‘Hey, kiddo. Are we keeping you up?’
The voice sounded familiar, but somehow muffled and distant. As if it was coming from the bottom of a well. With an effort, Cassie Bell forced her eyes open and blinked woozily at the sight before her. The table was set with thirteen places. At the centre sat a pasty-looking turkey, clearly only big enough for eight. Cheap supermarket own-brand crackers and a paper tablecloth. Fatty chipolatas and overdone sprouts.
Christmas, Cranlake Crescent-style.
Could it really be only three weeks since she was eating exquisite French cuisine from fine china and crystal in the elegant dining room of the Darke Academy? It seemed a lifetime away.
‘What’s the matter?’
Cassie refocused on the sandy-haired figure across the table. Oh, yeah. Patrick. Her key worker. The only thing that had made coming back to her old care home bearable. She managed a smile.
‘Aren’t you hungry, Cassie?’ piped up Jilly Beaton sweetly from the head of the table. ‘That’s not like you. You’ve been eating us out of house and home for a fortnight.’
Cassie dug her nails into her palms. Jilly’s bitchy remarks had been increasing ever since she had got back from Paris. Normally, Cassie wouldn’t have given her the satisfaction, but her fuse seemed to be getting shorter every day.
‘Yeah, well I just lost my appetite,’ she snapped, pushing her chair back and getting to her feet. ‘Excuse me.’
‘Cassie Bell, you’re not excused—’ began Jilly, but Cassie was already out of the room.
Patrick caught her at the foot of the stairs, his face full of concern. ‘Cassie, what’s up?’ he said. ‘You’ve been acting funny ever since you got back from Paris.’
Cassie paused for a moment. Where would she even begin? Tell him the truth about the Academy? About the mysterious group of students called the Few and their dark secret? About the ancient sprits that shared their bodies, instilling power and beauty but demanding in return that they draw life-force from their ordinary, human roommates? Could she tell him about what had happened to her in that black place beneath the Arc de Triomphe – the interrupted ritual that had left part of the spirit that had lived in the body of Estelle Azzedine lodged in her own mind? Could she tell him about the strange, driving hunger that had been growing inside her ever since, and how she knew that turkey and chipolatas just weren’t going to hit the spot … ?
‘I’m just missing my friends,’ she mumbled. ‘Y’know?’
An expression of relief washed over Patrick’s face. ‘Of course you are. Have you spoken to anyone today?’
‘I had an email from Isabella last night. And one from, um, Ranjit.’
‘Just, uh, a boy in one of my classes,’ replied Cassie, flustered. ‘Why?’
Patrick’s grin grew wider and his blue eyes glittered. ‘Because you blushed when you said his name.’
‘Oh, give over!’ Cassie gave him a playful shove.
‘He’s not your boyfriend, then?’
‘No, he’s not,’ she said hurriedly.
‘No. Really.’ Cassie twisted her fingers into the cashmere sweater that her friend Isabella had sent her for Christmas. ‘It’s … complicated.’
Ha! That was the understatement of the century. Her few snatched moments with Ranjit at the end of term had hardly given them time to define their relationship. All she knew was that her stomach twisted with longing every time he came into her mind, but that he was back home in India. Thousands of miles away. She’d just have to put up with missing him – missing him like she could die of it. The feeling was so strong Cassie almost surprised herself.
Absorbed in her memories, she jumped at the sound of her ringtone. Pulling her phone from her jeans pocket, Cassie almost dropped it when she saw the name on the display. She felt the blood rushing to her face again.
‘Speak of the devil …’ chuckled Patrick as he slipped back into the dining room.
Cassie winced inwardly at his choice of words. She still didn’t understand what the Few truly were. What Ranjit truly was. Gods and monsters, he had once joked bitterly. So which was he? Cassie didn’t know. She wasn’t sure that he knew himself.
Pushing her worries out of her mind, she clasped the phone to her ear like a lifeline. ‘Ranjit!’
He must be able to hear the stupid grin she was wearing, even half a world away.
‘Cassandra.’ The soft warmth of his voice made her forget the freezing sleet and even, for a moment, the raging hunger. ‘Happy Christmas.’
‘Same to you.’ Breathless, she sat down on the stairs. It was criminal how much she missed him. Criminal, and deeply inconvenient. ‘Oh, it’s good to hear from you.’
‘Are you OK?’ He sounded concerned.
‘I’m fine. Fine. Just a bit … ’
‘The hunger is growing, isn’t it?’
Cassie was quiet for a moment. It was a relief to speak to someone who knew what she was going through. Ranjit had been there before.
‘Yes,’ she said at last, and laughed shakily. ‘You got it.’
‘It won’t be long, Cassandra. A week and a half. Will you be all right?’
‘I’m fine. Honestly. I just …’ She hesitated, then took a leap of faith. ‘I miss you. A lot.’