by Priscilla Aceves (@priscillawriter)

Editor: Kyra Nelson (@kyramnelson)
YA Contemporary
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I’m seeking representation for my Latinx dark academia novel, EASTMOUR ABBEY, a Victorian inspired YA contemporary in the style of Austenland.

It’s the summer after high school graduation and Luna’s round-the-clock reading habit might finally pay off. With an invitation to a Victorian literary contest at a historic English estate comes a shot at a major scholarship—and the one opportunity Luna’s got to attend her college’s prestigious English program.

But like in her favorite Victorian novels, there’s more happening at Eastmour Abbey than meets the eye. With a hundred thousand dollar scholarship on the line, there’s no limit to what some of Luna’s competitors will do to get an edge.

After a terrible performance on her first challenge, Luna’s anxiety only grows, and it isn’t long before she’s overthinking everything. To make matters worse, when she volunteers to find evidence against the culprit of a mysterious case of blackmail, she’s framed for cheating and disqualified from another challenge.

As the schemes and sabotage continue, no one is beyond suspicion—not even Will, the guy Luna formed an early connection with who’s hiding a secret of his own. Now, to clear her name and keep her shot at the scholarship, Luna must determine who she can trust (and how far she’s willing to go to win) before it’s too late.

EASTMOUR ABBEY is complete at 77,000 words and combines the sabotage theme of Alexa Donne’s The Ivies with the high-stakes competition of Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown.

Luna’s Mexican American background and attendance at a competitive high school were inspired by my own experiences growing up in Texas.

First Five Pages

I’d studied the layout of Heathrow airport half a dozen times during my flight, but after three trips out exits that led anywhere but the bus section, there was no denying it. I was lost. And with fifteen minutes left until the bus left for Eastmour Abbey, I was running out of time.

I could stop in the middle of the terminal to double check my map, but the traffic on either side of me suggested that was a bad idea. The rush of strangers passing by didn’t look lost or confused. They looked like they knew exactly where they were going. But I wasn’t used to airports as big or daunting as this one—which might explain my trouble understanding the directional signs that hung from the ceilings.

Heathrow wasn’t just big and daunting though. It was also well resourced, so it didn’t take long for me to find one of those large electronic displays, arrivals and departures flickering in bright white and yellow at the top. The map below them was admittedly better than the low-quality one I’d found online.

I was in the middle of snapping a photo of it on my phone when I saw them.

Three teenagers walking side by side down the center of the terminal. The redheaded girl wore a blue tracksuit that popped against her pale skin, her bright curls gathered in a low ponytail that fell across her shoulder. The Asian guy beside her sported a navy jersey, his cargo pants a duller olive shade, his pink sneakers somehow managing not to clash with the rest of his outfit. The Indian girl between them had flowing, dark hair, but she wore the brightest outfit of all. A purple dress with orange flowers so intricate they looked like they'd been painted on.

But their eclectic assortment of outfits wasn’t what made me follow them as soon as they passed. It was the fact that I already knew who they were, though they didn’t yet know me.

Summer, David and Mila. They were among the contestants that sent selfies in our group chat along with the texts introducing themselves. All of which I’d studied closely in an attempt to make the transition of living with eleven strangers for the next six weeks less overwhelming.

I knew from Summer’s text that she was from a small town near Chicago and shooting for pre-med, and I remembered that David lived in San Diego and was now heading to NYU to study business. But it was Mila’s text that was easiest to remember because her first sentence stood out so vividly from the rest.

Hi everyone, I’m Mila Dayel and I’ll be starting at Cornell University in the fall!

Those words had made my blood run cold, an unwelcome reminder of the place I’d spent the last few months trying to forget.

Not that I’d done a good job of it. Sometimes all it took was the weather being as crisp and cool as it had been that day I wandered onto campus years ago during a rare vacation my mom and I took to the Finger Lakes region of New York. I’d fallen in love with Cornell’s brick buildings and bright green lawns. Its sprawling hills of trees and perfect view of Lake Cayuga.

When I got home, I researched everything about it. From its famous alumni that included Toni Morrison and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to the infamous Dragon Day parade. I only wish someone had properly explained what an eleven percent acceptance rate actually meant. If they had, maybe I wouldn’t have plastered Cornell’s logo all over my room or picked out possible courses before I even settled on a major. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent my high school career so focused on crafting a stand-out application, or obsessing over my SAT scores and class rank until those numbers felt like the only ones that mattered.

Because in the end, it had all been in vain.

