink plaid notebook to a fresh page.
“We only have four days left,” she says. “It's going to be tight.”

“Three,” I correct.

“Oh, right,” she says. “Today's Thursday.”

I nod. “Natalie Night.”

“Three days,” she affirms. “
Very
tight.”

Homecoming is a big deal at Spencer High, and winning queen has been a part of the plan for as long as I can remember. There was a story published in the local paper—this was years ago—claiming that every Miss Indiana for the past three decades was a former Homecoming Queen. It's not true. There's no documentation anywhere that proves this. But for whatever reason, the story stuck with my mother. Winning Homecoming Queen is No. 13 on her quite literal (not to mention ridiculously long) list of things I need to do in order to one day become Miss America.

I know there are other ways to get out of this small town. With my grades, extracurriculars, and standardized test scores, I could get a scholarship to just about anywhere in the country. But I don't want something as mundane as college to be what carries me away from Spencer. I was born for bigger things.

Natalie grew up thinking she was born for bigger things, too. But despite her movie-star good looks and hip-switching famous gait, the highest she ever got was second runner-up in Miss Indiana. I already know that I am better than her, but it doesn't stop me from wanting the crowns to prove it.

Sam starts making a list of prime locations to hang my campaign posters so that we'll know how many to make. She's got
this covered, so while she talks herself through the process, I tune out and survey the room. Our back corner table offers the best possible vantage point. From this angle I can see Sloane Fahey sipping on a diet pop and staring lustily in my boyfriend's direction—as if freckle-faced gingers posed any kind of a threat. Across the aisle from her, poor Ivy Proctor lunches alone, surrounded by a force field of empty chairs. She does an admirable job of acting like she doesn't care that her only companion is a library book.

Then there's Taylor Flynn, the chubby junior who's spent the last two years pretending that she and the ratchet bunch of misfits that make up Spencer High's a cappella group are, in fact, cool—a delusion perpetuated by pop culture portrayals of show choir. She pops up from her table, wiping tears from her mascara-streaked eyes, and makes a beeline for the door.

“Taylor!” I call out as she passes by. “What's wrong?”

Taylor stops dead in her tracks. Slowly, she turns to face me.

“Nothing, Alexandra,” she says. “I'm fine.”

“Are you?” I ask, knitting my eyebrows, feigning concern. “You don't look fine.”

She swallows hard, then says, “Mr. Willis just told the Spattertones that our fall concert's been canceled. Something about a budgeting snafu. You know how Frick is.”

“Oh, no. That's awful.”

She nods vigorously in agreement, then bursts into a fresh round of tears. “I had three solos!” she practically wails, little lobes of back fat jiggling with each sob. “And Gramma already
booked her flight from South Dakota. She's going to be
so
disappointed!”

It's hard not to feel sorry for Taylor. I mean, I wasn't
trying
to ruin her life when I got Sam to convince her mother, the head of Spencer's Parent Teacher Organization, that the Spattertones concert was scheduled too close to our fall musical. Nor was Taylor an intentional target when I whipped Mrs. Mays, the World's Most Dramatic Drama Club Coordinator, into a frenzy over the idea that
Evita
would suffer if the audience was diverted by the promise of quirky covers of their favorite pop songs.

But this is
my
senior year, and so help me God, I will be Eva Perón in front of a sold-out house. Taylor's just an unfortunate—but necessary—casualty.

“You know,” I say, “you could join the chorus of
Evita
. Then your grandmother would still be able to see you perform. It wouldn't give you three solos, but—”

“It's something,” she finishes for me. “Yeah, maybe that's a good idea.”

“Of course, I'll put in a good word with Mrs. Mays for you.” I wink. “You know how she adores me.”

“Thank you, Alexandra.” Taylor is finally breathing steadily again. “You're so . . . kind.”

She says this last word like she's surprised by it. Not an entirely unexpected reaction.

For the record, there are precious few people in this school I genuinely like. And there are even fewer who genuinely like me, although nearly all of them, if asked, would say they did.

This is because the majority of my classmates know that I am someone they're
supposed to
like. I have the ear of every teacher, coach, and administrator here. I make things happen at this school. I am someone they want on their side.

Taylor sniffs back the last of her tears. “I'm going to go talk to her right now. Thank you, Alexandra. Seriously—thank you.” She flashes me a grateful smile.

Taylor lumbers away on what I'm certain will prove a fruitless mission. Mays has had her show blocked and choreographed since before school started. No way will she want to work in extra cast members now. But my “willingness to help”? It throws Taylor off my scent.

“One goal accomplished,” Sam says in a low voice. “Now can we please focus? We've got a campaign to win.”

BOOK: Winning
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