Miranda Kenneally

Mexican Food Cures Writer's Block

Coming up for Air Gets 4 Great Trade Reviews!

Coming Up for AirMy new book Coming up for Air, which comes out July 4, has received 4 great reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal and Romantic Times. I’m so excited! Here are the reviews:

Kirkus:

An Olympic-caliber swimmer seeks gold in romance in the latest of Kenneally’s interconnected Hundred Oaks series.

As a teenage swimmer who’s trying desperately to make the cut for the Olympic trials, Maggie’s life is swim, eat, sleep, repeat. The white high school senior’s only break is Friday nights at Jiffy Burger with her friends, including her childhood friend and teammate Levi, also white. Due to swimming, she’s missed a lot of high school experiences—something she feels very keenly when she visits Berkeley, where she will be going in the fall. Her primary swim rival, a white girl with a nose stud named Roxy, is also going to Berkeley, and it seems that Roxy has had plenty of time for romance, unlike Maggie. So she resolves to learn how to make out with a guy before starting college…and who better to teach her than her best friend? After a little coaxing, Levi agrees to show her what to do. As Maggie struggles to both beat Roxy and make the cut for the trials, what was only physical with Levi starts to become something more. Maggie’s present-tense narration is rich with the details of elite student athletics, and she is cleareyed in her exploration of her sexuality, including a look at college hookup culture that manages to be very funny.

The frank depiction of female teenage sexuality elevates this series entry.

Publishers Weekly:

Senior Maggie King has spent her life focused on one thing: swimming. Now that she’s been accepted to UC Berkeley and has a real shot at the Olympic trials, Maggie wishes she’d spent a little more time focusing on guys—specifically, how to hook up with them. Her best friend Levi seems to have no problem finding time for girls, even though he’s also a competitive swimmer. Maggie hits on the idea of Levi teaching her the basics of hooking up, but as the lessons start and get steamy, the pressure to perform in the pool mounts for both of them, and her feelings for him deepen. This lighthearted romance has all the trademarks of a Kenneally novel: a strong female lead, a sexy male love interest, and a complicated relationship fraught with sexual tension. Fans of the author’s Hundred Oaks series won’t be disappointed as they watch Maggie’s and Levi’s friendship move in a new direction, and the competitive and uncertain element of Maggie’s future in swimming makes the page turning all the more enjoyable.

School Library Journal:

This stand-alone series entry focuses on Maggie, a high school senior and an elite swimmer training to qualify for the Olympics. Her daily schedule includes hours of swim practice, and her weekends are usually spent at competitions, which has contributed to Maggie’s lack of dating experience. After realizing that she’s increasingly interested in sex yet hesitant to engage in risky behavior, she approaches her best friend and fellow swimmer, Levi, for guidance in navigating a physical relationship with a guy. The proposition threatens to derail their friendship as well as distract them both from their training, but along the way they discover they have feelings for each other. The writing and plotting will appeal to the intended audience and perfectly balance intense sports play-by-play with romance. In her quest to explore her sexuality, Maggie prioritizes her desires and needs. She is always in the driver’s seat, which is not often the case for female characters in YA fiction. Kenneally provides readers with a realistic model of sexual behavior that emphasizes safe sex practices. Hand this title to those who enjoy Kasie West, Morgan Matson, and Emery Lord. VERDICT A contemporary sports fiction romance that offers practical, sex-positive advice; ­recommended for most teen collections.

Romantic Times:

The latest visit to Hundred Oaks is quite possibly the best of them all! Maggie King is a delightfully layered heroine to whom readers can easily relate, especially student athletes who have also missed out on “normal” teenage experiences as they worked to achieve their dreams. From the close-knit friendships to the intensity of Maggie’s training, the sizzling chemistry and the authentic emotions, the story remains engaging and current throughout. Honest discussions about sex and self-worth add to the novel’s dimension and appeal.

Maggie King’s life revolves around swimming, school and her three closest friends. But in between training to qualify for the Olympic trials, dealing with a mean-girl rival and visiting her dream college, Maggie realizes she’s missed the typical high-school experiences. Her best friend Levi seems like the perfect choice to help her check certain items off on her mental senior-year bucket list. Despite his hesitations, he agrees to her request, but will their friendship survive the new feelings that arise during their quest?

 

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Excerpt from COMING UP FOR AIR

Coming July, 2017


A Day in the Life

Coming Up for AirWake up at 4:15 a.m.

Swim

Eat breakfast

Shower

Second breakfast

School

Snack between classes

Lunch

More class

Swim

Swim

Swim some more

Snack

Eat dinner

Homework

Sleep

Dream about swimming (and eating)

When I’m not in the pool, I’m counting the minutes until I can dive back in, so most of the time my bushy, light brown hair is wet and reeks of chlorine.

This is the story of my life.

But Friday nights are different because my friends and I have a tradition. We always meet for dinner at Jiffy Burger to talk about our lives. (Okay, mostly our love lives.)

My little group has been doing this since we were thirteen, when we still had to ride our bikes or bum rides from our moms. We understand each other. My best friend Levi and I spend all our time in the pool, while Hunter is the baseball team’s star pitcher and Georgia’s a gymnast-turned-cheerleader. Without a lot of time for anything but school and practice, we always carve out time for our Friday night dinners, and tonight is no different.

Hunter has barely said a word since I sat down. His eyes keep darting around Jiffy Burger and out the window, where a light January snow is steadily falling. He doesn’t even say thank you when the waitress delivers our usual salads, fries, tater tots, and shakes.

“What’s wrong with you?” I ask.

Levi starts laughing so hard he snorts. Georgia is giggling too.

I pop one of Levi’s fries in my mouth and he steals one of my tater tots. “What’s going on?” I ask through a mouthful.

“Mr. Goodwin caught Hunt in Shelby’s room last night,” Georgia says.

“Shit,” I say.

With a red face, Hunter rips into his burger and chews. His eyes sweep the restaurant again.

“He’s terrified Mr. Goodwin is gonna show up here and pulverize him,” Levi says.

“Back up,” I say. “I need details.”

Hunter is chewing slowly, probably so he doesn’t have to answer.

Levi jumps in, “You know how the Goodwin manor has all those secret passageways from the Civil War? Hunt’s been sneaking into Shelby’s room over the past few weeks.”

“I had no idea you guys were so serious,” I say, spearing lettuce with my fork.

“We’re not,” Hunter grumbles. “We’re still just fooling around.” He stuffs a fry in his mouth

“Does she know that?” Georgia asks.

“It was her idea!” Hunter says. “You know I want to go out with her.”

Swimming takes up all my time, so I’ve never dated anyone, or really made out with a guy for that matter. Hunter has someone to make out with on a regular basis now, and I’m pretty jealous. I will have to live vicariously through him.

“Hunter,” I say. “Story. Now.”

“I was making out with Shelby in her room—”

“Without your shirt on,” Levi cuts in.

“Without my shirt on, when her dad burst in. He chased me down the stairs and out the front door.”

I lean back in the booth. “Shit,” I say again.

“So I get this call at 2:00 a.m.,” Levi says. “It was Hunt calling to ask me to pick him up from the Exxon station.”

Hunter slumps. “I left my keys and phone in Shelby’s room.”

“And your shirt.” Levi flashes me a grin. “Did I mention that when I picked him up, he was shirtless? He ran shirtless through the snow!”

“I left that in her room too,” Hunter mutters.

“At least you had your pants,” I say encouragingly.

“I’m glad her dad didn’t have a gun,” Hunter says.

“So you rescued Hunter. This is why you were so wrecked at practice,” I say to Levi, who was incredibly sluggish in the pool this morning. He nods and shrugs. I’m not hurt Levi didn’t say something to me—he’s never talkative in the morning, because he’s not a morning person.

