As her eyes adjusted, she made out an arched smear of light. Curling her bare toes into the soft, comforting carpet, she took another trembling step, then another. OK: now she was committed. Go, Cassie! What are you scared of?
Her progress was painfully slow. She half-expected Jake to leap out, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then, after far too long, she made out his silhouette ahead. About to hurry after him, she came to a dead halt.
That couldn’t be another set of footsteps? Surely they had to be Jake’s.
No. These steps were behind her. Less guarded, but still furtive. And definitely on the grand staircase. The sinister porter? Maybe. What would he do if he thought she’d been sneaking around? Shop her to the teachers? Or deal with her himself? And what if it wasn’t the porter …
Cassie broke into an uncertain run. Just as panic began to swamp her, she saw the arch of light grow larger, and then she was beneath it. Grabbing the plasterwork, she leaned back, trying to get her terrified breathing under control. Once more she heard a footfall, and made her decision. She swung round the corner and into a smaller stairway.
It was like bright day after the terrible darkness of the corridor. She wasn’t even worried about alerting Jake any more; somehow that wouldn’t be as bad as being caught by whoever – or whatever – was behind her. Jake was a fast-moving blur, slipping round the stairs two floors down, but she was almost desperate to catch up with him now, whatever the consequences. Grabbing the banister, she went silently down.
Reaching the third floor, Jake turned through an archway. Swallowing her fear, Cassie waited a moment. The footsteps behind her still echoed softly. Not much time. Setting her jaw, she peered cautiously round the corner.
The new passageway was maybe thirty feet long. It was well, if eerily, lit by rows of small alcoves, each one occupied by a classical bust. Jake must have a colossal nerve, thought Cassie. The guard of marble heads looked scarily real, their blank eyeballs terrifying. Yet Jake must have passed between them, because he was crouching at a door at the end of the corridor, testing the handle.
It wasn’t giving way to him. He worked something into the lock, pushing and twisting frantically, but when he tried the handle again it still didn’t give. He glanced fearfully up into the recesses on either side of the door, but nothing moved, no one challenged him. After a few more tries at the lock, he leaned against the door, pressing his head to the wood like someone in despair.
Uh-oh. He was about to give up, and if he turned now he’d see her for sure. Time to go. Taking three quick steps backward, she hesitated.
No way was she retreating upstairs to that pitch-black corridor, towards that second set of echoing footsteps. No. She’d go down instead, and try to find her way back another way. She plunged down the stairs, breaking into a half-run. If she could just get to the bottom, she’d be safe, she was sure. Almost there …
Cassie was halfway down the last flight when she felt an icy chill settle between her shoulder blades. She was being watched.
Halting abruptly, she sank her teeth into her lower lip and tried not to scream. It was too late to try to hide. If she turned she’d see whoever, or whatever, was behind her – and she really, really didn’t want to. Maybe it was the porter. Maybe it was Jake. But who knew what else might be lurking in this eerie place in the small hours?
Stupid. What a coward she was. Of course she had to look! Gritting her teeth, Cassie spun and scowled up.
The watching eyes glowed. Cassie went rigid with fear.
Unhurried, the figure drew back.
A tremor shuddered down her spine. Not Jake. Not the porter. Yet there was something about that silhouette – something about its stillness – that was alarmingly familiar. She’d felt that cool, animal gaze before, tingling on the nape of her neck.
She had no way of proving it, even to herself, but Cassie knew it in her bone marrow.
You might as well look, Cassie! That’s all anyone gets to do with him …
‘Maths!’ moaned Isabella. ‘Why must we begin with maths?’
Clutching her textbooks under one arm, Cassie squeezed her roommate’s elbow consolingly. ‘We have to start with something. It’s not so bad.’
‘It’s a terrible omen. I shall fail this year, I know I shall. Papa will be furious.’
‘You mean he’ll refuse to buy you a new string of polo ponies?’ Jake Johnson fell into step beside them. ‘You poor heiress. Just make do with the old ones.’
Isabella elbowed him, not gently. ‘Be kind to me, Jake. I am too fragile to withstand your scorn.’ She tossed her mane of hair. ‘A delicate southern flower.’
Jake laughed out loud. ‘Yeah, and shall I show you the rib you just broke?’
‘Any time.’ She gave him a sweet smile.
Cassie was amused but anxious. Isabella’s flirting seemed a lot more serious than Jake’s. Anyway, wasn’t he stuck on Frosty the Snow Woman? She didn’t want her roommate to go falling in unrequited love.
Besides, what was he up to?
Jake looked cheerful, uncomplicated, American. He seemed like a normal guy. It was hard to believe she’d trailed him last night. Cassie could almost have believed that she’d dreamed it – if it hadn’t been for the shadows of tiredness under his brown eyes. When he smiled at her, she didn’t smile back, and he frowned slightly.
I don’t know what you’re up to, but I know you’re up to something …