By Seija Rankin
October 28, 2020 at 01:00 PM EDT
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Credit: Jacqueline Kay

"When I think about my high school days, two things come to mind," says Samantha Downing. "Pressure and confusion."

The author is describing both something very familiar to all of us and the driving force behind her new novel. Downing is following up her first two best-sellers with For Your Own Good, which will hit shelves July 27, 2021 — and EW has the exclusive first look, including the cover. But first, we'll let her finish her intro to the highly anticipated book.

"There was peer pressure to fit in, to belong, to be accepted," Downing says. "There was pressure from parents to get good grades and get into college. Then there were the teachers. Many were good, some even great, and a few were terrible. Pressure came from all of them, either to do better, try harder, or act different. Most of my time was spent navigating through the maze of what people wanted from me and what I wanted for myself. All of these competing interests and agendas are what made high school the perfect setting for my next thriller."

"For Your Own Good is set at Belmont Academy, a private school in the Northeast," she continues. "A place where entitlement and wealth are as common as iPhones and Starbucks. Teddy Crutcher has just been named teacher of the year, and believes his job is not only to teach, but to turn students into better people. According to his own definition, of course. And he's willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goal. Now his focus is on Zach Ward, one of Belmont's most popular students. For Your Own Good is the story of what happens next."

Credit: Penguin

Excerpt from For Your Own Good, by Samantha Downing

CHAPTER 1

Entitlement has a particular stench. Pungent, bitter. Almost brutal.

Teddy smells it coming.

The stench blows in the door with James Ward. It oozes out of his pores, infecting his suit, his polished shoes, his ridiculously white teeth.

"I apologize for being late," James says, offering his hand.

"It's fine," Teddy says. "Not all of us can be punctual."

The smile on James's face disappears. "Sometimes it can't be helped."

"Of course."

James sits at one of the student desks. Normally Teddy would sit right next to a parent, but this time he sits at his own desk in the front of the class. His chair is angled slightly to the right, giving James a clear view of the award hanging on the wall. Teddy's Teacher of the Year plaque came in last week.

"You said you wanted to talk about Zach," Teddy says.

"I want to discuss his midterm paper."

Zach's paper sits on Teddy's desk, along with his Rubric assessment. "Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby: Was She Worth It?" He glances up at James, whose expression doesn't change. "An interesting topic."

"You gave him a B plus."

"Yes, I did."

James smiles just enough. "Teddy," he says. Not Mr. Crutcher, as everyone else calls him, and not Theodore. Just Teddy, like they are friends. "You know how important junior year grades are for college," he says.

"I do."

"Zach is a straight-A student."

"I understand that."

"I've read his paper," James says, leaning back a little in his chair. Settling in for the long argument. "I thought it was well written, and it showed a great deal of creativity. Zach worked very hard to come up with a topic that hadn't been done before. He really wanted a different perspective on a book that's been written about ad infinitum."

Ad infinitum. The words hang in the air, swinging like a pendulum.

"All true," Teddy says.

"But you still gave him a B plus."

"Zach wrote a good paper, and good papers get a B. Exceptional papers get an A." Teddy picks up the Rubric and holds it out toward James. "You can see the breakdown for yourself. Grammar, structure, mechanics . . . it's all here."

James has to get up to retrieve the paper, which makes Teddy smile inside. He folds his hands and watches.

As James starts to read, his phone buzzes. He takes it out and holds up a finger, telling Teddy to wait, then gets up and walks out of the classroom to take the call.

Teddy is left alone to think about his time, which is being wasted.

James asked for this meeting. James specified that it had to be afterhours, in the evening. This is what Teddy has to deal with from parents, and he deals with it ad infinitum.

He stares at his own phone, counting the minutes as they pass. Wondering what James would do if he just got up, walked right past him, and left.

It's unfortunate that he can't.

If Teddy walks out, James will call the headmaster and complain. The headmaster will then call Teddy and remind him that parents pay the bills, including his own paycheck. Belmont isn't a public school.

Not that he would get fired. Just six months ago, he was named Teacher of the Year, for God's sake. But it would be a headache, and he doesn't need that. Not now.

So he stays, counting the minutes. Staring at the walls.

The room is orderly. Sparse. Teddy's desk is clear of everything except Zach's paper, a pen, and a laptop. No inspirational posters on the wall, no calendars, nothing but Teddy's recent award.

Belmont Academy is an old school, with dark paneling, solid doors, and the original wood floors. The only modern addition is the stack of cubbyholes near the door. That's where students have to leave their phones during class, an idea Teddy championed until the board approved it. Now the other teachers thank him for it.

Before the cubbies were installed, kids used their phone throughout class. Once, several years ago, Teddy even broke a student's phone. That was an expensive lesson.

Five minutes have passed since James walked out. Teddy starts to pick at his cuticles. It's a habit he developed back in high school, though over the years he got rid of it. Last summer, he started doing it again. He hates himself for it but can't seem to stop.

Time continues to pass.

If Teddy had a dollar for every minute he was kept waiting by James and every other parent, he wouldn't be teaching. He wouldn't have to do anything at all.