“So now what happens?” Georgia interrupts. “Are you still gonna see Shelby?”

Hunter plays with his fries. “I hope so.”

“You must really like her,” I say.

“You’d probably be risking death to go back to her house,” Levi says.

“Then it’s a good thing it has all those secret passageways,” Hunter says, and we all burst out laughing.

This is what it’s always like for us. As far as I know, we’ve never kept any secrets from each other, and I don’t know what I’ll do without them when we leave for college this fall. Georgia to the University of Tennessee. Hunter to the Air Force Academy, where he’ll train to be an officer and play baseball. Levi to University of Texas, and me to Cal-Berkley, two of the best swimming schools.

The four of us started hanging out in seventh grade because we had special schedules at school. Levi and I needed to leave before last period for club practice in Nashville. Georgia left early too. At the time, she was a serious competitive gymnast and trained with a professional coach every day. And because our school didn’t have one, Hunter went across town for last period to attend a junior ROTC program that his grandfather wanted him in. This meant our school didn’t require any of us to take gym class, which messed up our schedules, which meant we had to eat lunch with the sixth graders. None of us would be caught dead sitting with a sixth grader, so we started hanging out and never really stopped.

Still famished after my run this afternoon, I take a big bite of salad followed by a tater tot. Levi is on to his second cheeseburger. He and I swim six or seven times a week, three hours a day, and when we’re not swimming, Coach has us lifting weights or doing cardio. We’re always hungry. Georgia watches Levi chewing. That’s when I notice she’s only been picking at her fries, and her shake is untouched.

“You okay?” I ask her.

“I got an email from an assistant coach at Tennessee,” Georgia says. She’ll be on the cheerleading squad starting this fall.

“I’m still shocked they want you on the team,” Hunter says, sipping his iced tea through a straw. “There’s nothing a Tennessee fan hates more than Georgia.”

“That’s not true,” Levi says. “They hate Alabama more.”

Georgia smirks. “I don’t think Tennessee fans will give a crap what my name is once they see me do a round-off back handspring back tuck.”

“What did the coach say?” I ask, to get us back on topic. Our tangents are legendary.

“That I need to follow a strict diet.” Georgia pops a french fry in her mouth and chews. “Like, I have to eat a certain amount of calories per day and have to count grams of carbs and fat. I can’t eat cheese anymore!”

I gasp. Levi and Hunter pause in their chewing. Georgia lives for cheese. It’s her favorite food and general reason for being.

“You don’t need to lose weight,” Hunter says. “You look great.”

Georgia gives in and slurps her milkshake. “This is why I run every day. So I can eat cheese.”

“I run every day so I can outrun Mr. Goodwin,” Hunter replies, and the rest of us laugh.

What a sucker. I’d never get myself in a position like that.

#

Rather than risk another run-in with Mr. Goodwin, Hunter asked Shelby over to his house tonight, and Georgia’s mom wants her home early because she has a cheerleading competition tomorrow morning in Chattanooga. So it’s just me and Levi.

“Want to come back to my place?” he asks.

“Yeah, but I can’t stay too late.”

Tomorrow morning I’m flying to California to spend the night at Cal-Berkeley, where I’ll be going to school this fall. I will be attending a special orientation for new student athletes.

In his truck on the way to his house, we play our usual game where we pretend we’re on a boat with three people. We have to choose who we’d:

1)    Spend one hot night with;

2)    Spend an entire year sailing around the world with;

3)    Throw overboard.

Levi says, “Justin Bieber, Oprah, and Donald Trump.”

“That’s an easy one,” I reply, ticking them off on my fingers. “I’d throw Donald Trump overboard, because obviously. I’d have one hot night with Bieber, and spend a year with Oprah. She’s rich and has beach houses we could stay at when we’re sailing around the Caribbean.”

“You wouldn’t spend a year with Bieber? He’s rich and probably has nice houses.”

“He’s cute, but I don’t think I could handle his personality. I heard he was doing yoga on top of the Empire State Building the other day.”

He laughs. “Well, you gotta do your yoga somewhere, right? Okay, my turn.”

“Tom Brady, Prince Harry, and Elvis.”

Levi groans. He hates it when I don’t give him any girls to consider. Tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, he considers his options. “I’d spend one hot night with Tom Brady—maybe some of his good luck from winning all those Super Bowls would rub off on me. I’d spend a year with Prince Harry because he’s adventurous. He could get us into any party and girls would be all over us. I’d throw Elvis overboard because he’s already dead.”

“You have to assume he’s alive! That’s against the rules.”

Levi smiles at me from the driver’s seat. “There are no rules in this game. Now, it’s your turn. Professor Dumbledore, Marie Antoinette, and Michelle Obama.”

“Uggggh.”

The house is dark when we arrive, only the porch light lit. His mom is working late, like every night. She’s an executive at Rêve Records, the country music label. Ms. Lucassen says music never sleeps, and as a result, neither does she. She adores all things country—horses, rodeos, line dancing. Levi even got his name from her favorite brand of jeans.

It’s after eight o’clock and Wheel of Fortune is over, so Oma and Opa are already in bed. They’re Dutch, and forbade Levi from calling them Gram and Gramps. That’s what I call both sets of my grandparents. There’s Ohio Gram and Gramps, and Tennessee Gram and Gramps. Levi thinks it’s hilarious I call them that. His grandparents have lived with him since he was a toddler, when his dad left his mom and moved to Texas.

Levi unlocks the front door and his dog, Pepper, bounds up and, as usual, sticks her face in his crotch. She’s a bearded collie whose grey and white hair always falls in her eyes like a boy in a boy band.

He scratches her floppy ears. “Hey, baby girl.”

Levi flicks on a few switches to light the way to his room. When we get there, I kick off my boots and flop down on his soft bed, loving the way it bounces. He pulls his hooded grey sweatshirt off over his head, his T-shirt riding up a little to reveal ripped abs thanks to the 300 crunches a day that Coach orders.

I love that sweatshirt. His last name is embroidered on the breast in cursive: Lucassen. Soft from so many washings, it smells like him, and I love stealing it to wear, but he always nabs it right back because it’s his favorite.

He places his wallet on top of his desk next to stacks of books and dozens of trophies. He lies down next to me, looking comfy in a pair of running tights with long athletic shorts over them. Even though Ms. Lucassen pressures him to wear jeans and nice button-downs, I never see him in anything but speedos, athletic clothes, and the silver chain his mom gave him. It has a little pendant that says Make Waves.

I grab his iPad from the messy nightstand, which is covered by empty Gatorade bottles and a stack of Harry Potter paperbacks, and turn on some music on his speakers. Levi starts fiddling with his phone.

“You better not be playing Candy Crush again,” I say. Coach Josh nearly took his phone away this morning because he was tapping the screen instead of diving in the pool.

“I’m texting Molly.”

“Who?”

“The girl I met in Clarksville a couple weeks ago.”

Levi always finds a way to sneak out at meets to hook up, especially when we’re in hotels and Coach can’t keep an eye on him every waking minute. He’s only seventeen, but could pass for a college guy. At 6’5 and 190 pounds, he’s a beast. I look tiny beside him, and I’m 5’10. Girls love his body, with his long, lean, muscled torso, and sleek blond hair. He says sex helps him take the edge off. I don’t care how he chooses to spend his free time, but a random hook-up at a meet has always made me nervous.

Not only would it distract me, it could hurt my reputation. I can’t risk other athletes thinking I get around. Especially Roxy. My rival already gets in my head in the pool. I can’t give her anything to lord over me.

But believe me, I really want to make out with somebody. The last—and only—person I’ve kissed is Hunter during an ill-advised game of truth or dare two years ago, when we each declared the other the worst kisser ever. Maybe I need to play truth or dare more often, I muse.

