When my parents told me that I'd be spending three weeks at a London prep school on a student exchange my junior year, I was furious. I love New York. My school. My friends. And I didn't want to leave. But after some not-so-subtle insistence about experiencing a new culture, gaining worldly knowledge, and the fact that it was only three weeks, I knew I wasn't getting out of it.
So, I decided that if I had to go, I might as well have some fun.
Which was how I met Harry at a pub. His blue eyes, adorable accent, and charm instantly won me over - right after his lips did.
And I started to think that London might not be so bad.
But then I met Noah.
He's tall, dark, intense, and spends way too much time in the shower. I know this because I have to live with him. And did I mention that he hates me?
My first day at school is more eventful than I anticipated. A boy named Mohammad takes me under his wing, declares himself my guide to the "hostile and hormonal battlefield that is Kensington School," and lays three facts on me:
He, Harry, and Noah are best mates.
I'm the new girl and bound to cause drama.
And I've already got his boys all twisted up.
I'm in way over my head, and it's only my first day!
Release date: March 19, 2020
Publisher: Swoonworthy Books
Print pages: 316
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Friday, September 20th
Don’t deserve to be sent away.
“Book me a car to the airport because I don’t want to ride with either of you.” As the words leave my lips, I watch my parents’ eyes turn into saucers.
Good. They deserved that.
What else did they expect? That they could just ship me off to London for three weeks and I wouldn’t be mad?
Wrong. I am pissed, and I intend to make sure they know it.
I don’t bother stomping to my room. I’ve moved beyond throwing a fit.
Of course, my dad follows me.
“You know, this is meant to be a new and exciting experience for you,” he says, moving into my room shortly after me.
I grab one of my duffels, shoving in a stack of perfectly folded sweaters. “No, Dad, this is the ultimate betrayal.”
“Mmhmm.” My dad lets out a deep sigh, his eyes softening, and for the first time, it seems like he’s finally considering my feelings. But his calm demeanor isn’t going to change my attitude. “Most kids would die for an opportunity like this, Mallory. Going to a different city, experiencing a different culture. Getting away from their parents,” he urges.
Touché, Dad. Touché.
“But I’m not most kids. I like my life. I like living in New York. Besides, I’ve been to London. I saw the sites. Drank the tea. And I’m good, honestly,” I say a little nicer. “I appreciate the gesture, but I would rather stay here.”
“Listen,” he replies, shifting from my doorway and taking a seat at the foot of my bed. “Your mother and I have agreed. We think, with time, you’ll see this as a good thing. And it’s only three weeks. What’s the worst that could happen?”
My dad gives me a halfhearted smile, tilting his head a little to the side like a puppy, and for a moment, I want to believe him. But the thing is, he didn’t ask for my input. He and my mom made this decision without me. Without asking if it was what I wanted. Without seeing it from my point of view. I’m feeling very frustrated about the whole situation.
“Dad, you’re supposed to be the parent, telling me all the worst things that could happen. Where is Mom when I need her? I’m sure she would be able to list all the terrible things that could happen to me abroad. Mom!” I start to shout, but my dad’s laughter catches my attention.
“You will be fine, Mal. You’re strong and independent. A little mouthy, but sass isn’t always a bad thing.”
“I understand that I sound like a brat. But come on, Dad. I love New York. I’m an overall good child, aren’t I? I don’t deserve to be sent away.” I pout.
Because this situation is serious.
I’m supposed to leave tomorrow!
“Honey,” my dad says, patting my hand, “you’re not being sent away like a bad kid. I know how much you love it here, but just try to give London a chance. If I didn’t think that you could handle it, I wouldn’t push you to go.” His bluish-gray eyes settle on my own, and it’s almost like I’m looking at myself because my dad and I are so similar.
“We’ve been to London before, so it’s not going to be this amazing, new experience. And truthfully, I prefer Shanghai.”
My dad takes his hand back, but then a smile comes to his face, causing his eyes to crease in the corners. “May I ask why?”
