“URGENT MEETING, 4 P.M.!” Alice Rochester read off the sign outside the junior class common room. She beckoned furiously to Sonia Khan. “Hurry up! We can’t be late.”
It was the first day back at St. Cecilia’s after fall break, and the boarding school grounds were packed. Smartly dressed parents waved at each other from the windows of Porsches and Rolls-Royces. Girls squealed and gossiped about their Caribbean holidays. Chauffeurs grimaced as they hauled trunks and suitcases up to dorm rooms. And over all the chaos, the sun hung low in the October sky.
Sweeping through the common-room door, Alice dropped onto her favorite maroon couch and unfolded the official-looking letter that she’d nicked from Daddy’s desk that morning. Sonia trotted behind.
“Ali,” she pleaded, “just tell me what it says.”
“Tell you what what says?” Alice asked innocently, dangling the letter just out of Sonia’s reach. She loved having more information than her friends. Especially more than Sonia, who was ridiculously easy to wind up.
“That letter!” Sonia practically screeched. She lunged for it across the couch—but Alice dodged out of the way and Sonia crashed facedown into the cushions. “My nose!” she yelped, checking for damage. “Is it swollen? It feels swollen. If it’s broken again then it’s your fault, Alice.”
Smirking at Sonia’s distress, Alice slid her iPhone from her pocket and skimmed her new text.
Miss u already Sexy. See u at the social 2moro nite. Can’t w8 for the costume. T x
“OMG,” gasped Sonia, who was reading the message over Alice’s shoulder. “Tristan is so adorable. He obviously has, like, sex on the brain.”
“Excuse me, Nosey,” Alice snapped, cupping her hand over the screen. “Ever hear of privacy?”
But she was pink with pleasure. It was true. Tristan Murray-Middleton, her oldest childhood friend, was proving that he could be more than an amazing friend—he could be a model boyfriend, too. At least, the second time round. T and Alice had first got together in September at the beginning of junior year, but after a few dates, Tristan had freaked out and got scared off. Then last week, while he and Alice had been partying in Rome over fall break, they’d decided to give their relationship another go.
Things hadn’t gone very far yet, not physically, but Alice was planning to change that in the very near future. Being a virgin at the age of almost seventeen was getting embarrassing (even though it was a fact only her three closest friends knew). Anyway, T was gorgeous and sensitive and popular, and he’d made it extremely clear that he wanted to do it. Alice was planning to oblige—as soon as they were alone.
UR gonna LOVE my costume, she typed, biting back a grin. Not telling u any more. U just gotta w8 & guess what I am . . . xox
With a shiver of anticipation, Alice hit send and slipped her phone back into the pocket of her gray wool school skirt. She’d planned tomorrow night’s outfit down to the very last detail, and it was everything a Halloween costume should be: short, tight, and busty. Well, maybe “busty” was pushing it. Alice folded her arms over her chest. Somehow, before tomorrow night, she was going to have to grow boobs. Either that, or get over the fact that she was flat as a pancake. Because, at the Halloween party, T was going to see her naked for the first time.
“Move!” called a breezy voice. “Coming through.”
A delicate jasmine scent wafted through the room, followed by the clatter of heels. A second later the whole sofa jittered as Natalya Abbott flopped down.
“Do I hear congratulations?” Tally beamed, her sea-gray eyes sparkling.
“What for?” Alice glanced enviously at her best friend’s tousled white-blond hair and perfect figure.
“I’m on time for once!”
“Not,” Alice protested. “You’re the last one here.” She gestured round the Tudor House common room, which, during the past few minutes, had filled to bursting point with the rest of the junior class. Girls were perched on radiators, tabletops, window ledges, and armchairs, comparing suntans and vacation escapades. In one corner, Gabrielle Bunter was actually bouncing up and down as she forced blond, cherubic Flossy Norstrup-Fitzwilliam to listen to some boring story. Gabby’s flab was wobbling so much that she looked like a giant jelly bowl. Ugh. This was the problem with coming back to school after ten days’ break: how quickly you started to feel like you’d never been away.
Alice heaved a long-suffering sigh and turned back to the letter in her hand. “Hoare?” she sneered.
“Now, now,” Tally snickered, “I told you not to call Sonia that anymore.”
“Oi,” Sonia grumbled.
Alice giggled. “Shut up, Sone. No, really, can you believe this—our new housemistress’s name is Mrs. Hoare!”
“Come on,” Tally snorted with laughter. “Of course it’s not.”
“It is! Look, it says so in this letter Daddy got.”
“Oh. My. God.” Tally grabbed the paper. “How the hell are we meant to call her that without cracking up? We’ll obviously have to ignore the woman for the rest of the year.”
Alice shook her head. “It’s just so weird that Miss Sharkreve’s gone. Daddy says he’s simply shocked that she left. He says he hopes our new housemistress is up to par, otherwise it might jeopardize our academic careers.”
