Thank fuck it’s dark.
Nothing could be worse that arriving at a new school in broad daylight.
The Lincoln Town Car jolts as it hits a dip in the road, and a wave of panic lights me up—an immediate, unfortunate response to the last two years that I’ve spent living in a war zone. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that my previous home in Israel occasionally felt like a warzone. I’m referring to the fact that I was living under the same roof as my father, Colonel Stillwater, whose idea of a relaxing weekend was beating me black and blue during our Krav Maga training sessions.
I still flinch every time I hear someone politely clear their throat. When Daddy Dearest clears his throat, it usually means I’m about to endure humiliation at his hands. Or some form of embarrassment. Or both.
“Looks like they left the lights on for you, Miss Elodie,” the driver says through the open privacy window. This is the first thing he’s mumbled to me since he collected me at the airport and bundled me into the back of this gleaming black monstrosity, gunned the engine, and headed north for the town of Mountain Lakes, New Hampshire.
Up ahead, a building looms like a proud, ominous sentinel out of the dark, all sharp, tall spires and turrets. Looks like something out of the pages of a Victorian Penny Dreadful. I avoid peering out of the window at the stately structure for too long; I glared at the academic pamphlet Colonel Stillwater shoved at me when he unceremoniously informed me that I’d be relocating Stateside without him for long enough that the academy’s imposing façade is already burned into my memory in intricate detail.
A library, commemorated by George Washington himself in 1793.
It all looked great in print. Only the height of luxury for a Stillwater, that’s what my father said gruffly, as he threw my single small suitcase into the back of the cab that would whisk me away from my life in Tel Aviv. I saw straight through the building’s state of the art facilities and it’s well-heeled, old-money veneer, though. This place isn’t a regular school for regular kids. It’s a jail cell dressed up as a place of learning, where army officers who can’t be bothered dealing with their own kids dump them without a second thought, knowing that they’ll be watched over with a military-like focus.
Even the name sounds like it belongs to a fucking prison.
I get the impression that I’m traveling backwards, moving further away from the place with every passing second, even though my eyes tell me otherwise. By the time the car pulls up in front of the sweeping marble steps that lead to the academy’s daunting front entrance, I’m back on the road behind me, three miles away, fleeing my new reality. At least that’s where I would be, if I had absolutely any choice in this whatsoever.
I wasn’t exactly popular back in Tel Aviv, but I had friends. Eden, Ayala and Levi won’t even realize that I’ve been transferred from my old school for another twenty-four hours; it’s already too late for them to come and rescue me from my fate. I knew I was a lost cause before the wheels on the army personnel carrier went up back in Tel Aviv.
The Town Car’s engine cuts out abruptly, plummeting the car into an awkward, unfriendly silence that makes my ears ring. Eventually, I realize that the driver’s waiting for me to get out. “I’ll get my bags then, I suppose?”
I don’t want to be here.
I sure as hell shouldn’t have to lug my own bags out of the trunk of a car.
I’d never rat on the driver, that’s just weak, but my father would have an aneurysm if he found out the guy he hired as my escort hadn’t helped me properly upon arrival at my dreaded destination. As if the guy realizes this, too, he reluctantly hauls his ass out of the car and heads for the rear of the vehicle, dumping my belongings onto the small sidewalk in front of Wolf Hall.
He then has the audacity to wait for a tip, which just plain isn’t happening. Who aids and abets in the destruction of someone’s life, and then expects a thank you and a hundred-dollar bill in the palm of their hand for their troubles? I’m three-parts gasoline, one-part match as I snatch up my stuff and begin the hike up the steps toward Wolf Hall’s formidable double oak doors. The marble is worn, bowing in the middle and smooth from the thousands of feet that have trudged up and down these steps over the years, but I’m too sour right now to enjoy the delightfully satisfying feel of them underfoot.
The driver’s already gotten back in the car and is swinging out of the turning circle in front of the academy when I reach the very top step. A part of me wants to dump my bags and run after him. He isn’t one of Colonel Stillwater’s regular employees, he’s an agency guy, so he doesn’t owe my old man anything. If I offered him a couple of grand, he might be persuaded to drop me off in another state somewhere, far from my father’s prying eyes. My pride won’t let me beg, though. I’m a Stillwater, after all. Our pride is our most notorious trait.
My only means of escape burns off down the driveway, leaving me faced with two heavy brass knockers, one mounted onto each of the double doors in front of me. The knocker on the left: a grotesque gargoyle, clasping a patinaed ring in his downturned mouth. The knocker on the right is almost identical, except for the fact that his mouth is turned up in a leering, garish smile that sends a chill deep into my bones.
“Creepy much?” I mutter, grabbing hold of the knocker on the left. The sad gargoyle’s far from pleasing to look at, but at least it doesn’t look like it’s about to leap down from its mounting and devour my fucking soul. A resounding boom thunders on the other side of the door when I slam the knocker against the wood, and I realize with a sense of irony that the noise is similar to that of a gavel being struck, sealing a criminal’s fate.