Levi’s phone keeps buzzing as he types.

“Are you sexting?” I tease.

“No,” he says a little too quickly, totally guilty, and then he cracks up. “I don’t know actually. Do you think her telling me ‘I need to kiss your plump lips ASAP’ is sexting?”

“Plump lips? Did she really say that?” I try to look over his shoulder at his phone, but he elbows me away. “What did you say back?”

“That I want to touch her bazongas.”

I bury my face in his pillow. “Nooooo. You did not.”

He’s still laughing. “Okay, fine. I told her I finally cleared level 181 of Candy Crush.”

“How romantic.”

“She responded that her ‘lips have been known to taste like candy.’” He cocks his head, thinking. “I’d agree with that.”

I roll my eyes. “Are you into her?”

He stares at his phone, thumbs tapping the screen. “She’s nice…but I don’t want anything serious.”

What he means is, even if he did want a relationship, he’d have no time for it. Next week is conferences, two weeks later is regionals, and two weeks after that is the high school state championship. Then, if we qualify—which I will totally die if we don’t qualify—we have Junior Nationals in Huntsville with our club team, the New Wave. Then there are two important, long-course meets, leading all the way up to the Olympic trials in June. I eat, sleep and breathe the trials. No lie, it’s on my mind every waking minute, and I haven’t even qualified for them yet.

We. Are. Busy.

Friday nights are literally our only downtime because we don’t swim doubles or lift weights on Fridays. This is why we don’t have time for serious dating: every other day of the week we’d be asleep by now after a hard workout.

Speaking of which, I’m exhausted and my muscles are tight. I stretch my arms above my head.

“Your shoulder still bothering you?” he asks. I nod, and he motions for me to flip onto my stomach so he can work on this knot from Hades that won’t go away.

His strong hands massage my shoulder until the dog jumps on the bed to interrupt my bliss. Pepper presses her paws on my back and barks.

“Pepper! That’s my job,” Levi says, motioning for her to get off the bed. He turns to me. “So. You excited for tomorrow?”

I hesitate. Based on my swimming record, Cal offered me a scholarship last year. I can’t wait to kick some ass swimming in college, but I dread the idea of moving away from my friends. Especially Levi. We’ve never been apart for more than a week.

“I’m sort of excited…? I don’t know.”

Levi nudges me. “You’ll have fun this weekend. I had a great time visiting Texas. Some guys from the team took me out to dinner and then we went to a party. Do you think you’ll do something like that?”

“I’m not sure…I wish we were going to the same college. I don’t want to leave you.”

I look back over my shoulder at him, and he gives me a supportive, but sad, smile.

My friend doesn’t want to leave me either.

 

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Excerpt from DEFENDING TAYLOR!

Defending Taylor

July 5, 2016!

About the book: 

Captain of the soccer team, president of the Debate Club, contender for valedictorian: Taylor’s always pushed herself to be perfect. After all, that’s what is expected of a senator’s daughter. But one impulsive decision—one lie to cover for her boyfriend—and Taylor’s kicked out of private school. Everything she’s worked so hard for is gone, and now she’s starting over at Hundred Oaks High.

Soccer has always been Taylor’s escape from the pressures of school and family, but it’s hard to fit in and play on a team that used to be her rival. The only person who seems to understand all that she’s going through is her older brother’s best friend, Ezra. Taylor’s had a crush on him for as long as she can remember. But it’s hard to trust after having been betrayed. Will Taylor repeat her past mistakes or can she score a fresh start?

:

Before

When I was a little girl, Dad installed a gumball machine in our house. But instead of just giving me the candy, I had to pay for it by doing chores.

Now I’m seventeen, and Dad hasn’t changed one bit. If I want a new purse, I start saving my allowance. My father made his own way in life and expects the same of me. He loves drilling mantras into my head: I will work hard at everything I do. I will model integrity and compassion. I will lead by example.

I will fully support his Senate reelection campaign.

To be honest, I don’t see him much. Only on parent’s weekend and holidays. His secretary schedules his rare visits to St. Andrew’s, my boarding school, so I know when my parents will be rolling onto campus. I know in advance to yank my plaid uniform skirt down a few inches and pull my sock up over my bluebird ankle tattoo.

I tell Ben not to hang around.

He is here on scholarship, and my mother never hesitates to let me know I can do better. Taylor, why don’t you spend time with Charles Harrington? The governor speaks highly of his nephew.

Mom wants me to date somebody with “proper breeding,” as if I’m a horse or we live in regency England.

But it doesn’t matter what she thinks. I adore the boy who came over to congratulate me after I scored the winning goal against Winchester and then asked me to homecoming.

I love my school in the mountains surrounded by thick green trees and blue skies. I love Card House—the dorm I share with the fourteen other girls on my soccer team—where every night, I sit down to lasagna or beef stew with a black lab named Oscar curled up at my feet.

I won’t lie—this school is tough. It kicks everybody’s ass. I study and study and study. I probably spend more time on homework than sleeping.

But who cares? St. Andrew’s is my favorite place in the world.

 

After I Fall

Mom hates coffee.

She won’t keep the stuff in the house. She claims it will make my skin sallow and my bones brittle, but I can’t function without a cup every morning. So I stop for a fix on the way to my new school. The windows are rolled down, the cool wind is tangling my hair, and I pretend I’m driving to the beach for a vacation.

I smile at the dream, but my body knows the truth. My fingers are clenched around the steering wheel.

Last week, I was worrying about normal stuff: homework, a soccer game against Hamilton County, college applications, a tough math test. The list went on and on and on.

This week? Everything’s changed.

I park my Buick in the lot of Donut Palace. After everything that’s happened, I’m surprised my parents let me keep the car. Dad wanted to take it away, but Mom defended me, saying, “Edward, she’s a senior! It would embarrass me if Taylor had to walk to school or take the bus.” Mom shuddered at the idea of public transportation, while Dad rolled his eyes.

At least my car probably won’t stick out at my new school. Although other kids at St. Andrew’s drove Porsches and Beemers, Dad bought me a used car that was older than the dinosaurs. With its dark-green paint, it even looked like one. Everyone teased me, calling it the Beastly Buick or the Beast for short. I laughed and shrugged it off because that’s my dad.

Yeah, he’s the senior senator from Tennessee, but he’s all about being true to his roots.

He expected that of me too, and I let him down.

I climb out of the car and open the door to the little café. Intoxicating scents of coffee and cinnamon lace the air. I examine the menu. Dark roast or hazelnut? I normally drink lattes, but it’s going to be a long day, and I need as much help (caffeine) as I can get. I decide on dark roast.

The barista takes my order and fills a paper cup with steaming coffee, then hands it to me. I walk to the sugar station, and as I’m slapping a Splenda packet against my hand, a guy wearing a Santiago’s Landscaping T-shirt walks up and begins pouring skim milk into his cup. I watch him out of the corner of my eye, admiring his buzzed dark hair, easy smile, and lean, muscular body that must spend a lot of time hauling big bags of mulch. He catches me checking him out.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi.” I don’t meet his eyes, because I don’t want to give him the impression I’m interested. I reach for the half and half and start pouring it into my cup, accidentally knocking my plastic lid on the floor.

“Want me to get you a new lid?” the guy asks.

I bend down to pick it up, then wipe it on my jeans. I shake my head. “No need. Five second rule.”

That makes him smile. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”

“I never come in here.” Because I haven’t lived in Franklin in years.

“What’s your name?”

He leans toward me, and I inhale sharply, ignoring his question. I can’t lie to myself. Landscaper Guy is completely my type—well, he would’ve been my type when I was dating. After Ben, I am not anxious to get involved with a guy again.

