‘Isabelle, I need help!’
Crouching in the dark, Allie whispered urgently into her phone.
For less than a minute she listened to the voice on the other end of the line. Occasionally she nodded, her dark hair swinging. When the voice stopped she fumbled with the phone, snapping off the back to remove the battery. Then she yanked out the SIM card and ground it into the dirt with her heel.
Scaling the low brick wall around the tiny square of London garden in which she hid, almost invisible in the moonless night, she ran down the empty street, slowing only long enough to drop the hollow phone into an open rubbish bin. A few streets away, she threw the battery over a tall fence into somebody’s garden.
Then she heard something above the sound of her own feet pounding on the pavement. Ducking behind a white van parked on the side of the road, she held her breath and listened.
Her eyes darted around the quiet residential street lined with terraces of homes, but it offered few hiding places. She could hear her pursuer running – she didn’t have much time.
Dropping to the ground, Allie wriggled her way under the van. The smell of asphalt and oil filled her nostrils. Her cheek rested on the rough tarmac, cold and damp from a rainstorm earlier that day.
She listened hard, willing her heartbeat to quiet.
The footsteps grew closer and closer. When they reached the van, she stopped breathing. But without slowing they passed her hiding place.
She felt a rush of relief.
Then the footsteps stopped.
All sound seemed to be sucked from the air and for a moment Allie could hear nothing at all. Then a muffled curse made her flinch.
After a moment she heard a quiet male voice whispering. ‘It’s me. I lost her.’ A pause then, defensively, ‘I know, I know . . . Look, she’s fast and, like you said, she knows this area.’ Another pause. ‘I’m on . . .’ his feet shuffled as he moved to look ‘. . . Croxted Street. I’ll wait here.’
The silence that followed stretched on for so long Allie began to wonder if he’d somehow tiptoed away without her hearing. She never heard him move once.
Just as her muscles began to ache from lying so still, a sound made her spine tingle.
These rang out crisply in the cool night air.
As they neared her hiding place the hairs on her arms stood up. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Her palms were slick with sweat.
Calm, she thought fiercely. Stay calm.
She practised the breathing techniques Carter had taught her over the summer – focusing on slow breaths in and out helped stave off the panic attacks that would otherwise be uncontrollable.
Three breaths in, two breaths out.
‘Where’d you see her last?’ The low, menacing voice drifted above her as she breathed quietly.
‘About two streets back,’ the original voice replied. She could hear the rustling sound his jacket made when he pointed.
‘She probably turned off somewhere or ducked into a garden. Let’s backtrack. And check behind the bins – she’s not very big. She could hide behind them.’ He sighed. ‘Nathaniel’s not gonna like it if we lose her. You heard what he said. So let’s not, shall we?’
‘She’s fast as hell,’ the first man said, sounding nervous.
‘Yeah, but we knew that already. You take that side of the street. I’ll take this one.’
Their footsteps moved away. Allie didn’t budge until the sound had completely disappeared. Even then she counted to fifty before carefully slipping out from beneath the van. When she was on her feet, she hid between cars and looked as far as she could see in every direction.
No sign of them.
Hoping she was headed the right way, she ran, faster this time.
When things were normal she loved to run, and even now her feet automatically adopted a smooth, easy rhythm. Her breathing steadied as she moved.
But things were not normal. She fought the urge to look over her shoulder, knowing that tripping and injuring herself could mean discovery. And who knew what might happen then?
In the dark the houses flew by as if they were moving, rather than her. It was late – the street was quiet.
Motion detector sensors became her enemy; if she ran on the pavement porch lights clicked on as she passed them – simultaneously blinding and exposing her. So she kept to the middle of the street, although there the street lights harshly illuminated her.
Suddenly the street ended at a junction and Allie skidded to a stop, panting as she looked up at the signs.
Foxborough Road. What did Isabelle say? She rubbed her forehead as she tried to remember.
She said left on Foxborough, she decided after a moment. Then right on the High Street. But she wasn’t certain. Everything had happened so fast.
As soon she turned left, though, she saw ahead the bright lights of the High Street and she knew she’d been right. But even as she ran towards them she wondered whether the presence of the taxicabs, buses and lorries rumbling down the road meant she was safer. She was out in the open now.