“Wouldn’t bother knocking. It’s open.”
I nearly jump out of my fucking skin.
Spinning around, my legs nearly quit on me as I scan the darkness, searching for the owner of the voice that just startled the ever-loving shit out of me. It takes a second, but I locate the shadowy figure, perched on the rim of a white stone planter off to the right, thanks to the pop and flare of a glowing ember—looks like the cherry of a cigarette.
“Jesus, I didn’t know there was anyone out here,” I mutter, patting a hand against my chest, as if the action will be able to slow my jackrabbiting heart.
“Figured,” the deep voice rumbles. And it is a deep voice. The voice of a man who’s smoked more than a few packs of cigarettes in his day. It’s the kind of voice that belongs to a car thief or a back-alley gambler. The cherry of his cigarette flares again as he pulls on it, momentarily illuminating the structure of his features, and I catch a lot in the brief swell of light.
His black t-shirt is at least five sizes too big for him. He’s way younger than I thought. Instead of a disgruntled, jaded professor in a motheaten blazer with patches on the elbows, this guy is young. My age, by the looks of things. He must be a student here at Wolf Hall. His dark hair hangs down into his eyes. His brows are full and drawn together into a steep frown. From my vantage point at the top of the stairs, I can only see him in profile, but his nose is straight, his jaw is strong, and he holds himself in a regal, lazy way that lets me know exactly who he is before I’ve even learned his name.
He’s one of those kids.
The arrogant, cooler than cool, silver-spoon-halfway-up-his-ass kids.
It’s part and parcel of being an army brat. You get lumped in with the privileged and the spoiled rotten on a daily basis. You get to recognize the bad apples from a fucking mile away.
“I take it I need to find someone at reception?” I ask. Best to keep it short and sweet. As professional as possible.
The guy shakes his head, picking a piece of tobacco from the tip of his tongue and flicking it onto the gravel at his feet. “Nope. I was appointed director of the New Girl Welcoming Committee. Why else would I be sitting out here in the fucking dark?”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a shitty attitude. Yay. Folding my arms across my chest, I descend the steps slowly, leaving my bags by the door. Arriving in front of him, I note that the stranger is at least a clear foot taller than me. Even slouching, his ass perched on the edge of the planter, legs stretched out in front of him, he’s still considerably taller than me and I’m standing at my full height. “Because you smoke like a chimney and you don’t wanna get busted?”
He flicks his cigarette, smirking coldly. Everything about him is cold, from the icy glint in his bright green eyes, to the way he drops his head back, assessing me like a mountain lion might weigh up a newborn deer. Clearly, he resents having to wait up and play Wolf Hall’s amicable host, but hey…I didn’t ask him to be my tour guide. I haven’t asked anything of him at all.
“Point me in the direction of my room and I’ll relieve you of your duties, then,” I tell him in a clipped tone.
He laughs at this. It’s not a friendly sound. I imagine scores of people have been laughed at by this boy, and every single one of them felt like they were being run through with a bayonet. “Relieve me of my duties?” he says, repeating my words back to me. “At ease, soldier. Why do I get the feeling that our parents would be best fucking friends?”
These schools aren’t always full of army kids. Investment bankers, lawyers, diplomats and politicians pack their kids off to places like Wolf Hall, too. From time to time, a harried doctor or an aid worker, who thinks caring for other people’s kids is more important than caring for their own. The students at these places come from a diverse range of backgrounds, but more often than not their parents are military.
“Look, I just got off a long-haul flight, and not the kind that had a meal service or clean bathrooms. I need a shower and I need a bed. Can you just tell me where I need to go, and we can continue this bullshit at a later date?”
The guy tugs on his cigarette one last time, huffing down his nose. When he flicks the glowing butt off into the rose bushes ten feet away, I notice that he’s wearing chipped black nail polish. Weird. His shirt’s black and he definitely seems tetchy as hell, but I’m not getting an emo vibe from him. His boots are tan high-end Italian leather, and the belt around his waist looks like it cost more than my entire outfit.
“Through the doors. Stairs on the left. Third floor. You’re in 316. Good luck with the heating,” he says, getting to his feet. Without even looking back at me, he takes off, but not back inside the building. He hits the driveway, sticking his hands in his pockets as he heads away from the school.
“Hey! Where the hell are you going?” I hate that I call after him, but I need to know. I’m so intensely jealous that he’s leaving that I have to clamp my tongue between my teeth to stop myself from asking if I can go with him.
“Hah! Like I board here,” he tosses over his shoulder. “Oh, and don’t worry, New Girl. We don’t need to continue this bullshit later. Keep your head down, keep out of the way, and you’ll have a decent chance of surviving this hell hole.”
It could just be that I’m tired, and it could be that I’m hating Wolf Hall already, but that sounded distinctly like a threat.
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