Tally rolled her eyes. Of course Alice’s father would say something like that. Richard Rochester owned one of London’s most eminent trading firms, was notoriously strict, and put a ton of pressure on Alice and her two brothers to do well. Everyone knew that the reason Alice worked so hard was because her father insisted she get into Oxford next year. He was counting on her to carry on the family tradition—especially since Alice’s older brother, Dominic, had been too busy getting stoned at school to even think about Oxford. The fact that Dom was currently one of the coolest undergrads at Edinburgh didn’t appease Richard Rochester in the slightest.
“Girlies, oh no,” Sonia burst out. She was twisting a strand of her shiny, black hair round her manicured fingers. “I’ve just thought of something bad. Miss Sharkreve was our housemistress for an entire half semester and she never once caught us breaking rules. Like, we never got punished for smoking, or for drinking in our rooms, or for sneaking out to town. What if this Mrs. Hoare woman is the opposite?”
“She’d better not be,” Alice frowned, “or we’re fucked for the Hasted House Halloween social tomorrow night. How are we gonna survive a school party if we can’t sneak in extra booze? The whole point of being a junior is that you’re supposed to be able to get away with shit.”
“Guys, chill,” Tally yawned, sinking back into the couch. “We’ll find a way to have fun, whatever she’s like. Anyway, Mimah can just shove a couple of bottles down her top tomorrow. Smuggle the booze between her boobs.” Tally giggled. “You can do that, right, Mimah? Give yourself a booze job?” Grinning, she stuck out her foot and nudged Jemimah Calthorpe de Vyle-Hanswicke, who was sitting scrunched up on the floor. Mimah had always been the bustiest member of their clique. “Mimah? Hello? Earth to Mime. . . .”
“Stop that. What the fuck do you want?”
Tally recoiled at Mimah’s harsh tone. Biting her lip, she scrutinized her friend. Mimah’s face was pinched and pale. This couldn’t be good. Mimah had had a million family problems over the past few months—surely no more had surfaced over fall break?
“Shhh!” a whisper rustled through the room. Footsteps echoed in the marble foyer and the junior class rose to their feet. Two women swept through the door. One of them was St. Cecilia’s headmistress, Mrs. Traphorn. Sonia craned her neck, but only Alice was tall enough to see the other woman over the crowd.
“What does she look like, Al? Ali!”
“Stop poking me!”
Mrs. Traphorn strode to the front of the room and positioned herself near the large flat-screen TV. Her companion hung back in a shadowy corner, obscured by a large floor lamp.
“Good afternoon, girrrls,” Mrs. Traphorn droned poshly, rolling herr’s. “You may sit down.”
As usual, the Trap had pinned her gray hair into a bun. She was sporting a sleeveless cardigan, a plaid skirt, and clumpy shoes. Tally shook her head. Teacher fashion overload.
“Welcome back to school,” the Trap went on. “I hope you’ve all had a verrry prrroductive fall break. I have an important person to intrrroduce to you today.” She paused and patted her bun.
“For fuck’s sake,” Tally hissed in Alice’s ear, “can’t the old bat get on with it?”
“As you all know,” the Trap droned on, “Miss Sharkreve left St. Cecilia’s at the end of last fall break, to teach at a school in Scotland. We were extrrremely sorry to lose her.”
“But with me here today is Miss Sharkreve’s replacement as junior class housemistress, Mrs. Edwina Hoare.” The Trap clasped her hands. “Mrs. Hoare joins St. Cecilia’s from Pembroke Ladies’ School, where she was a beloved housemistress for seventeen years.”
“Seventeen years?” Tally sputtered. “If I had to stay at school that long, I’d kill myself.”
“Shhh,” Alice hissed. She was squinting at the housemistress’s obscured figure, but still couldn’t make out her face. This was excruciating. If they ended up with a bitch or a weirdo, their whole junior year could go wrong. Fast.
“I’m sure I don’t have to remind you,” the Trap continued, “just before your vacation, St. Cecilia’s saw the sudden departure of its A-level English teacher, Mr. Logan.”
Alice felt a set of nails dig into her arm. At the words “Mr. Logan,” Tally had tensed up and turned very, very pale.
“The good news is, in addition to her housemistress duties, Mrs. Hoare will be taking over Mr. Logan’s vacant post.”
Alice gave her friend a sympathetic look. Tally had been trying for the past couple of weeks to get over her infatuation with the hot young English teacher who’d broken her heart. Since the second he’d arrived at St. Cecilia’s in September, Mr. Logan had flirted outrageously with Tally, tricking her (and everyone else) into thinking they were in love. The two of them had even shared a secret, passionate kiss on a school trip to Dublin. Then it had turned out that Mr. Logan was secretly dating Miss Sharkreve, and the two teachers had quit their jobs and left the school. Tally felt sick at the memory.
“That’s all I’m going to say, girls,” Mrs. Traphorn intoned from the front of the room, snapping her back to reality. “I’m sure you’re very keen to get to know Mrs. Hoare on your own, so I’ll leave you to it.”
“Finally,” Alice breathed. She leaned forward as the new junior housemistress emerged into the light. The next instant, her face contorted in alarm.
© 2010 Brubaker & Ford Ltd.