Without slowing, she powered right down the High Street looking for the place Isabelle had told her about.
There! At the garishly decorated sandwich shop on the corner Allie veered right and found the little alleyway where the headmistress had told her to wait. Without looking back, she dashed into the shadows between two massive metal rubbish bins.
Leaning back against the wall, she paused to catch her breath. Her hair hung into her eyes, clinging to the sweat on her face, and she shoved it back absently as she wrinkled her nose.
What the hell is that smell?
The bins reeked but there was also some other awful stench around that she really didn’t want to think about. Focusing on her rescue, she kept an eye on the entrance to the alley. Isabelle had said she wouldn’t have to wait long.
But as the minutes ticked by she grew impatient. Even here in dark she felt too exposed. Too easily discovered.
If I were looking for me, this would be one of the first places I’d look, she thought.
Frowning, she chewed her thumbnail absently, until a noise by her ankle drew her attention. Glancing down, she saw a discarded sandwich box moving by itself. At her first she couldn’t register what she was seeing then her mouth opened in startled astonishment as the box crept slowly towards her from the far side of the alley. Only when it moved into a pool of light did she see the thin, prehensile tail dragging the ground behind it.
Allie covered her mouth with her hands to stifle a scream.
She was crouching in a rats’ nest.
She looked around desperately but there was no place to go. As the sandwich box made its uneven way towards her, she could feel her heart flutter with fear and she struggled to stay still. She had to remain hidden.
But when the rat-box bumped against her left foot it was too much – she tore out of the alley as if she’d been scalded. When she stopped, she found herself back on the street with absolutely no idea of what to do now.
At that moment a sleek, black car skidded to a stop in front of her. Before Allie could react, a tall man leaped out of the driver’s side door and whirled to face her, all in one smooth move.
‘Allie! Quick! Get in the car.’
She stared at him in astonishment. Isabelle had told her she’d send people to help. She hadn’t said ‘I’ll send one guy in a posh car.’ He looked very much like the men who’d chased her earlier – he wore an expensive-looking suit and his dark hair was cropped short.
Allie raised her chin stubbornly.
No way am I getting in that car.
But as she turned to flee two figures appeared out of the darkness on Foxborough Road. They were running straight for her.
She was trapped.
Looking back at the man with the sleek car she saw that he was watching her worriedly. He’d left the car running and it purred like a tiger, spotting its prey. As she took a hesitant step away from him, he stretched out his right arm, his hand turned sideways. He spoke rapidly and without punctuation.
‘Allie my name is Raj Patel I’m Rachel’s dad Isabelle sent me to get you please get in the car as fast as you can.’
Allie froze. Rachel was one of her best friends. Isabelle was the headmistress at Cimmeria Academy.
If he was telling the truth, she was safe with him.
With only seconds to make up her mind, she searched for a sign to tell her what to do. Any indication that he was who he said he was.
His extended hand was steady; he had Rachel’s eyes.
‘You do not want those men to catch you, Allie,’ he said. ‘Please get in the car.’
Something in his voice told her he was telling the truth. As if he’d said the magic words that somehow made her function Allie sprang towards him, scrabbling at the car’s unfamiliar door handle and then leaping in. She was still reaching for her seat belt when the car took off.
By the time the catch clicked into place they were doing sixty miles an hour.
The thing was, the night had started out so well.
Allie had gone out with her old friends Mark and Harry for the first time in months. These were the guys she’d hung out with back when she was always getting into trouble – she and Mark had been arrested together just a few months ago.
Her parents loathed them both, so she’d expected a bit of pushback when she announced her plans for the evening. But they hadn’t appeared cross at all.
Her mother said only, ‘Be in by midnight, please.’ And that was that.
Ever since she’d come home from Cimmeria Academy that summer they’d treated her differently. With respect.
It felt weird to go out without a row.
Weirder still was going back to the park where they used to hang out together every night to find Mark and Harry still swinging on the exercise bars in the dark like overgrown children.
‘You lot need to get a job,’ she said, striding through the gate.
‘Allie!’ they’d roared, running across the dark playground to her.
