Excerpt Two: Priorities

The entire second chapter of “Stepsisters: A Deceived Novel” is below!

Josh Ashford leaned back against Blair’s locker coolly, his striped yellow tie hanging loose around his neck and his summer-tanned arms wrapped possessively around her waist. This was was his von Essen girl, and the cocky quarterback made sure everyone knew it.

Incidentally, Blair didn’t seem to mind being shown off like a piece of property. She stared up into her boyfriend’s pretty brown eyes like a lovesick puppy, admiring the russet flecks that the sun had brought out in his shaggy brown hair and the new trail of rebellious stubble that etched a defining path along his jaw line. They’d been dating steadily for over a year now, but she’d never been able to stop herself from marveling at how perfectly handsome his face was. Chiseled and masculine despite his youth, like he’d been sculpted by one of the amazing Renaissance artists she liked to learn about in Art History. Blair considered herself pretty average in the looks department – at least, next to her sisters, that was how she felt. But Josh? Sometimes she wondered how she’d managed to catch his attention. Before he’d asked her out, she’d been convinced that he was way out of her league. Josh was an athletic bad boy and she was a straight-A honors student. He liked to party and she wore ballet flats and cardigans. They were completely and totally mismatched.

And they were the school’s biggest super-couple.

Blair didn’t care what anyone said about her being too young to know true love. She was convinced that it existed, it was theirs, and that she and Josh were destined to be married one day. Maybe it was the hopeless romantic in her, but that same hopeless romance that convinced her that Josh was her Prince Charming was the same hopeless romance that led her to spend her free time analyzing film and literature, listening to symphonies and operas, chain-drinking loose leaf tea, and filling her closet with feminine clothes that colored her wardrobe with notes of classic sophistication meets 1920’s vintage and sweet bohemian chic. She’d been enamored with Josh since their freshman year and only the piano had been able to hold an equal footing in her heart. Josh Ashford, the piano keys, and her grades were the three things that dictated Blair von Essen’s life.

As one of the best students at Wright, she worked hard to maintain her enviable class standing and involved herself in as many extracurricular activities as she could fit into her busy schedule. She was a member of the Student Government Association and the Honors Society, headed various school event-planning committees, and was known for her dedication to community volunteering. Speaking up in class was one of the only things she’d never felt shy about, and her teachers loved her for the insight she offered on topics like philosophy, history, music theory, and politics. Quiet solo ventures like reading and writing were here favorite ways to pass the time, and smelling the paper of a new novel, getting lost in someone else’s story, and making words weave in and out were like heaven for Blair. One day she would write about traveling the world to see the art and experience the ethos like Mom and Dad had done when they were young and in love. Maybe she’d even do it with Josh. She imagined taking him to Paris someday. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, standing noble and romantic in the heart of the city!

It was all very romantic indeed, but for now, her focus had to be on her studies, her piano lessons, and the never-ending stream of recitals and competitions that came with them. Dad and Victoria put more pressure on her than either of her sisters, probably because she was more of a known quantity, but Blair put even more of that pressure on herself. Personal gratification wasn’t easy to come by with Mom gone, Dad out of the loop, and a stepmother with high standards who was difficult to please, so Blair set the bar high.

And behind it all, she was her own biggest critic.

Determined to start her school year out on the right foot, she’d split from her sisters immediately upon arrival to organize her locker, true to form, stacking her thick AP textbooks with their corresponding notebooks and folders based on her schedule like the overachieving perfectionist that she was. She’d gotten a pretty good start at it, but even a girl as devoted to academia as Blair could get sidetracked with the right distraction. Her boyfriend showing up to mark his territory had proven quite the successful one.

“I’m so glad that conditioning is over,” she cooed at him, nuzzling her nose affectionately against his. “Football always makes you so busy at the end of the summer. It’s terrible not seeing you.”

“It’s definitely been intense this year,” Josh admitted with an indifferent shrug. “Coach A has never pushed us this hard.”

“I know. But I’m sure it’ll pay off come game day. I can’t wait to see you play on Friday, Joshie. You’re going to be so good.”