Love is just not worth the pain.

“I’ve got a little time,” he starts. “Do you want to sit—”

“Gotta go.” I rush out the door, careful not to spill my hot coffee. Tomorrow, I’ll have to pick a different café so I don’t risk running into the cute landscaper.

Maybe I need a mantra. No. More. Boys.

***

I now understand culture shock: it’s me experiencing Hundred Oaks High for the first time.

A lot of kids go here. At least five hundred. At St. Andrew’s, there were only forty kids in my entire class. We lived on a calm, sprawling, green campus. Walking down the halls of Hundred Oaks feels like last-minute Christmas shopping at a crowded mall.

Two guys wearing football jerseys are throwing a ball back and forth. It whizzes by my ear. A suspender-clad male teacher is hanging a poster for the science fair, while a couple is making out against the wall next to the fire alarm. If they move another inch, they’ll set off the sprinklers. At St. Andrew’s, kissing in the hall was an über no-no. We snuck under the staircase or went out into the woods. Ben and I did that all the time.

Thinking of him makes me stop moving. I shut my eyes. Dating Ben was stupid. Going into the woods with him was stupid. Thinking about what happened makes me so mad, I want to rip that newly hung science fair poster off the wall and tear it apart.

A boy shoves past me, slamming my arm with his backpack. That’s what I get for loitering in the middle of the hallway with my eyes closed. He looks me up and down. “You coming to Rutledge Falls this afternoon?”

“What?”

“Paul Simmons challenged Nolan Chase to a fight. Rutledge Falls. Three o’clock. Don’t tell the cops.”

A fight? Where the hell am I? Westeros?

A girl bumps into my side. “Watch it!” Flashing me a dirty look, she disappears into a classroom with a group of friends, chattering away.

Seeing those girls together reminds me of my best friends, Steph and Madison. Right now, they’re probably gossiping before trig starts. I miss Steph’s cool British accent and Madison’s cheerful laugh.

I take a deep, rattled breath. And then another. I feel trapped, like the time I got locked in my grandpa’s garage and no one found me for an hour and I banged on the windows until my fists turned purple from bruises.

I can’t believe I had to leave my school. My home.

All because I made one stupid decision.

I check my schedule. My first class is calculus 1, the most advanced math course Hundred Oaks offers. Just a week ago, I was taking an advanced calculus quiz at the University of the South. St. Andrew’s is one of the best prep schools in the country, and they offer seniors the opportunity to take courses at the university, which is up the road. Even though I was still in high school, the professors treated me just like a college kid. I was only in the course for two weeks, but still. It was insanely difficult. The truth is, unlike everybody else in my family, I hate math. I have to work at it harder than anything else in my life.

But if I didn’t take college calc, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t get into an Ivy League school. I need to go to a top tier school, because that’s what people in my family do. My father attended Yale, and my sister Jenna is there now. According to Dad, my brother Oliver—Jenna’s twin—is a traitor for going to Princeton, but I think Dad respects him for having the balls to make his own decision.

Me?

When Dad called me into his home office last night, he barely looked at me as he pored over my new schedule. The silence was killing me.

“I don’t know how Yale will still consider me if I’m not taking all AP courses,” I said. “Hundred Oaks only offers AP chemistry.”

Dad sighed, took off his glasses, and set down my schedule. “I’m incredibly disappointed in you, Taylor.”

I looked him straight in the eyes. His quiet restraint worried me. I’d never seen him so upset.

But I was upset too. He rarely had time to call me when I was away at school, but he could spare a few minutes to comment on my one screwup? After how hard I’ve always worked?

Over the years, I’ve done hours of homework every night. I had a 4.2 GPA at St. Andrew’s. A 1520 SAT score. I was on track to be valedictorian. I was captain of the soccer team and on the debate team. I did everything I could to show Yale that I worked hard. That I am a unique individual. Because that’s what Yale wants.

But my one misstep has muddied my glowing record.

Dad ended our conversation with a death knell.

“Tee, I gave you all the tools you needed to succeed,” he said. “I’ve paid for your private school education since first grade, and you squandered it by getting kicked out.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, my face burning. “I’m going to keep working hard at Hundred Oaks though.”

“You’re damn right you will.”

My father had me so flustered, I wasn’t thinking straight when I said, “Maybe Yale will still take me because of who I am.”

“You mean because of who I am.” Dad rubbed his eyes. “I’ve always taught you kids the importance of integrity, and the minute you got into trouble, instead of owning it, you called me to bail you out. And now you’re doing it again. Using my name to try to get ahead.”

I hung my head. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

“I love you more than anything, but you have to take responsibility for what you did. You’ll have to figure college out on your own.”

“What does that mean?” I asked slowly.

“It means I’m not lifting a finger. I won’t be calling the alumni association or the school president to put in a good word for you.”

“But didn’t you do that for Jenna and Oliver?” I blurted.

He put his glasses back on. “You need to own up, Tee.”

So here I am, glancing around the unfamiliar halls of Hundred Oaks. The school is neat and orderly, but it doesn’t look completely clean, like no matter how hard you scrub, it still looks old. At least it’s not juvie.

I step into my math class, which is already filled with kids. I choose an empty seat at a wobbly wooden desk and stare out the window at the sunny, seventy-degree September day. I bet at St. Andrew’s, my world politics teacher is telling my friends, “Gather your books. It’s a beautiful day out. Let’s have class in one of the gardens.”

I check out the problem set on the whiteboard. I could do this level of math years ago…

My former guidance counselor told me that colleges look for trends in our GPA and activities over four years of high school. So that means when colleges see my application, they will see:

I’m taking easier classes;

I’m no longer doing debate;

I’ve lost my soccer captainship this year; and,

I was expelled.

I have never simply given up when calculus got a lot tougher or an opponent ran faster than me on the soccer field. So I refuse to believe my entire future is over because of one mistake.

I just need to figure out how to move forward.

***

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Jesse’s Girl Pre-Order Campaign!

Jesse's Girl

Jesse’s Girl

In celebration of the release of my new book JESSE’S GIRL in July, Sourcebooks Fire is offering some really cool stuff to fans of Hundred Oaks High!

Everyone who emails teenfire@sourcebooks.com will automatically receive an email of the EXCLUSIVE Jesse’s Girl playlist, and will be invited to attend a LIVE online author event on July 6, the day before Jesse’s Girl goes on-sale! I’m also planning to give out some fun prizes during and after the event.

In addition, if you pre-order the book and send your proof of purchase to teenfire@sourcebooks.com, you’ll not only get the exclusive playlist and event invite, but you’ll also receive a signed/personalized bookplate, a super-cute custom guitar pick, and entered to win a $300 gift card to TicketMaster so you can go to a concert or musical or some other fun event.

So hurry up and send your information to teenfire@sourcebooks.com (Subject: Jesse’s Girl), including your mailing address if you’re sending in proof of pre-order, and how you would like your bookplate signed.

Here are links to order a copy of Jesse’s Girl:

Guitar Pick

Coming July 2015

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Books-A-Million

Indiebound

Indigo

iTunes

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A Sneak Peek at JESSE’S GIRL!

Jesse's Girl

Jesse’s Girl!

As a holiday gift, here’s a sneak preview of my July 2015 book, JESSE’S GIRL!  This scene takes place a couple chapters into the book. For those of you who have not read the opening chapter, here’s a link.

 

Practice Makes Perfect.

Everyone at Hundred Oaks High knows that career mentoring day is a joke. So when Maya Henry said she wanted to be a rock star, she never imagined she’d get to shadow *the* Jesse Scott, Nashville’s teen idol.