She was so happy to see them she couldn’t stop smiling. And they’d seemed thrilled to see her again – pounding her on the back and shoving a can of lukewarm cider into her hand. But once they’d settled down, the two boys on the swings and Allie perched at the top of the slide, the conversation lagged. All they talked about was skiving school, sneaking on to the railway lines to tag, nicking stuff from Foot Locker. The same things they always talked about.
Only now it seemed . . .
Just two months had passed since she’d last seen them, but Allie felt like she’d aged years; so much had happened during the summer term at Cimmeria. She’d helped to save the school from fire. She’d nearly died. She’d found another student’s dead body.
Remembering that, she shivered.
She felt sure they wouldn’t understand if she tried to explain what Cimmeria was like. When they asked her about school she replied in vague terms: it was ‘kind of crazy’, but ‘pretty cool’.
‘Are all the people there, like, total toffs?’ Harry asked, crushing a cider can in his hand and throwing it into the park. Allie studied the can as it glinted amid the soft green leaves of grass.
‘Yeah, I guess,’ she said, still staring at the can.
But, she thought but didn’t say aloud, I really like them.
‘Do they treat you like the hired help?’ His voice sympathetic, Mark was trying to read her expression. She avoided his eyes.
‘Some do,’ Allie conceded, thinking of Katie Gilmore and her group. But by the end of the term, she and Katie had been working together to save the school from fire and they’d developed a grudging respect for one another. ‘But they’re not so bad,’ she finished.
‘I can’t imagine going to school with a bunch of toffs.’ Harry stood up on the swing’s seat and launched it into the darkness. His voice floated to them as he swung by. ‘I’d tell them where they could go and then get kicked out, I reckon.’
‘Like they’d let you in in the first place,’ Mark scoffed, shoving the chains of Harry’s swing until it gyrated sideways.
‘You going back?’ Mark asked, looking at her with sudden seriousness.
‘Yeah, my parents say I have to. And I kind of . . . want to, you know?’ She held his gaze, hoping he’d understand.
Mark’s background was different from her own – his dad wasn’t around and he lived with his mother in a tower block. His mum went out to nightclubs and bars with her friends – she didn’t act like a regular parent. After Allie’s brother Christopher ran away two years ago, Mark had been as much like a brother as anybody could be. She knew he’d missed her since she’d gone away to school. But the truth was, after the first couple of weeks at Cimmeria she hadn’t thought about him much at all.
‘I’ll write you letters,’ she promised now, guilt making her more fervent.
Mark’s sarcastic smile reminded her fleetingly of Carter.
‘Yeah?’ He popped open another can of cider and jumped up on to the swing. ‘I’ll write you notes on the Hammersmith and City line.’
He shoved off with his feet and arced out towards Harry, who was singing nonsense songs to himself as he swung.
Allie sat on the slide and watched them joke around – jerking at the swings as if they wanted to rip them from the metal frame. Her expression was thoughtful; the can of cider sat untouched next to her.
It was nearly midnight when Harry’s phone rang. After a brief conversation, he conferred with Mark before turning to Allie.
‘We’re gonna hit the bus depot in Brixton – give it a bit of work. You coming?’
After a pause Allie shook her head.
‘I promised the rentals I’d be home early,’ she said. ‘They’re still treating me like a criminal.’
Harry held out his fist and she butted her own against it. His bag rattled when he picked up.
‘Later, Sheridan,’ he said, heading out of the park. ‘Don’t let the posh bastards get to you.’
Mark lingered behind.
‘If you want to write those letters, Allie,’ he said after a long second, ‘that’d be cool.’
‘I will,’ she promised, determined to do it.
At that, he turned and ran after Harry. For a little while she could hear them talking and laughing in the distance. When the sound faded, she climbed down off the slide and picked up all the empty cider cans, depositing them in a rubbish bin. Then she flipped her dark hood up over her head and walked back towards home, her feet moving slower than her thoughts.
She was almost there when she saw them – four men standing outside her house. Their suits were perfectly tailored; haircuts short and neat. One wore sunglasses in the darkness; as she stared at him her heart began to pound. His athletic stance and intense focus reminded her of Gabe.
She stopped in her tracks. That was her first mistake – she should have just walked into Mrs Burson’s garden and sneaked out the back.
But she didn’t.
When her footsteps stopped the one closest to her swung around. She was half in shadow but he seemed to recognise her. He gestured in her direction.