Eleven minutes go by before James walks back into the room.

"I apologize. I was waiting for that call."

"It's fine," Teddy says. "Some people just can't disconnect."

"Sometimes it's not possible."

"Of course."

James takes his seat at the desk and says, "Let me just ask you straight out. Is there anything we can do about Zach's paper?"

"When you say do, Mr. Ward, are you asking me if I'll change his grade?"

"Well, I thought it was an A paper. A minus, maybe, but still an A."

"I understand that. And I understand your concern for Zach and his future," Teddy says. "However, can you imagine what would happen if I changed his grade? Can you appreciate how unfair that is, not only to the other students, but also to the school? If we start basing our grades on what parents think they should be, instead of teachers, how can we possibly know if we are doing our job? We couldn't possibly know if our students are learning the material and progressing with their education and that, Mr. Ward, is the very foundation of Belmont." Teddy pauses, taking great joy at the dismayed look on James's face. Not so smug now. "So no, I will not change your son's grade and threaten the integrity of this school."

The silence in the room is broken only by the clock. The minute hand jumps forward with a loud click.

James clears his throat. "I apologize. I didn't mean to suggest anything like that."

"Apology accepted."

But James isn't done yet. They never are.

"Perhaps there is some extra work Zach can do? Even if he has to read a second book and write another paper?"

Teddy thinks about this while staring down at his hands. The cuticle on his index finger already looks ragged, and it's only the middle of the term.

"Perhaps," he finally says. "Let me give it some thought."

"That's all I ask. I appreciate it. So does Zach."

Zach is a smug little bastard who has no appreciation for anything or anyone except himself. That's why he didn't get an A.

His paper was good. Damn good, in fact. If Zach was a better person, he would've received a better grade.

CHAPTER 2

Teddy's old Saab is the only car left in the parking lot. Everyone else has cleared out, including the sports teams and the other teachers. Tonight he's the last one. He unlocks the door with his key—no electronic gizmos on this car—and sets his briefcase in the backseat.

"Mr. Crutcher?"

The voice makes Teddy jump. A second ago the lot was empty, and now there's a woman standing behind him.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," she says.

She is tall and curvy, with dark hair cut at the chin and plum-colored lips. Simple blue dress, high heels, and what looks like an expensive handbag. He's seen enough of them to know.

"Yes?" Teddy says.

"I'm Pamela Ward. Zach's mother."

"Oh, hello." Teddy stands up a little straighter. "I don't think we've met before."

"No, we haven't." She steps forward to offer her hand and Teddy gets a whiff of her. Gardenias.

"I'm afraid you missed your husband," he says, shaking her hand. "He left about twenty minutes ago."

"I know. He told me."

"Yes, we—"

"I'm sorry I missed the meeting. I just wanted to stop by and make sure everything has been taken care of." She looks him straight in the eye. No fear. Not of him or of being alone in a parking lot at night.

"Taken care of?" he says.

"That you'll do what's best for Zach." It's not a question.

"Absolutely. I always want the best for my students."

"Thank you, I appreciate that," she says. "Have a good evening."

"And you as well. It was a pleasure to meet you."

With a nod, she turns and walks away.

Now he sees her car. It's across the lot, a black crossover that almost disappears in the night. So does she.

Teddy gets into his car and watches her drive away in the rearview mirror.

Before this evening, he had never met James or Pamela Ward. Unusual, considering Zach is a junior. Teddy makes a point of attending every orientation, parent's night, fundraiser, as well as sporting events. The big games, anyway. People know Teddy Crutcher, and most have also met his wife, Allison.

He was surprised when James emailed and said he wanted to meet. Teddy looked him up online and learned he worked in finance. Not surprising, half the Belmont parents work in finance. It made James a little less interesting, a little more pedestrian. A little more manageable.

Now Teddy knows even more about James, and about his wife. Not that it matters. Not unless he can use it to his advantage.

From the front, Teddy's house looks like it could be abandoned. Broken slats on the fence, overgrown garden, sagging porch. He and his wife bought it as a fixer-upper and started with the electricity, the plumbing, and the roof. Everything cost more than expected and took longer than it was supposed to. He still isn't sure which one ran out first, the money or the desire, but they stopped renovating years ago.

The inside is a little better, the rooms were painted and the floors refinished before they moved in.

He almost calls out for his wife, Allison, but stops himself.

No reason to do that.

The good thing about having such a large house is having more than enough for space for Teddy and his wife to have their own offices. Hers faces the back and was supposed to have a view of the garden and a pond. That never happened.

His office is in the front corner of the house. He had envisioned staring out at his lawn and a freshly painted fence around it. Instead he keeps the drapes shut.

His email box is filled with messages from students asking about assignments. They want extensions, clarifications, more explicit instructions. Always something. Students today just can't do as they're told. They always need more. Half of Teddy's job has become explaining things a second, third or even fourth time.

Tonight he ignores the email and pours himself a tall glass of milk. He doesn't drink it often—dairy has always been an issue—but he likes it. This evening, it's a treat. Something to help him think about what to do with Zach.

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