Of course, it wasn’t Mila’s fault that she’d gotten into Cornell and I hadn’t. But as I clicked on the selfie she’d sent of her in a red and white Cornell sweatshirt, I couldn’t help the knot that formed at the bottom of my throat. I’d spent months trying to forget that rejection email and trying to switch my focus to this competition instead.

Some part of my mind had latched onto the possibility of winning the hundred thousand dollars we were about to compete for as a sort of replacement for what happened with Cornell. I’d gone from worrying about eleven percent to worrying about eleven competitors.

But at the end of the day, it was all still a numbers game, wasn’t it?

Summer, David and Mila were apparently less directionally challenged than I was. Within minutes they were walking through the sliding glass doors that led out to the private bus section of Heathrow and into the fresh London air, significantly cooler than the Texas summers I’d known all my life. The sky overhead was bright and slightly cloudy. The perfect picture of an England summer.

Maybe if this were an ordinary vacation and not the beginning of a month and a half intense literary competition, I could have properly enjoyed it.

Instead of following the three of them all the way to the bus, I stopped to swing my backpack over my shoulder and put my passport away, then dug out a thin cardigan and slipped it over my T-shirt.

Finally, I wheeled my suitcases over to the spot with the sign advertising the company name. Literary Summers, spelled out in big, black letters. A large blue tour bus stood behind the sign, its driver leaning casually against the open door. He nodded at me as I approached him, like he could tell from my lost expression that I was a disoriented American.

“Hi,” I said, bringing my suitcases to a stop behind me. “I’m one of the contest participants.”

“Right,” he said, in a thick English accent that, for some reason, surprised me. “Got the contest packet on you?”

I nodded and reached into my bag for the huge envelope the competition staff sent us weeks ago. On its front was a black and white picture of my face (at least we’d gotten to pick the photo), which I guess was to serve as my I.D. for now.

The driver nodded at me, then opened the latch beneath the bus, where several suitcases were already stored. I let him take my bags, then climbed the steps onto the bus. I’d forgotten the driver’s seat was on the opposite side here. The whole vehicle felt backwards, at least in the front. But the rest was ordinary enough.

The group I’d followed here had already taken their seats together near the back of the bus, right behind a black girl with long braids and a blue jacket who I recognized as Hyacinth because she’d also posted a selfie, and a muscular light-skinned guy who hadn’t sent a photo.

In total there were ten people on the bus already, which meant we were only waiting for one other person. At least I wasn’t the last one to board. But that didn’t stop wandering eyes from following me down the narrow walkway.

I ducked my head as I made my way to an empty seat near the middle of the bus, letting my loose hair conceal the sides of my face as I walked past stranger after stranger. Bea would have done the opposite, probably. Chin up, shoulders back and eyes that lit up under the attention. She would have introduced herself to half the bus by now, naturally taking on the role of group leader. Not because she had anything to prove, but because that was just Bea.

But it wasn’t me.

For what felt like the hundredth time since I’d left her behind in Dallas, I wished she was here. She might not know all the minute details of Victorian literature that I’d studied over the past few months, but she knew something arguably as important in a situation like this one, and undeniably more important in the real world. How to be herself instantly, outgoing and relaxed even among strangers. A skill that, despite my attendance at the most advanced high school in my county, I’d never been able to master.

When I eventually reached my seat, I finally felt my muscles relax. But my whole body tensed again as soon as I realized who I’d sat across. A guy who reminded me of Bea in a different way. Because though I’d never met him before, he’d been the subject of one of our last conversations the morning before my mom drove me to the airport.

“I’m just saying,” Bea had said over the phone as a soccer game played too loudly in the background. Brazil was playing Uruguay, so of course all of Bea’s family was watching. We’d planned to watch most games of the Copa América together this summer (me rooting for Mexico while she rooted for Brazil), but that was before I got the email letting me know I’d been selected for the contest. “With any luck, there’ll be a couple of cute guys there. So even if you don’t win the scholarship, at least you’ll have your pick of a consolation prize.”

An amused smile tugged at the corners of my lips. “I don’t think any of them would appreciate being viewed as consolation prizes. And it’s a literary competition, remember? Not a dating contest. I highly doubt that’ll be what people are focused on.”

“They’re eighteen-year-olds,” Bea had answered simply, like that was enough to explain everything. “Of course that’s what most of them will be focused on. Anyway, I’m just trying to look out for you. Aren’t your beloved Victorian novels all about epic romances?”

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