She couldn’t believe she was doing this.
Seriously. Couldn’t. Believe. She. Was. Doing. This.
Had she completely lost her mind? God knew her friends certainly seemed to think so.
Cassidy had teased her, had asked if she was wearing a dress or a peach lace parachute.
Izzy had wondered aloud how many children had labored in sweatshops to sew on the thousands of crystal beads and sequins.
And Mei, Mei hadn’t said anything. She’d simply bitten the inside of her cheeks so hard she looked like a fish that had just had liposuction. Somehow, Mei having to work so hard not to laugh only made standing here in this ridiculous designer dress that much worse. Her nose itched and she gave the dress a discreet sniff. How many perfume sprayers had her mother walked by at Neiman Marcus when carrying the thing, anyway? And when had vanilla gotten so popular?
As the Cotton Princess float—a gigantic pink-and-white monstrosity that was the biggest in Cotton Festival history—pulled up in frontof the town square gazebo, Piper Douglas linedup along the front of it, next to Germaine Stewart and her posse of Cotton Queen wanna-bes. Though Piper smiled and waved at the crowd just like the others, all she really wanted to do was run—or, barring that, beat her head against the ground until she slipped into blessed unconsciousness.
Because if she passed out, then she wouldn’t have to go through with this whole ridiculous farce. Right? Right.
As the Cotton Festival noise rose to a deafening crescendo—one that meant the band, and the rest of the parade, had finally made it back to town square after their tour through the streets of downtown—it was a measure of her desperation that Piper really did consider knocking herself out, despite the ugly bruise it was sure to cause.
But in the end, she just couldn’t do it. Not because she was afraid of a little pain, but because every time she closed her eyes to psych herself up, she saw her mother’s glowing face.
For the first time since she’d been born, practically, Piper was doing something to make her mother proud.
So what if it was making her miserable? If it kept her mom sober for a few days—and softened her up enough to get Piper the new oil paints she wanted—then it was all worth it. Even this ridiculous, stinky excuse for a dress.
Besides, after years of being an embarrassment to her parents, who ruled her with an iron fist in an effort to keep her from doing something they considered bizarre, it was kind of nice to have her mother look at her like she wasn’t a total waste of space. It was even nicer to be the focus of positive attention for once, instead of standing by and watching her mother praise her thirteen-year-old sister, Savannah, before heaping a bunch of criticism on Piper.
Sure, she knew it was stupid to be this concerned with making her mother happy. After all, they were two totally different people, and being a Cotton Princess wasn’t going to change that. But at the same time, it was kind of cool that one weekend could so completely change the dynamics in her house. Suddenly, her mom was listening to her instead of reaching for the bottle of vodka whenever Piper walked into the room. She had never felt less like an alien someone had dropped on her parents’ doorstep shortly after birth. It was a good feeling.
True, her nomination to the court had seriously pissed off Germaine, which was never a good thing. Piper had had years to learn that an angry Germaine was a dangerous Germaine. But Piper’s mother--a former Cotton Queen herself-- had called in a ton of favors to get her on the float, and Piper was determined to make her proud.
As she and the other princesses descended from the float, the music waned and so did the cheers, which meant it was almost time.
Almost time to hear her name announced for the entire town to hear.
Almost time for her to walk to the dais set up in the center of the town square and get the silly little tiara she was supposed to wear to this afternoon’s barbecue and tonight’s square dance.
Almost time for her to curtsy and join the rest of the court for copious amounts of pictures.
And then this whole thing would be over and she would have a little breathing room—at least until the barbecue.
Nervous, and more than a little freaked out, she scanned the crowd for her best friends’ familiar faces. It took her a minute, but she finally found them at the top of the bleachers the town council had set up across from the dais —and they were all looking straight at her.
Cassidy shot her a thumbs up sign, Izzy gagged at the blatant dumb-assery, and Mei smiled an encouraging, you-can-do-it grin that helped put Piper at ease like nothing else could. No matter what happened today—no matter how stupid she looked in the pale peach monstrosity her mother had bought for her in Dallas—her friends would still be there. They might be propping themselves up as they laughed hysterically, but they would be there.
As the court was introduced, the first person called was Germaine, who was Cotton Queen for the second year in a row–despite only being a junior. And yes, even here in Paris, Texas, everyone knew that the Cotton Queen was supposed to be a senior, but Germaine’s mother ruled the town the same way Germaine ruled Paris High School and neither of them was willing to let Germaine take second place to anyone.
After Germaine was crowned queen, and her boyfriend, Tanner Colt—the hottest, smartest, nicest guy in school and the football team’s star wide receiver—had been crowned Cotton King, the announcements began for the rest of the court. There were four princesses and Piper waited impatiently for her name to be called. She was the last on the court and the sooner she got up there, the sooner this whole debacle would be over and she could get out of this stupid dress. Which she couldn’t wait to do, as it was really starting to itch. Not to mention the funky vanilla scent seemed to be getting stronger the longer she wore the thing.