‘Hey,’ he said quietly, snapping his fingers twice.
They all turned towards her.
Allie took a cautious step backwards.
‘Allie Sheridan?’ the first one asked.
Another backwards step.
‘We just want to talk to you,’ another one said.
Allie whirled around and took off. Leaping over Mrs Burson’s low fence, she ran to the back gate she knew was always unlocked and tore through it. Behind her she could hear the men swearing and struggling to get through the gate in the dark as she pounded back to the park, across the slippery grass and through the fence on the far side.
Twisting and turning her way through the neighbourhood, she ran until she couldn’t hear them behind her. Then she jumped a garden wall and crawled beneath a hedge.
When she hadn’t heard footsteps for what seemed like an hour, she pulled her phone out of her pocket with shaking hands.
Now she sat on the smooth leather passenger seat in the black Audi, watching as Rachel’s dad manoeuvred through traffic on the South Circular at speeds well over the allowed limits. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him exactly, but she kept her distance, leaning against the door, one hand resting on the handle.
Rachel kind of looks like him, Allie thought. But his skin was darker and his hair was coarse, whereas Rachel’s was all glossy curls.
He didn’t speak until the rows of houses around them thinned, then faded away, replaced by dark pastures.
‘You OK?’ he asked then. His question was abrupt but she could hear a touch of fatherly concern underlying the words.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, sitting straighter. ‘Just a bit . . . freaked out.’
‘Thank you for trusting me,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t sure you would at first.’
‘You look like her,’ Allie said. ‘Like Rachel, I mean. So . . . I believe you.’
For the first time he smiled, his eyes on the road. ‘Don’t tell her that. Her mum’s the pretty one in the family.’
He looked nicer when he smiled, and Allie felt herself relax a little.
‘What happened?’ he said. ‘We left your house two hours ago and everything was fine.’
‘You were at my house?’ Allie tensed again.
‘Not inside.’ He seemed to sense her anxiety and his voice was calming. ‘Just nearby. Isabelle asked me to keep an eye on you. One of us has been there – one of my guys – every day.’
Rachel had told her he ran a security firm – one so respected it was used by presidents and business executives. Other than that she didn’t really know anything about him, except that he went to Cimmeria when he was a kid.
As hard as she tried to remember seeing him or anyone like him on her street, Allie came up with nothing. The idea that she’d been watched all the time gave her the creeps.
‘Everything was fine,’ she said. ‘There was nobody outside when I went to the park. When I came back, though, those guys were just standing around my street. They recognised me.’
‘Did they try to grab you?’ He glanced at her.
She shook her head. ‘They said they wanted to talk to me. But I didn’t believe them,’ she said. ‘I ran. They never touched me.’
Hearing approval in his voice, Allie felt a flush of unexpected pride.
‘I’m surprised you got away from them, though,’ he said. ‘They’re very good at what they do.’
Her shrug was modest. ‘I’m kind of fast. I ran where I thought they might have trouble following me.’
‘And you wore black,’ he said.
‘Isabelle told me to wear it at night, just in case.’
He pulled on to the M25, glancing into the side mirror to make sure the way was clear.
‘I’m sorry she was right,’ he said.
‘Me too,’ Allie replied, slipping further down into her seat, and watching the cars slip behind them as he sped up. Now that she was warm and safe, all the adrenalin drained from her body. Her eyelids drooped.
‘What about my parents?’ she asked, weariness making her voice thick.
‘Isabelle will phone them and explain,’ he said. ‘They’ll know you’re safe.’
Allie rested her head against the seatback.
‘Good,’ she murmured. ‘I don’t want them to be scared.’
In a few minutes she was asleep.
A cool breeze woke her some time later. She sat up with a start.
The car wasn’t moving. The driver’s side door was open – she was alone.
The night around her seemed unnaturally quiet after London. There were no sounds of traffic. No sirens. She could hear low voices nearby – a man and a woman talking quietly.
Sitting up, she ran her hands through her mussed hair.
‘You’re certain no one followed you?’ the woman asked.
‘Positive,’ Rachel’s dad replied.
‘Poor thing. She must be exhausted,’ the woman said. ‘I didn’t wake Rachel; we can tell her in the morning.’
Allie opened the car door and their conversation stopped.