“London is boring,” I say, nodding my head at him.
“Really?” he replies, taken aback. “That’s interesting you think so. See, most people would say London is rather vibrant.”
My dad’s eyes glisten at me, and I know he’s taunting me.
I give him an eye roll in reply.
“Fine,” I say, throwing my hands into the air. “You and Mom win. I will go to London, seeing as I do not have a choice and am being forced to. But it doesn’t change how I feel. I’m still very upset with you both, and I don’t see myself getting over it anytime soon.”
A smile spreads across my dad’s face. “I appreciate your honesty, sweetie. Just promise me to give it a real, wholehearted shot when you’re there.”
“I don’t do anything halfway, do I?”
“No, you don’t,” my dad says with a chuckle. He leans toward me, placing a kiss on my cheek as he rises from the bed.
Despite what he and my mother believe, I think doing a three-week student exchange in London is a terrible idea.
But there’s something even worse I have to do right now. I have to call my best friend, Anna, and tell her. I’ve known for a couple of weeks that this was going to happen, but I really thought that I could get my parents to change their minds. Usually, I’m able to convince them and get my way.
But apparently, not this time.
“Hey,” I say when Anna answers her phone. “I have bad news.”
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
I imagine her sitting on her bed in her newly redecorated room, staring out her window at Central Park.
I don’t say anything for a moment, not sure how to tell her.
“I’m leaving school,” I start, but I don’t get out anything else because she interrupts me.
“Mallory! What are you talking about? Why would you do that? We have so many plans for this year! Are you moving?” Her words spill out, and my stomach twists when I hear them.
“No. My parents decided that it would be an enriching experience to send me to London through the school’s exchange program,” I say, already feeling upset again.
“When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow,” I say softly.
“And you are just now telling me?” she replies, obviously hurt. “But you can’t. I mean, you’ll miss everything important. We are going to that art gallery opening on Tuesday. We have reservations booked for Nori next week, and goodness knows how long it will take to get another reservation if you can’t come.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” I tell her.
“Ohmigawd, Mallory! You’re going to miss Matthew Miller’s party. His parents will be in Aruba, remember? You’re supposed to flirt with him and make him fall in love with you because he’s Anthony’s best friend. That way we would be best friends who date best friends. And how are we supposed to do that if you’re gone?” she asks, sounding distressed.
Because Anna’s like that. She makes all these plans in her head.
She continues her rant, and I realize that she’s right. Life will go on here without me. That’s what my parents just don’t get.
I shove a book into my duffel before dropping it onto the floor and falling dramatically onto my bed.
I notice Anna has stopped speaking.
“It’s only three weeks,” I say for lack of a better reply.
She lets out a deep sigh. “I’m sorry. I should be happy for you. I mean, London. London is awesome, right? A new school. New friends to make. And more importantly, boys with sexy accents.”
“I doubt I will meet anyone fun. The British are kind of stuffy, aren’t they?”
“Maybe. Did they give you an itinerary? Have you already decided what to take? You’ve got to pack cute London clothes. And shoes. Lots of shoes. And probably wellies. Doesn’t it rain there all the time? Are you sure you don’t need me to come over and help you with your wardrobe?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got it covered.”
“You know, I think it would be great to go to a different school for a few weeks, where no one knows you. I mean, it’s not like you’ll ever see them again, which might be fun.” She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself.
She always talks out her problems, thinking on the fly. Unlike me, who plans out everything in my life.
I sigh loudly.
“Mallory, seriously, you should try to have fun.”
“Now, you sound like my dad. I’ve gotta go pack. I’ll text you—probably every day because I’ll be bored to death.”
We end the call, and I consider what both she and my dad said.
It is only three weeks, and who cares what anyone at this stupid London school thinks of me? It’s not like I’ll ever see them again.
That thought builds in my mind. I’ll never see them again.
I smile to myself. Screw it. Maybe I will have some fun. Go to London and blow off a little steam. And then I’ll come back, having appeased my parents, and move on with my life.
