‘Tell me that’s a print.’
Cassie came to an awestruck halt beside a massive gilt frame.
Still tugging Cassie’s case along the pale-blue carpet, Isabella turned, frowning. ‘What? Oh, the Monet? No, of course it isn’t a print, silly. None of them are. Do come on, Cassie.’
Tearing herself reluctantly away from the painting, Cassie followed. She was trying to look cool and uninterested and at home, but she had a terrible urge to creep along behind Isabella on tiptoe. Any minute now, someone would come along and suss her out, and then she’d be out on her ear like the fraud she was.
There’s been a dreadful mistake, they’d tell her coldly. A case of mistaken identity. You can find your way back? To Cranlake Crescent, where you belong? Naturally we will pay your fare. You look as if you need the charity …
In the meantime, she might as well soak in the atmosphere. God, this was beautiful. She’d imagined such buildings existed, but only in fairytales. Didn’t you need silk dresses and crinolines to hang out in a place like this? Or at least a ball of string to stop you getting lost for ever? The gilded hallways and corridors and arches seemed endless, the corniced ceilings so high she was getting a crick in her neck from staring at the gods and monsters playing in the painted sky. The soft carpet muffled even the squeaky rumble of that Saver Price suitcase.
Watching Isabella trundle it along, Cassie blushed. Second-hand Saver Price at that, and it looked as if it might fall apart at any moment. No wonder the rich brats had laughed.
‘OK, not far now. You are going to love it, Cassie— Ah!’ Isabella tugged her to a panelled door, jabbing a finger at the polished plaque set into the wood.
‘You see? Roommates!’ Isabella could barely contain her excitement, but Cassie was struck dumb as the door swung silently open.
‘You like it?’ Isabella went from joyful to mournful in an instant. ‘You don’t like it!’
At last Cassie found her voice, but it was hoarse. ‘Like it? I can’t … There must have been a mistake.’
‘No mistake.’ Cheerful again, Isabella tossed Cassie’s case on to one of the silk bedcovers, right next to a small mountain of designer-label luggage.
Knowing she must look as out of place as her case, Cassie felt a jab of homesickness for the cramped pit she’d shared with two other girls at Cranlake Crescent. Now, instead of compost walls and vomit-coloured skirting boards, she had rose paint and gilt, and – for God’s sake – a chandelier. Instead of a communal bathroom that smelled of damp and toenails, she could see through a second door into an Edwardian-tiled bathroom with a claw-footed tub. Instead of squabbling over make-up and CDs with girls as foul-mouthed and hard-bitten as she was, she had a roommate who looked and acted like an exotic film star. Yet so far Isabella actually seemed … nice.
‘This isn’t a room, it’s a palace.’ Cassie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Weak at the knees, she slumped down on the antique silk bedspread. She leaped straight back up, afraid of creasing it.
Isabella was watching her thoughtfully. ‘Aha. I see the problem.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Cassie tensed. If this improbably beautiful girl wore even a suggestion of a mocking smirk, she’d slap it straight off her face.
‘You think you are so much better than us, hey?’
Not what she’d expected. ‘Hang on a minute, you—’
Isabella waved a hand airily. ‘I know, I know. You have worked hard to get here, yes, yes, blah-blah. Well, Miss Hoity-Toity Scholarship Girl. You may have earned your place here, but I’ll have you know that some of us have bought it!’
For perhaps two seconds Cassie stared open-mouthed at Isabella before she saw the girl’s wide mouth twitch. In an instant she was grinning too, and then they both dissolved into laughter.
Isabella flopped back on to the soft mattress. ‘You see? We are going to have fun, Cassie Bell. You and me, yes? Never mind that bore Perry Hutton, or those hoity-toity snobs from the Few. I shall teach you all about the Academy. Anyway,’ she winked mischievously, ‘Richard is cute and good fun, yes?’
‘Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.’ Cassie reached nonchalantly for her case, but she was grinning like a loon. She’d never made a friend quite so instantly. Actually she’d barely made any friends at all, she thought ruefully. ‘And in return, I’ll teach you some proper English. Nobody says “hoity-toity” any more, OK?’
‘We say, “Keiko’s really up herself”.’
‘Up herself. Right!’ Isabella giggled.
‘So who are the Few? Are they sort of prefects or something?’
‘Something like that. Let’s not talk about them just now. No! Don’t unpack. Come on.’ Isabella grabbed her hand. ‘We are going to explore!’
‘Tell me about the scholarship! Come on, scholarship girl!’
Cassie gave Isabella a sidelong smile. Scholarship girl. The more Isabella used the term in an affectionate way, the less it would sting when someone like Keiko used it as a jibe – and Cassie had a feeling her roommate knew that.
‘Nothing to tell. There was kind of an exam, but it wasn’t that hard.’
‘I bet it was,’ said Isabella solemnly. ‘I bet I could not do it. I came to the Academy because my father is very rich. In here?’ She tapped her temple. ‘I’m as thick as a log.’