Isabelle Drake’s excerpt
Chapter One: It Doesn’t Matter How You Play the Game, Only Whether You Win or Lose
And death black.
Whoever picked out Cherry Grove High’s school colors was an idiot.
Either that or a serial killer.
The hideous color combination blurred across the gym floor, spinning in the cheerleaders’ skirts, bouncing in the pom squad pom-poms and slicing through the air in the quivering band banners. Except for the bizarre Goth meets Glee effect, the scene was flawless. Even the shouts echoing off the walls were just right.
Outside, beyond the gleaming floor-to-ceiling windows and careful flowerbeds, past the student parking lot dotted with Nissans, Volvos and European SUVs, early autumn trees shaded the tidy streets with the first brush of rust, orange and red leaves. It was Cherry Grove after all—anything less than perfection would be inconceivable.
The bleachers were jammed with students, some actually excited about the annual back-to-school pep assembly, the rest just screaming like mad, glad for the chance to be crazy on the first Friday afternoon of the new school year.
From her spot at the boosters table, Lexi Welks could see it all. The teachers huddled in the corner by the wrestling mats drinking Diet Pepsis and eating popcorn, the basketball players lined up under the net, shoving each other, wanting to be the one standing closest to the podium, and the mini-mob of freshmen trying to squeeze themselves into the tiny niche that led to the empty space behind the bleachers. Apart from the chaos stood the football team, arms folded over their Cherry Grove jerseys and looking like they’d rather be anywhere but where they were—right in the center of the attention.
“Here’s your baseball fundraiser auction sign-up sheet.”
Monica Sanders, coming up out of nowhere like a giant weed that not even the deadliest dose of Roundup could get rid of. One of the wicked plants from Little Shop of Horrors.
Only this plant had a nonstop figure wrapped up in a come-screw-me black turtleneck. Half the guys in the school wanted a piece of her. The rest wanted her ACT scores.
Up until a week ago, she and Monica had been friends. And now Lexi was paying the price for what had seemed like fun at the time.
Monica looked over Lexi’s shoulder, waved at basketball center Eric Watson, then came back with a careful smile, showing off her bleached teeth as she slid into an empty chair. “Not that the sign-up is going to do you any good. You know, with next year.”
Lexi took the sheet, dropping it onto the table as though she wasn’t the least bit concerned. Which, of course, was a huge lie. Because getting the right names on that single sheet of paper would change her whole life.
“Can I have your attention? Students?” Dr. Guerra, the superintendent, tapped on the microphone, sending out a series of heart-thumping thuds.
It worked—even the cheerleaders shut up, dropping to the floor to sit cross-legged like a row of overgrown preschoolers. “We need a moment before we get started with the pep assembly. Could everyone please welcome Officer Davenport from the Cherry Grove Police Station?”
“Where else would he be from?” one of the newspaper nerds muttered. “7-Eleven?”
The cop slid behind the mic, adjusting his navy blue uniform tie while he waited for the losers in the back rows to catch on to the idea that he had something other than the D.A.R.E. essay winners to announce. Once the room fell silent, he started talking about Jon Eagle, the kid who’d gone missing a couple of days before. Each word out of his mouth made the knots in Lexi’s stomach pull tighter as images of that night skittered through her mind.
“We’ve been checking leads and retracing Jon’s steps. We’re in constant contact with his family—they’ll be informed as we uncover substantial information.” He flattened his square palm across his jacket lapel, pausing dramatically as he looked out at the faces. “We know how distressing this is for you all, for all of us. For those of you who’d like someone to talk with, your lead counselor, Mrs. Howell, has added appointments before and after school. She’s assured me and all your parents that she’ll do anything she can to help you through this difficult time.”
Monica took out her pretty pink leather-bound planner and wrote down the officer’s name. Then she waited, pen poised, for anything else noteworthy.
“Please keep in mind,” he continued, “that we have no evidence of foul play at this time. There is no reason to believe that anyone else is in danger.” He went on to add that the detective in charge thought that Jon had been in touch with kids who, for some reason, were choosing not to tell anyone. “If that’s the case, we urge you to come forward at this time.” Contact information flashed from the huge ceiling-mounted projector onto the wall behind the podium. Lexi barely held in her roll of nausea as Monica jotted down the counselor hours, the hotline phone number and email address with one hand, all the while texting with her other.
But that was Monica Sanders. Smart. Capable. Efficient. And a real self-serving jerk. Too bad it had taken Lexi three months to figure it out.
“Thank you for your attention.” Dr. Guerra was back at the mic, struggling to say something press and parent friendly. “If we all work together, we might… Maybe we’ll… Jon might…” Thank God she finally gave up, because while two band geeks in the front row were snapping pics, some of the yearbook girls over by the art teacher were starting to cry. A cloud of awkward silence filled the gym, everyone’s face tense. Everyone’s except Monica’s. She was dumping her stuff back into her bag and getting to her feet, all while looking as fresh and fantastic as ever.
“Taylor told me to ask you if you had questions about the sign-up,” she said as she pushed the chair back. This time she wasn’t even bothering to hold on to that flawless, fake smile.
“You mean like why are you even bothering with yours?” Lexi tapped her own sheet with her finger. “Because all the names that matter are going right here.”
Monica practically snorted as she spun on her heels, swinging away without a reply.
Lexi watched the girl’s model-perfect ass until she ducked through the red and black cluster of drumline kids clogging the double doors at the end of the gym.
Once she was sure the girl was gone for good she picked up the sheet, staring at the empty rows and imagining the names she needed scrawled across those blank lines. Planning how she’d get them there. And fighting back the fear of what Monica would do when she did.
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