But spending the day with Jesse is far from a dream come true. He’s as gorgeous as his music, but seeing all that he’s accomplished is just a reminder of everything Maya’s lost: her trust, her boyfriend, their band, and any chance to play the music she craves. Not to mention that Jesse’s pushy and opinionated. He made it on his own, and he thinks Maya’s playing back up to other people’s dreams. Does she have what it takes to follow her heart—and go solo?

 

Excerpt:

 

Welcome to the Jungle

Showtime.

On Friday morning, Dr. Salter drives us up to a whale of a brick home surrounded by iron gates and lush green hedges in Brentwood, the Bel Air of Nashville. A sedan idles by the curb. I peer through my window at the unshaven man hunkered down in the front seat. Another guy leans against the passenger side door and snaps pictures of us.

“Paparazzi?”

“Always,” Dr. Salter says as he steers the car to a security booth.

A beefy guard—he must weigh three hundred pounds—pokes his head out and tips his hat. “Dr. Salter,” his deep voice rumbles. “He expecting you?”

“Yes.” Dr. Salter sighs, drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel. “I guess he didn’t tell you we were coming?”

The guard shrugs. “You know Jesse. Let me call and get clearance.” He shuts the sliding-glass window and picks up a phone.

“Clearance?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word used that way.

“Jesse’s not—” Dr. Salter starts. “He doesn’t have visitors often.”

“Oh.” I wipe sweaty palms on my dress. The corset top is black leather and red lace, the short skirt poufy black tulle. It looks awesome with my ankle booties. I wore my favorite outfit, because spending time with Jesse will probably be uncomfortable. Might as well feel good in my own skin.

Ten seconds later, the steel gates slide open. A paparazzi guy rushes to follow us in on foot, but the guard steps out to stop him from entering the property.

We park the car in the semicircular driveway, and I climb out, staring up at the ivy-laced brick façade. The brick is just like my house, but his is about ten times larger. We only moved out of a trailer two years ago, after my parents finally saved up for a down payment on a small house. By comparison, this place looks like Buckingham Palace.

I unfold today’s schedule—I’ve read it so many times the paper is soft as a piece of cloth—and scan it one last time:

9:30 a.m. Arrival

10:00 a.m. Tour of Grand Ole Opry

11:00 a.m. Tour of Studio B

12:00 p.m. Lunch with Jesse and Mark Logan

1:30 p.m. Tour of Ryman Auditorium

2:30 p.m. Tour of Country Music Hall of Fame

3:30 p.m. Depart

“Come on,” Dr. Salter says, clapping a hand on my shoulder and steering me toward the door. “Jesse won’t bite.” My principal pushes the doorbell.

Seconds later, Jesse Scott opens the door wearing nothing but a pair of sky blue boxers.

Holy mother!

“Jesse,” Dr. Salter scolds him. “Put some pants on for God’s sake.”

Jesse stifles a yawn. “Hi, Uncle Bob.” He turns and goes back into the house, leaving the front door wide open. A woman with a tight bun, plain black dress, and fingers clamped over her mouth is left standing in the hallway in the wake of Jesse’s greet and run.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Salter,” the woman rushes to say. “I tried to get here first.”

My principal pats the lady’s elbow. “It’s okay, Grace.” He gives me a reassuring smile as we enter the sunlit foyer filled with leafy green plants. “Don’t mind him. Jesse’s not a morning person.”

“Based on how he treated me last week, he’s not an evening guy either,” I mutter.

The woman, Grace, disappears down a hallway, and Dr. Salter and I follow Jesse and his Gaelic tattoo into the living room, where he flops down in a cushy brown armchair made of cowhide. I set my purse on the floor and take a seat on a leather sofa across from him. This room could be featured in the Pottery Barn catalog that Mom gets in the mail. I want to slip my boots off and dig my toes into the plush beige rug. Guitars of all makes and colors—including a double-neck Fender Stratocaster!—hang on the walls. Over by a huge picture window sits a gorgeous, walnut-colored Steinway grand piano covered by sheet music.

His Grammys are on the mantle, but I don’t see any pictures of family or friends like at my house. Instead there are tasteful black-and-white portraits of the countryside: horses, cows, trucks, and tractors.

The only evidence that a person actually lives here is a drained coffee mug sitting on a glass table and sections of today’s newspaper, the Tennessean, strewn across the couch.

“You didn’t forget about Maya, right?” Dr. Salter asks Jesse.

“Nope.” He leans back and closes his eyes. “How could I forget I’m giving up my day off to hang out with a groupie?”

“In your dreams I’m a groupie,” I snap, shocking my principal.

“Why aren’t you dressed?” Dr. Salter asks his nephew.

Jesse shrugs. “Maya wanted to shadow me, right? Well, this is what I do on Friday mornings. And Thursday. And Wednes—”

“Stop being rude.” Dr. Salter shakes his head at his nephew. His cell phone dings. “Don’t let him fool you, Maya. He works harder than anybody I’ve ever met and has a good heart too.”

Jesse keeps his eyes shut.

My principal looks at his phone. “I need to get back to the school. Mark Logan just texted to say he’s two minutes out. Mr. Logan will stay with you two the entire day, and Grace, Jesse’s housekeeper, will be here until Mark arrives. Call my office if something comes up. Otherwise, Jesse and Mr. Logan’ll make sure you get home. Okay, Maya?”

“Got it.”

“Put some clothes on, Jess.” Dr. Salter pats his nephew’s cheek before leaving. As soon as the door clicks shut, Jesse checks me out.

“Wanna have sex?”

I gasp and glance at his boxers. And that line of hair on his stomach that leads down to places I shouldn’t be thinking about.

“No, thanks. You’re not my type.”

Jesse looks surprised. “That’s a first.”

What the hell have I gotten myself into? I mean, someone who writes such sweet lyrics can’t actually be such an ass in real life. Right?

“Everything okay?” Jesse asks. I look up to find him raising an eyebrow at me.

I shrug.

“Sorry—I shouldn’t be talking about sex. We just met. Wanna get drunk?”

Why is he asking such weird questions? “Didn’t you learn your lesson after you fell off that yacht?” I ask snarkily.

“You don’t know anything about that,” he snaps.

Ugh, I knew shadow day would be a stupid waste of time. Jordan probably learned more about being an NFL player from the Athletic Superstore manager than I’ll learn about music from Jesse. I swipe my phone on and look up the Hundred Oaks phone number. Maybe Dr. Salter hasn’t left the neighborhood yet. I push dial, and the school receptionist answers. “This is Maya Henry. Can you please connect me to Dr. Salter?”

Jesse jumps to his feet, snatches my phone from my hand, and says, “Wrong number.”

I reach to get my phone back, but he holds it way above my head.

“Give me that!” I leap up at my phone. “I want to leave.”

“Already?”

“I didn’t know it was your day off. I don’t want to waste your time. Or mine.”

He gives me a withering look. “Your time?”

I glare at him. “You know, before we met last week, I was really excited about this.”

“A punk rocker chick was excited to spend the day with me? Yeah, I believe that.”

“First of all, buddy, I wouldn’t call myself a punk rocker. I’m into the eighties—I was going for Madonna. And second, I got my hopes up about meeting you. I thought it would be cool to watch you practice. Hell, I thought I might even get some pointers, learn something from you.”

That’s when I realize I’ve been shaking my finger at him.

After he looks into my eyes for several beats, he hands me my phone. “Last Friday, you said you play a Martin.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Let’s hear you play.” He sits down and rests his elbows on his thighs. My eyes have a mind of their own and glance at his boxers again. He totally catches me.

“I didn’t bring my guitar.”

He purses his lips. “Why would you show up unprepared?”

“Well, why didn’t you prepare by putting on pants?”

“You’re not wearing any either.” His eyes trail up and down my legs.