Josh didn’t need her to tell him this; he was more than confident in his athletic abilities. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take the compliment – and try to coax some inspiration out of her before the big game.

“Maybe… but I don’t know,” he said as he trailed a lazy thumb along her cheek. “We play Montclair this week. They’re a tough team to start out against. They won section last year, remember? I might need some good luck if we’re gonna win.”

Blair’s cheeks flushed a rosy pink and she gave him a bashful smile, rising onto her tip-toes to plant a sweet little peck on his lips.

“How’s that for luck?” she asked when she pulled away.

“Hmm…” he murmured. “That’s a start.”

“How about some good luck chocolate chip cookies, then?” she tried again. “I still have Elena’s old recipe. I could make you a big batch before Friday if you want me to.”

Elena, the girls’ beloved childhood nanny, had moved on a few years back when her duties were no longer needed around the mansion, but she’d left a few of her favorite recipes as parting gifts. Josh had to admit, her Mexican Chocolate Chip cookies were the best. He chuckled, tucking Blair’s wavy chestnut hair behind her ear.

“You’re so adorable, you know that?”

Her cheeks flushed even pinker.

“I could make a double batch. Really! I don’t mind.”

“Maybe,” Josh shot her a suggestive smirk, drawing her close. “Or maybe you could skip the cookies and come over on Wednesday. My parents won’t be home. My dad’s entertaining some guys in the city and we’d have the whole house to ourselves.”

The perfected smolder in his eyes made them appear even darker and dreamier than they already were. Like melted Nutella. It was enough to make Blair weak in the knees, but she hesitated all the same. What her boyfriend had just implied was supposed to sound enticing – and it was. But for a second, she felt a torn twinge of discomfort in her stomach. She knew what he was hinting at.

It was the same thing he was always hinting at. All summer long, Josh had been trying to get her to go all the way with him. A few times, they’d even come close. But every time they did, Blair would be the one to force restraint. She loved Josh, more than her inexperienced sixteen-year-old heart thought it was possible to love someone, but no matter how hard she tried to convince herself, she just didn’t feel like she was ready yet. She was afraid of being inadequate, and maybe even more afraid of being hurt. Perhaps it was because she’d lost her mom, but Blair had always been careful and kept boys at arm’s length despite the hopeless romance in her heart, never wanting to add another complication to her already messed-up life. Josh was the first boy she’d ever even kissed, let alone done anything else with. One day, he would be the one. But maybe not Wednesday. She offered him an innocent smile, trying to mask the nerves she felt over the prospect of an empty, parentless house. “That sounds great! I can cook you dinner,” she evaded.

Josh knew her better than to think that the suggestion had gone way over her head. Blair was sweet and innocent, but not that sweet and innocent. He stroked her lower back with his fingertips, trying to put her at ease. It seemed to work well enough, because he could feel her relax ever-so-slightly beneath the touch.

“I’d like that,” he smirked. “I’ll pick you up when I’m done with practice. We’ll watch a movie or something. Alright, baby?”

Blair felt her nerves tingle. He was the only person who could call her baby and get away with it. Then again, when he was looking at her like that, he could get away with almost anything.

“Okay,” she gave in. “I will.” She reached up to kiss him again just as the warning bell rang. “I love you,” she added sweetly, pressing her lips against his cheek. “Have a good first day, okay?”

“Love you, too,” he returned the phrase automatically.

He ended their public display of affection with one last territorial peck, then turned the corner to head to his first class. According to the schedule that Blair had made up for him, it was Chemistry with Mr. Taladay, a robust man with a full mustache, a seemingly endless collection of Brooks Brothers sport coats, and an undying love for Avogadro, the human brain, and the great beyond of space. Everyone knew that Taladay was a great teacher, but Josh just couldn’t bring himself to feel any modicum of enthusiasm for a class that was going to require so much brain power of him so early in the morning. He took a seat at an empty spot near the back and drummed his fingers against the desk, hoping for something that would make the prospect of starting his day off with such a difficult class more bearable than it was currently looking to be.