Mr Patel was talking to a woman with light brown hair and fair skin. She wore jeans and a long blue cardigan, which she’d belted tight across her torso.
‘Um . . . hi,’ Allie said, uncertainly.
‘Allie,’ Mr Patel said, ‘this is Rachel’s mum, Linda.’
It was so dark around them, Allie could see very little. She could just make out the shape of a building behind them – one light on in a ground-floor room. An open door.
She was still trying to orient herself when Mrs Patel put her arm around her shoulders and ushered her to the house. ‘I think it’s a cup of hot chocolate and bed for you, Allie. I’ve put a few of Rachel’s things in your room – they might be a bit big but you should be able to make them work. It’s only for a short time anyway.’
A steaming mug was placed in her tired hands then Mrs Patel led her up a flight of stairs to a spacious room with thick cream-coloured carpet and pale yellow walls. The lamp by the bed cast the room in a soft light and the double bed, covered in a lemony duvet, was made and turned down.
‘The bathroom is there.’ Mrs Patel pointed at a door. ‘And the clothes I’ve left you are in the dresser. Make yourself at home. Rachel will come to get you in the morning and bring you down to breakfast. Sleep well. We’ll talk it all over in the morning.’ With a reassuring smile, she closed the door behind her.
Allie sat on the bed for a long moment. She knew she should get up and wash her face. Find something to sleep in. Figure out where exactly she was.
Instead she kicked off her shoes and lay back against the pillows. Then, rolling on to her side, she curled up into a tight ball and counted her breaths.
‘Welcome back.’ After running lightly down the old stone stairs in front of the intimidating Victorian brick building that held Cimmeria Academy, Isabelle La Fanult pulled Allie into a warm hug. ‘I’m so glad to see you in one piece!’
‘It’s good to be whole.’ Allie grinned at the headmistress.
After the London rescue, she’d spent a few days sheltering with the Patels, which consisted mainly of hanging out by the pool and, memorably, riding a horse for the first time.
Clearly seeing a girl in need of a parent, Mrs Patel had overfed Allie and fretted about her safety, while Rachel’s younger sister, Minal, followed them everywhere, eager to be included in everything they did. In some ways it was bittersweet; the Patels were the kind of family Allie had always wanted. The kind of family hers had almost been once.
But Rachel’s father and Isabelle had decided they’d be safer at Cimmeria. So even though school didn’t start for another ten days, Mr Patel had driven the girls back.
The school looked the same as it had in the summer – huge, solid and intimidating. The three-storey red-brick building towered over them – its slate roof a range of Gothic peaks and valleys where wrought iron finials thrust into the sky like an armoury of dark knives. Symmetrical rows of arched windows seemed to watch them as they pulled their bags from the car.
The headmistress had pulled her light brown hair back tightly with a clip, and wore a white Cimmeria polo shirt over a pair of jeans. Allie couldn’t remember ever seeing her in jeans before.
‘Thank you for sending Mr P. to save me,’ Allie said. ‘I don’t know what would have happened without him.’
‘You followed my instructions perfectly.’ Even on a cloudy day like today the headmistress’ golden-brown eyes seemed to glow. ‘You were very brave. I can’t tell you how proud of you I am.’
Blushing, Allie looked down at her feet.
‘And Rachel, my star student.’ Smoothly deflecting attention, Isabelle turned. ‘Thank heaven you’re back; the library needs you. Eloise will be so glad you’re here. Hello, Raj.’ As she shook Rachel’s father’s hand she arched one eyebrow. ‘Or should I call you, Mr P.?’
‘If you must.’ His smile was wry. ‘I seem to have no say in the matter.’
Turning back to the stack of luggage beside the car, Isabelle said, ‘I assume most of these hold your books, Rachel? You can leave them here between terms, you know. We won’t throw them away.’
Grinning, Rachel picked up one of her bags and heaved it over her shoulder. ‘You know how I am, Isabelle . . .’
‘Indeed I do. Well let’s get you settled in. Everybody’s busy with the repair work, so we’re more on our own than usual.’
The headmistress picked up a bag and walked briskly to the door. The others lumbered themselves with luggage and followed her through the grand entryway with its stained glass window, dull on this cloudy day with no sun to illuminate it. Allie noticed the fanciful unicorn tapestry usually found hanging near the door was missing. And it soon became clear much more had changed since she’d last seen the school on the night it nearly burned down.