Some girls would’ve jumped him already, but not me. Even if he has a nice set of biceps and the cutest freckles I’ve ever seen, he doesn’t deserve me after acting like a man slut.

“Where are your parents, anyway?” I ask.

“I dunno. Work? They don’t live here.”

“This is your house?”

“Yup. I bought it with my allowance.”

That makes me laugh. But how is he ready to live on his own? I mean, Mom still has to remind me to set my alarm so I wake up in time for school, and I can’t cook anything without burning it.

He carefully lifts an acoustic guitar off the wall and hands it over. “Play a song for me.”

I sit down and get it situated in my lap, studying it. My fingers tremble and itch to strum the strings. It’s a Martin, just like mine, only a lot older and more valuable. “Is this from, like, the 1930s?”

“Yeah…it was Pa’s—my great-grandfather’s—before he died.”

“You had a cool Pa.”

His mouth twitches. “I know. Now play a song for me.”

I run my fingers over the wood and bite my lip. Despite my different musical tastes, I thought my guitar skills were top notch and that I would be a huge asset to any band. But they wanted that guy Bryan instead of me. Maybe I’m not as good on guitar as I thought I was. If my own band ditched me, do I have any business playing for a Grammy winner?

He must sense my hesitation. “I’m gonna give you a bad grade if you don’t play.”

“You’re not in charge of my grade.”

“My uncle is, and if I tell him you didn’t do what I asked, you’ll probably fail.”

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m not willing to risk it. If I don’t complete shadow day, I won’t be allowed to graduate in the spring.

I pull my lucky pick (it’s made of quartz and shaped like a teardrop) out of my purse. Taking a deep breath, I start plucking the first song that Jesse put out after he won Wannabe Rocker. He wrote “Mi Familia” when he was eleven. I played this song over and over in fifth grade.

After the first chord transition, I get nervous, my fingers tremble, and I accidentally mute the D string, then miss the next transition. Jesse and I cringe at the same time.

“Crap—I never screw up,” I say.

“Maybe you haven’t been practicing enough.”

That’s true. I haven’t played much this week. Without a band to jam with, my heart hasn’t been in it.

“Go on,” Jesse urges, settling back into his armchair.

I start playing “Mi Familia” again, but after a measure, he waves a hand at me to stop. “Play something else. Know any James Taylor?”

“Obviously.” I’m more of an eighties girl, but any serious guitarist should know the classics. I start strumming “Carolina in my Mind.”

After I play two verses, Jesse holds up a hand again. “Are you gonna sing or not?”

I drum my fingers on the Martin’s tuners. “I don’t do solos.”

He shakes his head at the ceiling. “I don’t have time for this.”

“I thought you have all the time in the world. You’re quitting, right?”

The expression on his face could kill. “If you won’t sing for me, you should leave right now.”

“Fine, I’ll sing,” I shoot back.

“I promise I won’t laugh at you,” he replies.

“I’m not that bad a singer.”

“Then prove it.”

Game on, pretty boy, country jerk.

#

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt! The book will be out on July 1, 2015, and I can’t wait to share it with you all. Add JESSE’S GIRL to Goodreads!

 

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Cover and synopsis for my next book: JESSE’S GIRL!

I’m thrilled to share the cover, synopsis, and an excerpt for my July 2015 book, JESSE’S GIRL!

Jesse's Girl Cover

July 1, 2015

Practice Makes Perfect.

Everyone at Hundred Oaks High knows that career mentoring day is a joke. So when Maya Henry said she wanted to be a rock star, she never imagined she’d get to shadow *the* Jesse Scott, Nashville’s teen idol.

But spending the day with Jesse is far from a dream come true. He’s as gorgeous as his music, but seeing all that he’s accomplished is just a reminder of everything Maya’s lost: her trust, her boyfriend, their band, and any chance to play the music she craves. Not to mention that Jesse’s pushy and opinionated. He made it on his own, and he thinks Maya’s playing back up to other people’s dreams. Does she have what it takes to follow her heart—and go solo?

 

Excerpt:

The Space Between

Backstage, there’s so much security, you’d think it was the White House.

I’ve been to plenty of concerts, but I’ve never had a backstage pass, so I follow Dr. Salter’s lead and keep flashing my all-access badge over and over. My principal squeezes between two beefy men in security jackets and knocks on a door stamped with a red star.

A man in a tailored black suit and shimmering blue tie opens the door. He’s got better skin than any girl I know, and I bet his haircut cost a small fortune. “Oh good. It’s you,” he says to Dr. Salter, giving him a bright smile. The man takes my hand. “You must be Maya.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Come on in.”

Inside the dark dressing room I spot a vintage Gibson guitar, three flat screen TVs all showing the Braves game, and a table piled high with burgers and corn on the cob. I thought nothing could smell more delicious than my mom’s cooking, but I was wrong.

“Maya, this is Jesse’s manager, Mark Logan,” Dr. Salter says.

Mr. Logan pats my back like I’m one of the good ole boys. “Jesse will be out in a minute to meet you. Why don’t you get yourself a drink?” He gestures at the bar, which appears to be booze-free. Seems like a good move considering Jesse got drunk and fell off that yacht a few months ago. The press had a field day with that because it was totally out of character for Jesse Scott. Yeah, he’s a famous country star, but everyone thinks of him as this sweet, quiet boy from down on the farm.

“Could I have a word next door in private?” Mr. Logan says to my principal. “Jesse’s telling the crowd tonight.”

Dr. Salter’s face goes from happy to anxious, and they step back into the hallway where the security guys are buzzing around in their yellow jackets.

All alone now, I gaze over at Jesse’s guitar. I’m itching to try it out. What I wouldn’t give to throw the strap around my neck, charge out of the dressing room onto the stage, and rock out to Queen. But would I do “Somebody to Love”? Or “Another One Bites the Dust”? It’s a silly idea—I wouldn’t make it three feet before the beefcake security guys tackle me. I’d bite the dust. Literally. And if I sang, it’s a one hundred percent possibility my voice would crack. Playing onstage at the Opry…wouldn’t it be great, though?

I love playing guitar and performing more than anything. Before I started The Fringe, which was originally an eighties tribute band but has since become heavy metal-only, I even went to church on Sundays just to sing with the youth choir. All the crotchety old people would whisper and point their walking canes at my bright red lipstick, but I doubted God cares about that or the diamond stud in my nose. God only cares that I sang “I’ll Fly Away” at the top of my lungs.

That was before I gave it up to focus on my band. I also used to be a proud member of my school’s show choir, which isn’t anything like the cool groups in Pitch Perfect. You know, that a cappella movie? We sang songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and wore billowing green dresses, like you’d see on the cover of a historical bodice ripper romance novel. If that doesn’t tell you how much I love music, I don’t know what will. If the choice had been mine, we would’ve worn leather pants and tight tanks, but my director said that isn’t proper attire for our school’s most distinguished arts program.

However, as much as I love music, I am generally not a fan of country. I don’t like banjos. I don’t like sappy lyrics about trucks and hauling hay. Dolly Parton is my mortal enemy—my mom plays “Jolene” over and over and over and over and it makes me want to chop my ears off like Van Gogh. Yeah, yeah, I’m from Tennessee, where it’s a crime if you don’t love country, but I like deep, rumbling beats and singing loud and fast and hard. I do not like closing my eyes and crooning to a cow in the pasture.

Yet here I am at a Jesse Scott concert, getting ready to meet him and to see if he’ll let me shadow him next Friday. My school requires every senior to “shadow” a professional for a day. It’s their way of helping us figure out what kind of career we want. Like, if you want to be president when you grow up, you might get to shadow the mayor. Want to be a chef? Have fun kneading dough at the Donut Palace.