I pick up the pamphlet that my father left on my dresser. Kensington School. Staring back at me is a group of overly joyful teens, all in matching uniforms.
They’re sitting around, looking at one another as though they have never wanted to be anywhere else. Just the sight of it makes me roll my eyes. And what’s worse is, apparently, that’s supposed to be me in a few days.
I let out another sigh before pulling myself up off my bed and grabbing another empty suitcase to fill.
Saturday, September 21st
I’m going to London.
New York—JFK Airport
“Miss James,” our driver, Larry, says with a nod as he takes my hand and helps me out of the black BMW that is pulled to the curb in front of the airport.
I give him a smile. Larry has been our family’s driver since … well, forever. He probably knows my parents as well as I do. Between driving my father to and from work and my mom’s distaste for taxis and her need to attend varying luncheons, he’s with us daily.
“Thank you,” I say as he gets out the last of my suitcases—three in total with a nice-sized duffel to top it off.
It might seem excessive for three weeks, but I hate not being prepared. The fact that I was not given any kind of an itinerary did not help. Which means I had to strategically pack for any possible outing—from cute, casual day outfits to options for going out.
And there’s nothing worse than having the most beautiful clothes and wearing them with the same shoes and bag. Each outfit is distinct and needs its own accessories, or it throws off the whole effect, and that’s not good.
Fifteen pairs of shoes later, I think I’ve done pretty well with the little amount of information I have on what exactly I’ll be doing besides sitting in a stuffy, old building in an outdated uniform. I wipe the thought from my mind, bringing my attention back to Larry. I give him a wave as he leaves me at curbside check-in, and I hand my passport to the employee behind the desk. She looks at me, a smile coming to her face.
“I see you’re traveling to London today, Miss James,” she says, obviously wanting me to be as excited by the idea as she is.
I want to reply, Unfortunately, but her smile is genuine, and I don’t really feel like being responsible for removing the sparkle in her eye. So, I give her my best I’m not faking this fake smile and nod with enthusiasm.
“I’m going to London,” I repeat, letting the words settle in.
I’ve been trying to avoid the thought as much as possible, but now, here I am, faced with it yet again for the second time today. The first time was when my mom hugged me this morning and then proceeded to cry, making me feel extremely uncomfortable. She blubbered something about missing me and being proud, but I just moved on to my dad, giving him a hug. And luckily for us, he was able to hold back his tears.
At least one of my parents can handle their emotions. My mother can never compose herself, which is one of the reasons—aside from the utter betrayal that still upsets me—that I preferred to come to the airport alone. We are born alone, we die alone, and I would like to not be coddled and suffocated for the remaining time in between.
That’s why I get along so well with my dad. He understands me. Hell, he’s practically just like me. Or I suppose, I’m just like him. He is focused and driven. He doesn’t let emotions overcome him. He understands that a firm pat on the shoulder from him makes me more emotional than a full-body hug, and his good-bye was enough warmth to last me through the next three weeks.
I take my passport and boarding ticket from the woman and watch as my luggage, one piece after another, disappears into the hidden maze that moves silently through JFK to the appropriate plane. I think back to my dad as I get in the TSA line, the image of his cool eyes settling into my chest. I caught an ounce of maybe regret in them when he said his good-bye, but he looked happy at the same time. His mixed emotions left me feeling a little sick at the thought of leaving, but there’s not much I can do about it now.
I hand my passport and ticket over at the security check and then find myself seated on the seven twenty-five p.m. flight to London Heathrow.
Sunday, September 22nd
Are you kidding me?
London Heathrow Airport
Seven hours later, I’m woken up as we are descending into the London area. I pull up my window shade, ready to let the sunshine wake me, but all I see is a gray sky.
Of course. My mood matches the color.
After landing, I make my way through passport control, withdrawing my exchange paperwork for them to look over, and then I try to find my name on one of the many pieces of papers held up to greet arrivals.