‘Carter, Sylvain and Jo are here already.’ Isabelle’s voice echoed as they walked across the stone floor towards the grand hallway. ‘Jules will be back in the next few days, as will Lucas and a few of the older students, but we’ll be a small group until term starts.’
In the wide, main hallway, the wood floors were covered in an inelegant carpet of dirty canvas dust sheets. The dozens of oil paintings that usually brightened the glossy oak wall panelling had all been removed. Without them the space felt oddly naked and, to Allie, disturbingly impermanent.
Ahead, Isabelle was still talking cheerfully but Allie noticed how high-pitched she sounded; she could hear the strain the headmistress was trying to hide.
‘Because some rooms were damaged in the fire, classes and bedrooms are being shifted around.’ Isabelle’s sensible, rubber-soled shoes gripped each step with firm assurance. ‘We must be ready by the time the rest of the students begin arriving in ten days. I think you’ll find volunteering to help is compulsory.’
At a brisk pace, she led them up the wide staircase, where the Edwardian crystal chandelier overhead was draped in a filmy, protective fabric that looked like a gigantic spiderweb. As she trotted after the others, she could hear hammers banging somewhere, workers shouting orders and the sound of something being dragged.
She’d known repairs would be needed. Even though she’d left the day after the fire, she’d seen enough to know the work would be substantial. But somehow she hadn’t envisioned the school so . . . damaged. Stripped of the art and details that had made it feel like a fairy tale castle it seemed wounded, and she trailed her hand softly up the wide, polished oak banister as if to comfort it.
At the top of the stairs they turned on to a narrower staircase which led them to another hallway and then a second set of steps. The acrid smell of smoke was stronger here and Allie’s stomach churned as she remembered the night a few weeks before when she’d seen her brother, Christopher, standing down the hall, a flaming torch in one hand, as he set fire to the school.
As if she’d expected this reaction, Isabelle was by her side in an instant, putting an arm around her shoulders and turning her away from her room.
‘Your room had smoke and water damage, Allie, so we’ve moved you down the hall.’ She steered Allie past her usual door to one marked 371. ‘Your things have already been moved.’
‘Hey, that’s right next to mine!’ Rachel said, throwing open the door marked 372. As she walked in Allie heard her say, ‘Hello small, rectangular personal space. How I love you.’
Isabelle opened the door to Allie’s room. ‘I thought you might feel better living closer to Rachel.’
The plainly furnished room smelled of the sticky-clean, chemical scent of fresh paint. Allie stood in the doorway as Isabelle fussed with the arched, shutter-style window, pushing it open to let the watery grey light flood in.
The tall bookcase was lined with the familiar spines of her small collection of books. The bed was covered in a fluffy white duvet, and a dark blue blanket was folded neatly over the footboard – just as it had been in her previous room. Everything was exactly the same.
Isabelle was already heading out the door. ‘Your parents sent some of your things over; I’ve put them in the wardrobe. Once you’re all settled in, come find me. Let’s have a chat.’
As the door closed Allie’s heart gave a happy flutter. She was back where she belonged.
This homecoming was so different from last term, when she first arrived at Cimmeria. Back then it had seemed intimidating and hateful. Most of the students had treated her like a gatecrasher at an exclusive party. Her parents had been so angry with her at the time – she’d just been arrested – they told her nothing about the school. They just drove her here and dropped her off. When Jules, the perfect, blonde prefect, showed her around on her first day she’d felt like an idiot. It was only then that she discovered its bizarre rules – all electronic devices were banned, and nobody could leave the school grounds – and the elite group known as Night School, which gathered secretly after curfew and took part in strange training rituals other students were forbidden even to watch.
But despite all of that weirdness, only two months later, this felt like her real home.
She opened the wardrobe and lugged out the small suitcase her parents had sent. She’d been quite specific about what they were to include. Several books, all her notebooks, a few changes of clothes and . . .
There they are. Right on top.
Her red, knee-high Doc Martins.
She caressed the scuffed, dark red leather with one hand, with the other she held the note her mother had put in the case.
‘Cimmeria provides your shoes, so I don’t know why you need these . . .’ it began.
