Here’s the exclusive excerpt! For context, this is Sweetie and Ashish’s first meeting. Ashish is totally broken-hearted over Celia, who he’s broken up with, but he’s curious about Sweetie, who texts him out of the blue and asks him to meet her on the running track–and then challenges him to a race. We begin in Ashish’s point-of-view as he’s racing her.
Ashish kept running, beginning to take in different things about Sweetie. The way her legs ate up the track easily. Her arms were bent loosely by her sides, her breathing was perfectly paced, her gorgeous, high ponytail swung and bounced. She was power. She was grace. She was beauty.
She was totally kicking his ass.
Ashish rallied and made a gallant effort, but he could see there was no point. There was no way he could beat her now. Winning was a huge part of Ashish’s identity—he was unapologetically competitive. But even so, watching her mercilessly crush him on the track didn’t hurt his ego at all. Weirdly enough, as he closed in on the finish line, he was smiling.
Sweetie was already there, smiling too, hands on her hips. Tendrils of hair were plastered across her sweaty forehead and neck; little drops of sweat beaded along the bridge of her delicate nose. Ashish found this detail almost painfully cute, and he had to rearrange his facial features to look chagrined. “Oh, man,” he said. “What, did you pop caffeine pills with a Red Bull chaser for breakfast?”
She laughed. “Nope. I just wanted to show you.”
“Show me what?”
“I wanted to show you I’m not lazy, unhealthy, or any of the myriad other things people tend to assume. Or someone who’s only on the track team because her parents know someone important. I’m really good.”
Ashish nodded, sensing she wasn’t done yet.
“And before you ask, I can run because I practice. My weight has nothing to do with my overall health. I kick pretty much everyone’s butts at Piedmont, guys and girls alike.”
“I can totally believe that,” Ashish said seriously. “Are you gonna run in college?”
“That’s the plan,” she said, looking at him funny.
“Awesome. I’m gonna play ball in college.”
She nodded, still with that funny look on her face. Finally she said, “Do you have any questions for me about my weight and track?”
Ashish thought about it, then shrugged. “No. Why should I? You’re clearly ridiculously talented.”
Sweetie smiled. It was like a ray of light piercing the clouds; Ashish felt his dormant heart spark just a bit. Her teeth were straight and just the right size, like a neat row of Chiclets. No, not Chiclets. Tic Tacs. White Tic Tacs. Nah, that wasn’t it either. Damn, he really needed to get his compliments together if he was going to win her over with the trademark (and now hibernating, apparently) Ashish Patel charm.
“But I do have another question, though,” he said.
“Why’d you ask me to come here and do this? Besides wanting to show me up as the clearly inferior runner, I mean.” He grinned to show he didn’t take it personally. If he was going to be beaten by anyone at an athletic event, he’d much prefer it to be someone as kick-ass as Sweetie.
They began to walk to the bleachers together. When the breeze blew, Ashish caught a whiff of her—even sweating, she smelled soft and sweet, like caramel laced with something heady and girly. He inched a little closer so his arm brushed hers, and she tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, like she was a little flustered. He found himself hoping she really was.
As they sat, close together, Sweetie answered his question. “I asked you here because I heard my mom talking to yours. About how . . .” She looked down at her feet and then back at him. The way her jaw was set, Ashish knew she was trying to be brave as she said the rest. But he heard the slight wobble in her voice and had to fight the urge to put an arm around her. Totally not creepy at all, Ash. You just met the girl. “About how I’m too fat to date you.”
Ashish winced at the word. “Hey, don’t call yourself that.”
Sweetie looked at him frankly. “Why not? It doesn’t bother me.” She paused, considering her next words. “What does hurt is that my own mom thinks it’s a reason I couldn’t date someone like you. But the word itself? Doesn’t bother me.”
She shrugged. “Sure. I mean, the word ‘fat’ isn’t inherently bad or gross. It’s people who’ve made it that way. ‘Fat’ is just the opposite of ‘thin,’ and no one flinches at that one. So, to me, ‘fat’ is just another word that describes me, like ‘brown’ or ‘girl’ or ‘athlete.’”
Ashish closed his mouth, put away all the responses he had lined up, and thought carefully about what she’d said. Why was “fat” such a bad word in most people’s minds, anyhow? Studying Sweetie, he got an inkling that there were many things she’d had to deal with all her life that he’d never given a second thought to. “You’re totally right,” he said slowly.
“Yeah, I mean, obviously people can hurl it at me—and have hurled it at me—as an insult. But when I use it, it’s not an insult. It’s almost a way to take it back and reclaim it, if that makes sense.”
Ashish nodded. “It actually does.”
“Good. So . . . back to your question.” The words seemed to flow out of her in a gush. “The reason I texted you last night is I wanted to ask you if it was true that my weight doesn’t bother you. Or do you subscribe more to my mom’s train of thought, that a fat girl and a thin boy will only be cause for mockery?”
Ashish looked at her, a little taken aback. She’d obviously given this a lot of thought. And to just put it out there like that without knowing him at all was . . . really brave. He’d never met a girl quite like Sweetie, and no lie, he was really, really intrigued. Ashish thought of a million charming things he could say in response. Just more of you to love or Supermodel-thin just ain’t my thing. But in the end he settled for the simple truth. “I think you’re beautiful. And I don’t mean on the inside, though I’m sure that’s true too. When you run . . . I see power and passion. I see focus and dedication. I see someone who isn’t afraid to break people’s expectations. And to me, that’s way more attractive than the number on your weighing scale.” He paused and then continued in a rush. “Okay, and also I think you’re really just straight-up pretty. I want to lay it all out there in the open, and it’s all one hundred percent true.”
Sweetie studied him in silence. He wondered what she saw in his eyes. After a moment she graced him with a tiny smile. “I believe you.”