Gulping, Cassie tightened her fingers on the scabby handle of her case. She stepped off the kerb, the case bumping down on its wonky wheels behind her.
And what was inside it? The letter that said she did belong here. That Cassandra Bell, of all the unlikely people, was good enough for a scholarship to the Darke Academy. The brief letter was typed on thick, expensive, parchment-like paper, and just as well – cheap paper would have fallen to bits by now, the number of times she’d unfolded and re-folded it, soaking in the words until they were acid-etched on her brain. Now it was tucked carefully inside the leatherbound notebook Patrick had given her as a leaving present, the one that must have taken a big chunk out of his council wages.
So what was she going to do? Shove the notebook back at him, and say she was sorry, she was a failure before she even arrived?
No way. That letter confirmed it. She was a student at the Darke Academy!
Grinning, Cassie ran out across the road, her case bumping behind her. A driver braked hard and yelled at her, and cheerfully she gave him the finger.
She had a right to be here. She was going to fit in. And what was more, she was going to love it.
Breathless, she let her forefinger hover over the bell-push. This is it, she thought. Here goes …
She retreated, startled. The gates were already swinging wide, silent and smooth. Clenching her hand into a fist, she bit her lip. She hadn’t touched the bell.
A hand on her shoulder pulled her away as a black car, long and sleek, bumped very gently across the pavement and nosed into the gates. Cassie got the impression that nothing would have halted its smooth progress, not even a careless pedestrian.
The hand let her go abruptly. As she turned, smiling, its owner backed off a step. He was a boy of about her age, tall and broad-shouldered, his brown hair close-cropped. He had the healthy look of an outdoors type, so she doubted he was usually so pale. The expression on his handsome face was one of shock; he looked as if all his blood had just drained into his scruffy trainers.
‘Thanks,’ she said, to break the stunned silence.
He didn’t reply. Instead, turning on his heel, he walked on without another word and disappeared through the gates of the Academy. Cassie stared.
Macho, rude, and American.
It wasn’t just the two drawling words that had given him away, but the downbeat clothes and his cocksure loping stride. Well, she was glad she wasn’t the only one in non-deliberately-ripped jeans. Nervous again, she took a breath.
Get in there, Cassie! It’s where you belong, remember?
Cassie grinned. It was like she could hear Patrick’s voice right inside her head. Before the gates could swing shut again, she tugged her case through them and into the courtyard beyond.
It was huge, far bigger than it looked from the road. Sunlight filtered through chestnut trees, dappling flagstones worn lustrous with age. The paved drive curved in a great circle round a pool that was green with ferns and exotic fleshy-leafed plants, their exposed roots trailing like twisted serpents. In the centre of the pool was the statue she’d glimpsed: a slender bronze girl on tiptoe, dreamily stretching her arms and tilting up her face to a swan. There was nothing dreamy about the swan, though. Its webbed feet clawed at the girl’s body like talons, wings arched above her, its neck and savage head raised like a snake about to strike. It looked brutal and triumphant.
Cassie felt a shiver run through her. She’d always thought of swans as serene birds. Delicate. Pretty on ponds.
Not this one.
The statue was beautiful but unsettling. She turned instead to the clusters of gossiping students, voices raised with the excitement of a new term. Cassie gulped. Every single one of them was sleek with wealth and beauty. As she blew a strand of hair away from her face, she wished she’d had the cash to invest in a chic haircut. Hell, she should have made the cash. Mortgaged her soul to the devil or something.
When she risked a smile, they turned away, disdainful. A Japanese girl gave a bark of incredulous laughter before turning back to her friend and muttering something that made them both giggle. Like the rest of the students, they had an arrogant sheen of money and class. Of the scruffy American boy, there was no sign.
A ball of anger formed in Cassie’s gut, and she tightened her grip on her case. The letter. It was in there. Her letter. Her scholarship. This crowd had bought their places here. She’d earned hers. She wasn’t going to walk away from it. No way.
The black limousine was parked at the foot of a flight of stone steps and its driver was opening the rear door, black sunglasses screening his expression. Cassie watched, cynically waiting for it to disgorge another spoiled rich kid. Instead an elderly woman emerged, frail and beautiful as a withered flower.
Cassie had never imagined someone so old could be beautiful. But this woman was. Fragile, impossibly thin, like a cobweb, but still strikingly lovely. If that was what Paris life did for you, Cassie wasn’t just sticking it out, she was staying for ever.
The smile on her face died as the limousine driver closed the door with a soft clunk and slid back into the driving seat. Wasn’t he even going to help the old girl up the steps? What kind of a chauffeur was he? Cassie glared at him and then at her fellow students, who weren’t taking the slightest notice of the old woman.
‘Unbelievable,’ said Cassie loudly. Dumping her case at the foot of the steps, she went to the woman’s side.
‘Do you need a hand?’
Slowly, so very slowly, the old woman turned her head.