When I said “I want to be a musician,” I figured they’d send me to work in the electronics section at Walmart.

I certainly never expected to shadow the king of country music.

It turns out that Jesse Scott is my principal’s nephew. Jesse won TV’s Wannabe Rocker when he was ten and has gone on to become very successful. In sixth grade, every girl in class—myself included—took the Teen Beat quiz: Would Jesse Scott Like Your Kissing Style? (Obviously the answer was yes.) In middle school, I had a Jesse Scott poster on my ceiling. It’s hard to believe he’s only eighteen because he’s already won three Grammys. When he was younger his songs were about fishing and playing baseball, but lately they’re about love and making love and all things sexy.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan anymore, but I would never give up an opportunity to learn from a professional with such a gorgeous, pure voice. I want to learn what it’s like to perform day in and day out. Despite what everyone and their mom says—that I’ll struggle as a musician—all I want is to play guitar in front of a crowd and hear people cheer for me.

I can’t believe I’m backstage at the Grand Ole Opry! I bounce on my toes. Jesus, is that an Archtop Super 4, the model Elvis played? I’ve never seen one in real life. It probably cost more than my house.

I’m ogling the guitar when Jesse Scott comes out of the bathroom, drying his hair with a towel. He pads across the room to the couch, wearing nothing but a pair of rugged jeans with more holes than Swiss cheese.

The lighting is dim, and he doesn’t seem to notice I’m here, which is good because I’ve moved from ogling the guitar to ogling him. Who wouldn’t? He was one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that you should stare at people who’ve made that list.

The guy’s gorgeous. Like in the boy-next-door way. His wet, wavy, brown hair curls around his ears and nearly hits his shoulders, and while he doesn’t have a six-pack or anything, his body is fit. I wish he’d look my way so I can see his famous brown eyes. They always remind me of those caramel chews Poppy gives me when I visit. Jesse has some sort of Gaelic symbol tattooed on his left shoulder blade. I want to reach out and trace the design.

God, get a hold of yourself, Maya. Don’t be a horndog. Besides, he’s so not my type. I don’t do pretty boys.

Jesse grabs a black T-shirt from his bag and pulls it on over his head, then heads to his personal buffet. Humming to himself, he piles a bun and a burger onto a plate, and scrunches his nose at a plateful of pickles, which is just crazy because pickles are what make the burger. Instead he grabs a bottle of ketchup, unscrews the lid and tries to shake some onto his burger. It’s not budging. Must be a new bottle.

“Try hitting the little fifty-seven on the side—”

He startles. “What are you doing here?”

“Excuse me?”

“Did the Opry arrange for a ketchup expert to be at my beck and call?” he snaps.

“Clearly you need one.” I stride over, grab the bottle out of his hand, and tap the little 57 with the heel of my hand. Ketchup pours out.

“Thanks,” he says calmly. Then he yells, “Security! Another girl snuck in,” as he strides to the door in his bare feet. Jesse yanks open the door, revealing Dr. Salter and Mr. Logan. “I’m beginning to think you guys are letting them in just to torture me.”

The manager claps once. “Oh good. So you’ve met Maya? Have you discussed the possibility of her shadowing you next—”

“I’m sick of these groupie meet and greets,” Jesse says as if I’m not here. “Can’t I eat my damned dinner in peace?”

“You can now that you’ve got your damned ketchup,” I reply. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Mr. Logan and Dr. Salter gape at me. Throwing Jesse a look, I squeeze past Beefcake 1 and 2 into the hall.

I can’t believe how rude he was! Dr. Salter invited me to the concert so I could meet Jesse, and since I’ve already had the pleasure, I see no point in staying. I don’t want to shadow a spoiled pretty boy who sings about making love on tractors anyway. It’s still early. If I drive back to Franklin now, maybe I could meet up with Nate, and my Friday night won’t be a complete bust.

As I charge down the hall, pulling the all-access badge off from around my neck, a bunch of screaming girls rush my way. What in the world? A hand grabs my elbow. I go to shake it off and find Jesse still holding the ketchup.

“I’m sorry—can you come back inside?”

Before I can answer, the horde descends on him. It’s scarier than a zombie apocalypse.

“Shit,” he mutters.

“Oh my God, I love ketchup too!” a girl squeals at the bottle in his hand. “We have so much in common!”

“Want to come to my house, Jesse? My parents are out of town.”

A girl screeches and grabs his wrist. Another gets up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek and he jerks back.

“Jesse, Jesse! Can I sing a song for you?”

“Jesse! I want you!” This one yanks her shirt open.

I snort at her hot pink bra. Jesse smirks at my reaction as security breaks the group apart.

Jesse pulls me through security back into his dressing room, where he drops my arm and scans me. I’m wearing a great outfit—black ankle booties, skinny jeans, the belt I made out of duct tape, bleached blond hair, black tank top, the silly glittery bracelets I wear ironically, and a bronze military star medal from World War I that hangs from my necklace. Kids at school often make fun of my clothes, but I don’t care. I feel so Madonna right now.

Jesse shakes his head at me, then goes to give Dr. Salter a side hug. “Hey, Uncle Bob.”

Dr. Salter pats Jesse’s floppy hair and takes in his freckled face. “I’m looking forward to the show, son.”

“Thanks for coming,” Jesse says quietly.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Dr. Salter says. “Where’re your mom and dad? Will they be here soon?”

“They blew me off again. What else is new?”

Until a couple years ago, my dad was a truck driver and often missed my performances because he was on the road, so I understand how Jesse feels. But my parents have always been supportive. It shocks me that his parents aren’t at every show. I mean, the guy’s a three-time Grammy winner. It sounds as if Jesse’s fans attend more concerts than his parents do. And he’s their son.

While Jesse speaks in a low voice only Dr. Salter can hear, I decide to check my phone. My best guy friend, Dave, texted: I need a play-by-play of how hot Jesse is. Do we think he’s bi?

I also received a text from my bandmate, Nate. His reads: Hannah told me where you are. Did you really sell out and go to a Jesse Scott show?

Groan. I love hooking up with Nate, but geez. Why are guys so dramatic?

“What’s the girl doing here?” Jesse asks.

“Remember I told you about Shadow Day?” his manager says.

“Remind me,” Jesse replies through a big bite of burger.

“You agreed to meet with Maya. She’s pretty talented on guitar,” Dr. Salter says.

Jesse stares at me, chewing. “So you play, huh?”

I ignore him. When he realizes I’m giving him the cold shoulder, he turns to Dr. Salter. “Seriously? I’m missing the Braves for this?”

My principal gives me the glare he reserves for kids who cut class. “I’d like you to consider letting her shadow you, Jess.”

Jesse just shrugs.

I should’ve known this would be a bust. Shadow Day assignments always are. Students never get paired with professionals who can actually teach them something. Last year, Rory Whitfield said he wanted to be a movie director and ended up at the infant portrait area at Sears.

Dr. Salter says, “You should’ve seen her play guitar in the school talent show last spring.”

“Did you win?” Jesse asks me.

I shake my head, cringing at the memory. Why did Dr. Salter have to bring that up? After my band declared the school talent show “lame,” I decided to perform on my own, adding a hard edge to one of my favorite songs, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and had a great time rocking out. That is, until I started to sing, and my voice cracked under the pressure. Kids at school called me the siren for weeks. People have always said I have a great voice, but when all eyes are on me, something usually goes wrong—like the time I fainted during a solo.

I wish their eyes had somewhere else to focus. That’s why I prefer being part of a band.

Jesse takes another bite of his burger and gives me a bored stare, and I feel like the pickle he turned his nose up at. What a letdown. I figured People took personality into account when developing their beautiful people list. Apparently not.