‘I know you don’t, Mum,’ Allie muttered with mild irritation. She scanned the rest of the note – it said nothing about what had happened in London that night. Nothing about Isabelle or Nathaniel. Nothing that mattered.
So they were back to pretending again, then.
Sometimes Allie felt as if she’d been accidentally scooped up from her rubbish, ordinary world and dropped into the middle of somebody else’s life. A life in which everyone was at war. Now she was in the line of fire but had no idea who was doing the shooting. Although she was beginning to learn who to trust.
She hurried to empty the rest of the suitcase but it all seemed to take too long, and the case was still open on the floor when she ran out of the room. Rapping her knuckles with impatient force on Rachel’s door, she walked in without waiting for an answer to find Rachel sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of books,, with an open text in her lap.
During the few days Allie had spent with Rachel’s family, she’d felt as if she had the sister she’d always secretly wanted. As they’d splashed in the pool and wandered the family’s well-guarded horse pastures, they’d talked about everything: Carter, Nathaniel, Allie’s mother, Rachel’s father. Allie felt that she could tell Rachel everything and not be judged. And she could tell her anything and know that she could trust her.
‘Let’s unpack later.’ Allie hopped from one foot to another. ‘Don’t you want to see the library?’
‘You mean, don’t I want to go with you to find Carter?’ As she closed her book and climbed to her feet, Rachel’s smile was indulgent. ‘Of course I do.’
On the ground floor, things were bustling. A clatter of hammering emanated from the classroom wing, and through the open door they could see workers tearing out damaged plaster. Blackened panelling leaned against a wall awaiting removal; a scorched desk was discarded nearby. Workers hustled in and out in a busy stream. Scaffolding scaled the walls in silvery mesh.
Elsewhere, though, things looked better. The dining room was undamaged, and the common room looked just as it had before the fire.
Stepping into the Great Hall, they saw that it was in good shape but so filled with furniture they could only just squeeze inside. Clearly furniture was being stored here from rooms being repaired.
Rachel made her way gingerly past the legs of a chair which rested on its side under a desk. ‘I wonder where…’
At that moment, the door flew open and Sylvain rushed in carrying an Oriental rug rolled into a long, heavy tube. He was so focused on getting his awkwardly shaped cargo through the doorway that for a second he didn’t see them. Then he glanced up and his vivid blue eyes met Allie’s. Startled, he lost his footing and the rug swung wildly. Allie and Rachel ducked out of the way as he struggled to regain control, finally dropping the rug on to the floor with a dusty thud.
In the silence that followed, Allie noticed how his dark wavy hair had tumbled over his forehead. His tawny skin glistened from exertion. Then she wondered why she’d noticed that.
She nearly jumped when Rachel spoke. ‘Hi, Sylvain. We didn’t mean to startle you.’
‘Hello, Rachel. Welcome back.’
Hearing his familiar voice with its elegant French accent, Allie felt an indefinable surge of emotion. As if she’d moved, he turned back to her.
‘Hello, Allie,’ he said quietly.
‘Hey, Sylvain.’ She swallowed nervously. ‘I . . . I mean . . . How are you?’
His oddly formal vocal cadence made him sound more sophisticated than his seventeen years, and when Allie had first met him just a word could make her melt.
But that was then.
‘How are you?’ he asked. As their awkward conversation continued, Rachel backed towards the door.
‘I’m just going to . . .’ she explained vaguely before dashing out.
When she was gone, Allie took a step closer to Sylvain, trying to read his guarded expression. ‘I’m . . . OK.’ Her throat tightened and she swallowed hard. ‘I . . . just . . . I never got a chance. To thank you, I mean. After the fire.’ She reached towards his arm. ‘You saved my life, Sylvain.’
When she touched him, a spark of electricity shocked them both. Yanking her hand free with a yelp, Allie jumped backwards, tripping over the rug. Sylvain grabbed her arm to steady her, but quickly let go and stepped away from her.
This wasn’t at all the way Allie had visualised this meeting. She’d wanted to be cool. Not a clumsy oaf stumbling over rugs and electrocuting him with her skin.
The colour rose in her cheeks. ‘I’m sorry. I have to . . . go and . . .’ Without finishing her sentence she fled the room.