Finally, her name came over the loudspeaker and she began the long trek up the red carpet. As she headed toward the center of the square, where the rest of the Cotton Court was waiting, she scanned the crowd for Jackson Grosbeck, center for the football team and a total jerk. Much to her disgust, she’d gotten stuck with him as her escort onto the makeshift stage.
She finally spotted him, but he wasn’t walking down the stretch of red carpet opposite hers, as they’d practiced earlier that morning. Instead, he was coming from the side of the town square closest to the parade route, and he was pulling something behind him.
Unsure of what to do, Piper kept walking—no way was she going to be the first princess in the history of the Cotton Festival to screw this up and thus earn everlasting shame—but the closer Jackson got, the more uneasy she became. And as the crowd parted, she finally figured out what he was dragging behind him. It was a very large, very ugly, very agitated pig. And it was dressed in a swine-sized version of the same tuxedo Jackson was currently wearing.
Piper stopped uncertainly, not wanting to get any closer to the angry looking thing than was absolutely necessary, Cotton Court or no Cotton Court. It wasn’t the first pig she’d seen up close by any means—this was farm country after all. But it must have been one of the Four-H kids’ pigs, because while it wasn’t fully grown, it was still big enough that Jackson could barely control it.
She didn’t want the drooling, seething animal anywhere near her.
What is Jackson doing anyway? she wondered frantically. Germaine would kill him for destroying the ceremony, and if she didn’t, the festival director, Mrs. Rand, certainly would. She’d been in charge of the festival for fifteen years. It was her life. No one had ever before risked her wrath and Piper couldn’t believe Jackson was going to be the first.
But Jackson didn’t seem to care, as he kept dragging the reluctant pig through the now-hushed crowd. At the last minute—when he was only a few yards from Piper—he let go of the rope wrapped around the pig’s neck. The thing headed straight for Piper at a dead run.
For one excruciatingly long second she was frozen in shock and fear. And then instincts she didn’t even know she had took over and she started to run. She didn’t get far, however, before her high heels got tangled in the hem of her dress and she went down hard.
Within seconds, the pig was on her, squealing loudly as it snuffled its snout all over her dress and face. And in that strange, surreal moment, she finally figured out what the weird scent from her dress was—vanilla wafers.
They’d learned last year in biology that the sweet cookies were pigs’ favorite treats.
Someone had obviously hidden them somewhere on her dress, because the beast was going crazy looking for them, nudging her with its snout and even licking her wherever it could. Piper tried desperately to shove it away, even grabbed onto its mini-tuxedo and tugged, but the thing outweighed her by a good thirty pounds and it was as determined to find its treat as she was to get out from under it.
As she scrambled backwards, she heard her dress rip, but didn’t pay any attention to it. All of her focus was on eluding the vanilla wafer crazed pig.
Clambering towards safety, with the pig following her every move, Piper became aware that the entire town was staring at her with their mouths wide open. Except Mrs. Rand , who stood on the dais, frozen in shock, as she took in the fiasco her beloved Cotton Crowning had become.
Even worse, a chant had started among the football players, one that was growing louder with every second that passed.
Kiss the pig.
Kiss the pig.
Kiss the pig.
Kiss the pig.
Piper’s cheeks flamed and her heart felt like it would burst right out of her chest. This couldn’t be happening, she told herself. No way had she gone through with this whole Cotton Festival thing just to be humiliated at the last second by a giant pig.
Only it was happening, the chant growing louder with each second that passed. And then, as if it understood what the words meant, the pig chose that second to run its cold, wet, disgusting snout down one of her cheeks, across her mouth and over her chin.
Piper clamped her hands over her face in a meager attempt at protection that was too little, too late and prayed for the ground to open up and swallow her whole.
She prayed for an earthquake, for a five alarm fire, for anything that would make this nightmare end, but God obviously had other plans for the day.
Finally, someone managed to pry the pig away from her—she glanced up and realized Tanner had grabbed the rope and was wrestling it back across the square—and Piper scrambled to her feet.
It took a minute, but the entire gathering fell silent once again. As she looked up at the bleachers and wondered half-hysterically what she was supposed to do now, she realized Mei, Izzy and Cassidy had been frantically making their way through the crowded stands to get to her. As they got to the bottom, Izzy looked up, straight at Piper, and her already pale face drained of color. Then she started to run, straight towards Piper.
Following Izzy’s horrified gaze, Piper looked down and realized her struggle with the pig had ripped the front of her skirt clear off.
She was standing in front of Tanner, her classmates, and a large percentage of Paris, Texas—bare from the waist down except for the pair of Spanx her mother had bought to go with the dress and forced her, under duress, to wear.
She looked around for her mother, finally found her on the ground about thirty feet away. Her father and sister were crowded around her, fanning her with their Cotton Festival programs, but she wasn’t stirring. For one fleeting second, Piper wondered if she’d finally done it. If she’d finally embarrassed her mother so badly that she had done what she’d always threatened to: died of shame.
It was the last straw.
As her world caved in, Piper turned to flee and ran straight into Germaine—who was grinning widely as she used her iPhone to click picture after picture of Piper’s humiliation.