You’d think Jesse would be as sweet as his songs.

Okay, okay. I’ll admit it—even though my musical tastes have evolved, Jesse wrote this one song, “Second Chance,” which I’ve loved since middle school. When Dave, my first crush and now best friend, wasn’t interested in dating me because he was too busy liking other boys (I didn’t know that at the time), “Second Chance” helped heal my broken heart.

So it kind of sucks meeting the real Jesse. I’ve seen more life out of mannequins. Granted, I haven’t smiled at him, but he was incredibly rude after I helped with his ketchup. I had really been looking forward to this opportunity, but he’s nothing more than a beautiful voice and a hot body with a cool tattoo.

Dr. Salter must sense our meeting is going downhill real fast. “Jess, you really should see Maya on guitar.”

“Hmph.”

Spoiled ass. Two can play. “My Martin’s much cooler than your Gibson,” I say, even though it’s a total lie.

Instead of taking another bite, Jesse turns his head toward me, wide-eyed. “Shut up. My Archtop is the best guitar there is.”

I gesture at it. “What year is it? A ‘67?”

Jesse nods.

I can’t help but ask, “A Super 4? Like Elvis had?”

“Right…” A smile forms on his face, but a second later he winces.

“So is it okay, Jess?” Dr. Salter asks. “Can Maya shadow you?”

Jesse studies me. “Mom and Dad’ll love that I’m hanging out with a sexy punk girl. So whatever you need, Uncle Bob.”

“Jesse!” Dr. Salter and Mr. Logan blurt simultaneously.

What a jerk.

Wait. Did he say sexy?

Mr. Logan claps his hands together again. “Well I think Maya seems fabulous. I’m okay with her shadowing Jesse next week as long as it’s okay with him.”

Silence engulfs the dressing room.

Jesse takes a long look at his uncle, then bites into his burger and talks with his mouth full. “Fine, she can shadow me.”

“I’ll see if I can work it into my schedule,” I say, then turn and walk out.

***

Against my better judgment, I decide to stick around for the concert because I’ve never been to the Grand Ole Opry.

Performing here is every country music singer’s dream, and while I’m not into yodeling, I still respect the Opry. When I looked at Jesse Scott’s website, it said he’s already done ten concerts here. I guess that means he’s really somebody. Which I could’ve told you considering his face is on every tweeny bopper magazine down at the Quick Pick and he’s at the top of the iTunes charts.

I stand in line for what seems like hours to buy myself a puffy pink cotton candy, then head inside the main concert hall. Heat from the crowd presses against my skin as I squeeze past shrieking girls and make my way down to the stage, which looks like an old red barn.

“Maya!” Dr. Salter calls out. “Over here.” He gestures for me to join him in the center of the first row. The best seat in the house.

I edge around another pack of squealing girls to meet my principal. “I was wondering where you went,” he says.

I hold up my cotton candy, offering him a piece. He pinches some off and pops it in his mouth. The other reason I didn’t leave early is because I’ve always liked Dr. Salter and I don’t want to let him down. He tells funny jokes during the morning announcements and always takes a turn in the dunking booth during Homecoming. It’s odd, though, seeing him in a Van Halen leather jacket and not his usual sweater vest and bowtie.

I point at the stage with my cotton candy. “We’ve got better seats than God, huh? From this close, Jesse oughta be able to see me not clapping for him.”

Dr. Salter gives me a stern look. “I’m sorry about my nephew… He’s not used to… He doesn’t meet a lot of new people.”

“I figured he meets people all the time.”

“There’s a difference between meeting people and actually speaking with them.”

The banshee convention I met backstage was something else, all right. I can’t imagine being surrounded by that, and not having my family, friends, and band to talk to.

“I thought,” Dr. Salter starts, then pauses. “I thought that Shadow Day might be good for both of you. You can get some music advice from Jesse…and he needs a break, and needs to spend time with somebody his age… It’s hard when everybody scrutinizes every single thing you do.”

As the lights go down, the band takes the stage and the screaming crowd crescendos to just about the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. A spotlight bathes the stage in blinding white light. Smoke billows in the wings. Dr. Salter puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles.

Then the most beautiful guitar lick rings out, echoing in the concert hall.

The screaming stops, because everyone wants to hear that sound.

Jesse Scott steps into the spotlight with his cedar-colored vintage Gibson strapped around his neck. He plays a riff and brings his mouth to the microphone.

“How you doin’ Nashville?” Jesse yells into the microphone in a deep Southern drawl, tipping his beige cowboy hat before starting to play “Campfires,” this country pop song about hiking and fishing with his grandfather. “Gimme fireflies, gimme trout, gimme burning logs, hell—gimme a mosquito, but keep your damned electricity.”

The bass ripples through the concert hall and makes the floor vibrate, and my heart beats in time with the drums.

During the chorus, Jesse flips the guitar around to his back, grabs the mike with both hands, and gives the audience a full view of his great body. He’s wearing the tight black T-shirt that hugs his biceps and chest, bright red cowboy boots, and a belt buckle shaped like a skull. Hey, it matches the skull pajamas I wore to bed last night! I feel silly for a beat, because my inner monologue sounds just like that girl backstage: “I like ketchup too!”

I’ve never seen anyone play guitar like him. Jesse blisters through the solo, and he’s so into his music, it’s like the crowd isn’t even here. Meanwhile, the girl next to me is bawling like her face is a busted fire hydrant.

When the song is over, Jesse grabs the mike with one hand and says, “Thanks for coming out tonight, Nashville. I may travel all over the place, but I want all my fans to know this is my one true home.”

Everyone screams as Jesse looks down and tips his cowboy hat at Dr. Salter. Jesse’s face seems sad as he scans the rest of the front row. He gives me a fleeting look before starting to rock out on guitar again. The next song is “Agape.” It’s about how he lives for music.

After his third song (“Ain’t No City Boy”), Jesse wipes the sweat off his face with his T-shirt sleeve and says into the mike, “Damn that popcorn smells good. Can I get some up here?” Ten seconds later, a stagehand rushes out with a bucket. Jesse eats a few pieces. “Perfect,” he says, licking his fingers. “Y’all want some?” The crowd roars, so he throws the bucket out into the crowd, sprinkling us with popcorn.

About halfway through the concert, Jesse makes everyone sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with him, but instead of singing “Root, root, root for the home team,” we sing “Root, root, root for the Braves!” And then with his eyes shut, he does this insane acoustic rendition of “Amazing Grace,” set to the tune of The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

Jesse performs all of his hits, but the encore, “Second Chance,” is the highlight. He sings, “She may have been Paris, but I needed the soft sun, so I let her fly.”

I actually clap when the song’s over and he looks down at me again. The crowd roars. He may not have a great presence offstage, but when he’s onstage, he’s on.

He yanks off his cowboy hat. “Thanks everybody.” A pause. “As many of you probably know, in November I’ll begin a six-week tour of North America and Europe.” The crowd roars again. He speaks over the noise, “And, after that, in December—” His voice breaks. He takes a deep breath. “I’ll be leaving the industry.”

What?

Boos and cries—mostly cries—rattle the auditorium.

The king of country music is quitting? Is this the announcement Mr. Logan mentioned to Dr. Salter? I turn to my principal. His eyes are watering.

“I just wanted to say—wanted to make sure y’all know, my fans mean everything to me.” His voice cracks again.

And my heart breaks for him, because whatever is going on must be pretty serious. I can’t imagine giving up music for any reason whatsoever.

“Thank you, Nashville!” he yells into the mike and jogs offstage, carrying his guitar.

I find Dr. Salter’s eyes. “He’s really doing this, huh?”

“I guess so… The thing is, Maya, I don’t think he truly wants to.”

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