I get a little worried when I don’t find either Mallory or James. I move to a bench and pull out my phone, connecting to the Wi-Fi before texting my dad.
Me: I can’t find my driver.
I watch the little dots moving on-screen, showing that he’s typing.
Dad: We didn’t book you one.
Me: Are you kidding me?
All I see is those dots again, and I get frustrated, my heart pounding in my chest.
Dad: Your host family is picking you up. You should look for one Helen Williams. She has your photo.
I read the text twice, realizing how unprepared I was for this arrival. And how little my parents seem to care that their daughter just landed in a foreign country and is all alone. I call my dad.
“So, I’m supposed to just wait for Helen to arrive?” I ask, irritated.
“Honey, I just received a message from her that she’s meeting you there. Your flight landed early, and apparently, you’ve made it through immigration quicker than she expected.”
“Do you realize how insane this is?”
“You declared quite clearly that you were an adult and could handle yourself. I shouldn’t have had to tell you about this. You should have asked.”
My mouth gapes open at my dad’s comment.
“You’re kidding me, right? You don’t have to take everything I say so literally.”
“You’re not a Park Avenue princess, Mallory. Don’t make the slip from dramatic to ungrateful. She is almost there. I gave her your contact information as well, just in case.”
“Throwing me to the wolves then, I see.” Or to London, I suppose. Or to this random woman who is apparently picking me up. “You know, I’m still at the airport. You can change your mind. I’m sure there’s a flight to JFK. And, oh, would you look at that? There’s one leaving in a little over an hour. That’s just enough time for a little wave to Helen before heading home. See? I came; I saw.”
My dad laughs. “Give us a call when you get settled, Mal.”
“Fine,” I reply flatly.
He thinks I won’t remember this. But I will.
I pace for a few moments, realizing that I am way more nervous than I expected. I didn’t think I would have to see anyone right away. I guess I just didn’t think.
All of a sudden, I see a woman barreling through the crowd, weaving in between people and suitcases. When her brown eyes land on me, her face softens with relief for a moment, and I know I’ve found Helen.
“Oh dear,” she says, rushing up to me, her short legs moving as fast as they can. “I am so sorry for the delay.” She sets her purse down onto the ground in a huff. “I am absolutely mortified. I should have known better. I actually am a speeder, believe it or not, but it wasn’t traffic that kept me. These new automated gates at the airport are a nightmare, getting into the parking garage.”
My eyes go wide at her outburst, and I almost have to take a step back. But, funny enough, her nerves actually settle my own.
“It’s no big deal. I just got through,” I say with a smile, placing my hand on her shoulder.
She lets out a large breath, and I can feel her relax under my touch. She smiles up at me, fully collected. “I’m Helen Williams,” she says, extending her hand.
“Mallory James,” I reply.
“Now, let’s collect your cases, dear, and then we can head to the house to get you settled in.”
Her dark hair falls to her shoulders like mine, but hers has a curl to it. Her skin is a pretty olive tone, her flushed cheeks accentuating her warmth. We stand in front of the baggage belt, and I squeeze my hands together, trying not to fidget. She hasn’t said much else, and I can’t seem to come up with anything brilliant to say either. So, instead, I try simple.
“So, you have kids?”
It’s an obvious statement because, duh, I’ll be staying in a room vacated by one of her children who is also doing a school exchange. But every parent can go on and on about their kids. I’m hoping she takes it as a go flag, so we don’t have a lull in conversation. There’s nothing more painful than small talk—or worse, a deafening silence.
“Yes.” She turns to me, beaming. “Mia and Noah. They are twins but almost complete opposites.”
“Really?” I ask curiously, a smile coming to my face.
“Absolutely. Noah is focused and driven. He can be quite the brooder and is very intense. He has a huge heart, but I like to think he keeps it tucked away for those most important to him.” She glows. “And my Mia … well, she is a feisty one, as her father would say. They both have strong personalities, but Mia is a little softer and quite creative.”