Lo and behold, that something walked through the doorway at precisely that moment, dressed in a short charcoal skirt that purposely defied the skirts must hit below your fingertips rule, slinky black over-the-knee boots, and a tight white dress shirt with the top two buttons undone. It wasn’t exactly on par with the dress code, but Nicolette von Essen could pull it off. Plus, holy shit – Nic was a blonde this year! That was certainly new; undoubtedly the big reveal that Angelina had warned her girls about. Nicolette, for as long as her classmates had known her, had lived her life as a natural brunette, but this elevated her look to a whole new tier of hotness. To a Blair’s stepmom tier of hotness. A stepmom who, Josh would never admit to Blair out loud, he’d checked out more than once while she’d been laying out by the von Essen pool in her skimpy bikinis, dark Gucci aviator shades, and giant floppy sun hats.

Nicolette had always looked crazily similar to her mom before, but as a teenager she resembled her now more than ever. She had the same (newly) golden hair, the same bronzed skin, the same straight nose, the same pouty lips, and the same idyllically-sculpted figure. With her long legs, flawless complexion, denim-colored eyes, out-of-school wardrobe pulled straight from an American Eagle catalog, and elevated social status to round out the package, it was no surprise that guys had started to notice her come middle school.

Maybe it was also no surprise then, considering how little of that attention Victoria had given her as a child, that she couldn’t help getting caught up in it all. Being wanted. Now that was something Nicolette could get on board with. She relished in attention and practically fed off of controversy, but as far as she was concerned, even negative attention was attention, so who cared if she was being talked about badly, so long as she wasn’t ignored and brushed off like she didn’t exist? It wasn’t the healthiest mindset, but it worked. Everyone was gawking at her, just liked she’d hoped they would.

Including Josh Ashford. The quarterback eyed her new look appreciatively as she scanned the room and set his jaw to prevent an approving leer. He was with Blair, true, but he still liked to stare when the subject was deserving – and anytime she came in looking like that, Nicolette was definitely deserving. She let out a visible sigh of relief when she realized that she’d managed to beat the teacher to class and held her chin high, feigning oblivious to the shocked whispers and gaping eyes of her classmates as she strutted to the only empty desk in the room. Score two for Josh – it was right next to his. She plopped down, stuffing her Coach purse underneath it.

“Well, well, well!” Josh cocked an eyebrow. “New look I see?”

She turned to him and grinned irresistibly, batting her sunny new layers behind her shoulder. “You noticed?” she teased.

“Kind of hard to miss,” he shrugged. “Pretty drastic, isn’t it?”

She shrugged right back at him. “It was time for a change.”

“Sure you’re not just matching your hair to your smarts?”

Nicolette gasped and reached across the aisle to smack him square on the shoulder. “Joshua, how dare you! I’m offended!”

“Everyone’s offended by everything these days,” he smirked.

She rolled her eyes at him. “You’re an ass.”

Maybe, but girls certainly seemed to admire him for it more than they faulted him. Nicolette could play the falsely-indignant card as much as she liked, but she loved being picked on and everyone knew it. The attention, the giggling… it made her feel special. Turning herself into a Victoria lookalike had been explicitly for getting a rise out of people; that and one other ulterior motive: to snag a page from Angelina’s book and piss off her bitchy mother.

And oh, had Victoria’s reaction to this one been grand! Nicolette still got a kick out of it. She’d decided to undergo her epic transformation just a few days ago, right after returning from the three-week cheer boot camp that Bruce and Victoria had shipped her off to at the end of the summer. With prodigy stepsisters like Blair the virtuoso pianist and Angelina the next Celine Dion or whatever, Nicolette had a lot to live up to, and since cheering and hooking up with boys were the only things that she was really good at and cheering was the only one of those talents that would be socially acceptable to list on a college application, she’d easily convinced them to let her go. Victoria had been ecstatic to get her out of the house, and cheer camp had ultimately paid off, but she’d still felt something nagging at her when she got home. Something was missing.

She’d stood in front of the large antique mirror in the girls’ shared bathroom trying to figure out what, critiquing her likeness in the clear glass critically. Raking her fingers through her straight, chocolate-brown hair, she’d decided that she was completely, totally bored with it and gone straight to the salon on an inspired whim.