When she was safely around the corner she stopped and leaned back against the wall, squeezing her eyes shut.
Replaying the scene in her mind, she banged her head rhythmically against the wall behind her.
‘Hi, Sylvain,’ she muttered sarcastically between thumps. ‘I’m a complete moron. You?’
With a sigh, she straightened and stepped out into the hallway, running straight into Carter’s arms. Laughing, he lifted her off the ground. ‘I heard a nasty rumour you were back.’
His shirt was covered in paint spatters and his hair was a mess. A smudge of white paint marked his forehead endearingly. His hands were strong and warm on her waist. After her awkward encounter with Sylvain, just being with Carter was like a balm for her soul.
‘Bad news travels fast,’ she said, raising her lips up to his.
The kiss spread warmth through her body, and she parted her lips to his, tightening her arms around his shoulders. After a moment, he leaned his forehead against hers, whispering, ‘God, I’ve missed you.’
She smiled into his eyes, still holding on to him. ‘Right back at ya.’
‘You look great,’ he said, straightening. ‘Are you great? When Isabelle told me what happened in London. I was . . .’ His voice trailed off and a muscle worked in his jaw. ‘Well, by the time she told me about it we knew you were safe but . . . You’re really OK, right?’
‘Yeah, I’m good,’ Allie said. ‘Rachel’s dad came to my rescue. He’s . . . I don’t know . . . a rock star.’
‘Yeah, he’s supposed to be the real deal,’ Carter said, smiling. ‘Even Zelazny talks about him like he’s Batman.’
At the mention of her least favourite teacher’s name, Allie made a sour face.
Jokingly, Carter shook his finger at her. ‘You two need to learn how to get along, Allie.’
‘I know, I know,’ she muttered. ‘But it’s not my fault – he hated me first. I just hate him back.’
‘That,’ he laughed, ‘is the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard.’
She couldn’t believe she was here at last – sparring with Carter. She squeezed his hand with sudden happiness. ‘I really have missed you, you know.’
Pulling her into a nook behind the main staircase, he kissed her again, more passionately this time. His lips trailed down her jaw to her neck, raising a Braille pattern of goosebumps. She pressed her fingertips tightly into the lean muscles of his shoulders and he gave a small gasp of pleasure, raising his lips to hers.
‘Oh, Carter. There you are.’
At the sound of Isabelle’s voice, Carter spun around. Smoothing her hair, Allie tried to look innocent but Isabelle’s knowing look told her she wasn’t fooling anyone.
‘Eloise is looking for you. And, Allie, she would really appreciate your help, too,’ the headmistress said. ‘If you’re not busy, that is.’
She walked away without another word.
Allie’s face flushed at her tart tone but Carter’s shoulders shook with repressed laughter.
‘I don’t see how that’s so funny,’ Allie said primly, but Carter just laughed harder and pulled her gently in the direction of the library.
‘Come on, Al. You know Isabelle’s cool. She’s not going to give us detention for a bit of snogging.’ When she continued to pout, he tickled her until she laughed and pulled away.
As soon as they neared the library door, though, her mood changed. Dropping his hand, she slowed her steps, finally coming to a halt.
A step ahead of her, Carter stopped to look back, concern in his dark eyes.
‘Have you been back there since the fire?’
Her eyes locked on the door, she shook her head mutely.
‘You want to go in there now?’
She shook her head again. ‘Nope. Not one bit.’
He reached for her hand.
‘You don’t have to do this, you know,’ he said gently. ‘You could give yourself some more time.’
Not taking her eyes off the door, which seemed to loom before her, she nodded.
‘I know. But the thing is, the longer I wait, the harder it’s going to be,’ she said, her eyes flickering off his and back to the door. ‘I need to get it over with. I mean, I can’t just not go to the library. This is where they keep all the knowledge.’
Her weak joke didn’t fool him and he held on tightly to her hand.
‘Well. Just keep breathing, OK?’
Her eyes still focused on the heavy, oak wood of the door, she nodded. She knew perfectly well that it was just an ordinary door with an ordinary room behind it. But it was the room where she’d nearly died.
Watching her expression, Carter reached for the door handle. ‘Ready?’
Her heart thudding in her ears, she nodded.
The door swung open.
‘Oh my God,’ she whispered.