‘Perhaps we should call the gendarmes,’ she announced loudly. ‘I mean, it could be a bomb.’
‘Oh, Keiko. I think even terrorists have a little more class.’
The speaker was an American boy, but he couldn’t be more different from the guy Cassie had seen earlier. This one wore designer spectacles, leather loafers, crisp chinos and a polo shirt with a recognisably expensive logo. He looked like he’d just given his credit card a serious workout in that avenue outside.
‘Now, Perry,’ drawled an English boy, his hands casually in his pockets. ‘Don’t be uncharitable. There’s such a thing as shabby chic.’
Keiko sniggered. ‘Richard, how patronising. The poor are always with us, remember.’
‘Now you’re being unkind, Keiko,’ said Perry, nudging Cassie’s case with his toe. ‘The poor, after all, have a certain working class charm. This is more … what do the French say? Petit bourgeois?’
Richard raised an eyebrow so high it was lost in his dark floppy fringe. ‘Oh, Peregrine. Now who’s being petty?’
For about three seconds Cassie wanted to crawl into the nearest hole and die. The impulse passed, and the tight little burning ball of anger exploded into life. She swore, spectacularly.
‘Get your hands off my stuff!’ Jumping down the last few steps, she shoved Keiko aside.
Keiko looked absolutely livid, but Cassie had been in a scrap or two in her time. She clenched her fists – she could handle this stuck-up bitch. Perry the American stepped back, taking a sharp breath that sounded almost scared, but Richard only folded his arms, smiling.
‘This ought to be good,’ he murmured.
Cassie tensed, half-expecting Keiko to leap at her throat, but after a moment the beautiful girl laughed.
‘I never touched your “stuff”, scholarship girl. I wouldn’t soil my hands.’
Cassie’s ragged nails were digging into her palms. Oh, she’d love to punch that smirk off Keiko’s face. But it was obvious that the smug little vixen wasn’t going to go for anything as bourgeois as a fistfight. Anyway, wouldn’t they just love it if she got herself expelled on her very first day?
No way. Not worth it.
‘OK,’ seethed Cassie. ‘Now you’ve proved I’m better than you are.’
‘My God,’ said Perry. ‘How dare you talk to Keiko like that?’
‘Oh, I like it that she dares,’ drawled Richard, with a lazy wink at the American boy. ‘This could be entertaining! Now, Peregrine, run along. This is Few business.’
The dismissal was so peremptory that Cassie expected Perry to argue, but he backed obediently away and, with a last scowl at her, turned and jogged up the steps to the school entrance.
Richard draped a friendly arm around her shoulders. Cassie wanted to wrench it off and shove him away, but she could feel how strong he was. A wrestling match would hardly be cool, especially if she had no guarantee of winning.
‘Come on, now, um … what’s your name?’
‘Cassie Bell,’ she muttered.
‘Well now, Cassie Bell, lighten up. We all want you to enjoy your time here. Perry and Keiko were having a little joke. Not a very funny one, I grant you,’ – he got a filthy look from Keiko for that – ‘but you’ll have to develop a thicker skin. If you want to survive, that is.’
Cassie bit back a sharp reply. The trouble was, she wasn’t sure about anything. Maybe this really was how élite students behaved; how would she know? She didn’t know how to behave, any more than she knew what on earth she was doing here. She didn’t belong …
‘You want to fit in, don’t you?’ Richard’s voice was silky in her ear. ‘I’ve got your best interests at heart, believe me—’
The brash voice had an accent Cassie couldn’t quite place. A second later, a girl burst on them like a tornado of energy, knocking Richard’s arm away with a playful slap. She was tall, lithe as a sapling, her hair a dark, glossy tumble. Her brown eyes were fierce.
‘What are you up to, English?’ She wagged a slender finger in Richard’s face. ‘This girl, she’s new, yes? Turn off that beastly charm of yours!’
‘Ah, bella Isabella!’ Passionately Richard seized her hand and kissed it, making Isabella’s mock scowl twitch at the corners. ‘I love your Latin temper as I love your flashing eyes. Yet you so misjudge me! Keiko and I were just acquainting young Cassie Bell with a few school rules—’
‘Cassie Bell? Cassandra?’
Isabella turned. For an instant she looked startled, but then she smiled.
Cassie tried not to smile back. She didn’t trust any of these self-assured, self-centred jerks. ‘Yeah. So?’
Isabella laughed. ‘So you’re coming with me.’ Her grip on Cassie’s arm was looser than Richard’s, and with her other hand she seized the handle of Cassie’s case. ‘Let’s get you away from the riff-raff.’
With a flirtatious grin at Richard, but ignoring Keiko altogether, Isabella hauled Cassie off towards an arched colonnade at the edge of the courtyard, the case rattling and rumbling behind her.
‘Hang on a minute.’ Digging in her heels, Cassie jolted Isabella to a standstill. ‘Don’t shove me around. Who d’you think you are?’
Her aggression only made the beautiful girl hoot with laughter.
‘I don’t think, Cassie, I know! I’m Isabella Caruso. I’m your new roommate!’