When she’d returned, her mother had instantly spotted her strutting up the front walkway through the wide bay windows in the living room and slammed her gin and tonic down on the coffee table furiously before rounding to the foyer to swing the front door open in her face. Victoria’s steel-gray eyes had glared back at her, wide and infuriated. Her ridiculous balloons for breasts spilled out of her latest low-cut designer dress. She could have just gotten done running a marathon with how heavily she was breathing. And all of this took place in front of the eloquent backdrop of dark wood and sophisticated Victorian furniture that decorated the von Essen home: a telling parody of the classy pretense the family portrayed in front of others juxtaposed against the crazy that actually lived within their walls. Call Nic’s sense of humor weird, but she’d found it hilarious.

“What the hell did you do?!” Victoria demanded fiercely. Spittle flew out of her mouth and a worm-like vein throbbed in her temple. It took everything in Nicolette’s power to refrain from bursting out laughing.

“It’s not like I pierced my nose!” she grinned back at her, sliding a sassy hand to her hip. “I dyed my hair and got extensions. Do you like it?”

Victoria didn’t seem to care that her own hair was chronically colored out of a bottle. “No!” she shot her daughter a nasty look of contempt and disgust. “You look like trailer park trash! Your stepfather didn’t give you a credit card so you could use it to stick horse hair in your head!”

Please! Of all people to complain about wasting money, Victoria couldn’t talk. Nicolette’s mom – though God forbid you ever called her by that “frumpy” word – was the queen of wasting money. Wasting money on her hair, on her nails, on that cushy membership at the country club…

“It’s not horse hair, it’s human hair,” Nicolette corrected her.

“I don’t care what kind of hair it is, you do not go off and do something like this without covering it with me first!” Victoria spat.

With a brusque whatever! and an uppity talk-to-the-hand gesture, Nicolette had left her mother standing there with her mouth agape. It wasn’t often that Victoria was the one left feeling slighted and stupid, and Nicolette ignored Josh momentarily to dig around for her Chemistry book, remembering how satisfying it had felt to turn the tables for once. Josh leaned back in his seat, resting his head in his hands, totally cool and nonchalant. The “adorable asshole.”

“It’s been a while, Nicky,” he fished for her attention again, eyeing her up as discreetly as he could without being overly-obvious. “You missed the whole end of the summer. Get homesick?”

“Homesick? Yeah right!” Nicolette snorted, disregarding his horrible nickname for her. “I wish I was still at cheer camp. Trust me, getting away from Victoria for three weeks is like winning the lotto.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that…” Josh disagreed. “I don’t mind being around your mom that much. She’s hot. I’d hit it.”

“Eww, gross!” Nicolette scolded him. “I hope you don’t say things like that around Blair. She would murder you.”

Josh smirked as he watched her turn away to open her textbook. Blair, murder him? She wouldn’t even question him. He had that girl wrapped so tightly around his pinky finger that he could probably ask her to lie under oath for him and she’d do it.

“Whatever,” he shrugged. “Anything good in there?”

Nicolette flipped past the opening page of a chapter entitled Chemistry in Our Changing World and frowned. “Are you kidding me? This might as well be rocket science,” she reported, peering dismally at the charts and equations that she had no hope of memorizing. “Ugh… how did I get stuck with Chem first period?”

“At least you have it with me,” Josh reminded her with a cocky wink. “What more could a girl ask for?”

Oh, brother! Ashford could be so painfully full of himself… but he did have a point. There were worse people Nicolette could’ve been stuck sitting next to in class. At least he was easy on the eyes.

“Nice try, Josh,” she teased him with a flirty flip of her hair. “But we all know that you’re the one who’s lucky to have it with me.”

Josh sniggered right as Taladay rushed through the door with a stack of papers cradled against his chest, apologizing for the “blasted copy machine” taking too long to “spit out” their class syllabus. Who cared? He’d heard all the rumors about Nicolette… the ones about her being wild and pretty much up for anything.

Well, maybe she was right. Maybe he was lucky.

And maybe if he was really lucky, she’d find a way to rub off on her stepsister before Wednesday night.

If you like what you’ve read so far, check out “Stepsisters” on Amazon.