“That must make it fun—to have children with such different personalities,” I reply, grabbing one of my bags as it comes around the carousel. I easily get it off the belt.
Helen continues, “It is. But it can also make it quite challenging. Despite being twins, they are my opposing pillars. Standing tall and strong but definitely distinct.”
Her warmth seeps into me. She has that mom energy about her.
“So, which one ended up going on the exchange?”
“Mia,” she confirms. “Noah and Mia’s father—well, my husband,” she says, her cheeks warming again, “was born and raised here. My parents emigrated from Greece when I was a child. They weren’t well off when they arrived in the UK, but they always did the best that they could and eventually became successful. I was able to attend a top university, and I want my children to have that same opportunity when it comes to their schooling.”
“How old were you when you came from Greece?” I ask curiously, grabbing ahold of another one of my bags. This one has a bit more weight to it, and I realize I wish Larry were here—partly because I’m used to always being picked up at the airport by him and partly because he would have collected my bags, making it look easy.
“I was nine. It was a hard transition at first,” she reflects, while I locate my last suitcase, “though I became accustomed to England quite quickly. Anywho, you’ll be staying in my daughter, Mia’s, room since she’s gone on the exchange.”
“Sounds great.” I grab my duffel off the conveyor belt along with the last suitcase. I finally have everything. “These are all my bags,” I say, taking in the overwhelming amount.
When Helen looks over them, I feel a little embarrassed. I thought through everything I would need. But standing here next to Helen with them all, I feel a little silly.
“You certainly did come prepared.” She gives me a halfhearted smile but then refocuses. “I’ll grab us a trolly then, and we will be on our way.”
After carefully wedging two of my suitcases into her trunk—or boot, as she called it—and another one in her backseat, I somehow manage to get all my bags into her car.
And then there’s the car ride. Helen wasn’t lying when she said that she was a speeder. We are weaving in and out of lanes with little effort at a high speed. Instead of it making me nervous though, I feel excited. It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush.
“I love your driving,” I tell her, a smile coming to my face.
She blushes. “My children and husband think I’m terrifying. But none of them ever drive, and though Gene has his license, he always leaves that task up to me.”
“I can see why.” I grin. “You’re efficient.”
“I am, aren’t I?” she agrees.
I watch as the city comes into view. One thing I’ve always liked about London, despite not really liking it, is its neighborhoods. It’s like New York in that way. Each area is different, unique.
It’s my favorite part about New York City and why I want to get into real estate. It would be a challenge, figuring people out. They would tell you what they were looking for. What type of place they thought would suit them. If they wanted a neighborhood safe for kids or close to restaurants or their work. But really, it is about them. If you can get past their list of wants to who they are—their personality, their core—then you can help them find a place perfect for them. A place that they themselves would have never found on their own. Something about that idea gives me a sense of purpose. Power. It’s exciting to think you know someone better than they know themselves.
“Helen, where is your daughter doing her exchange?” I ask, realizing I never asked.
I look over to her and see pride on her face.
“Wow. So, you came from there as a little girl, and now, your little girl has gone back? It’s kind of like coming full circle, isn’t it?”
“It’s a dream come true for me,” she confides. “My daughter returning to my homeland. She will be learning Greek properly and is attending a school close to my family, so she will get to meet her grandparents and extended family.” A tear slips from her eye. “Oh my,” she says, taken aback. “I’m sorry for the outburst, dear. I’m not sure what’s come over me.”
“It’s fine,” I reply.
I think about saying something else, but I don’t. Seeing her cry doesn’t bother me. She’s crying from pride. Joy. It makes me happy. I give her a smile and then look out the window again.
“I’ve got to refocus myself,” she says with a laugh. “Always blubbering over this and that. That’s what children do to you. But back to you, dear. After we get you settled in at our home, the school wants you to stop by the campus this afternoon. I told them that was quite a lot for your first day here. It’s Sunday after all. However, they insisted and assured me that it was necessary. They promised it would be a quick process. I can take you myself or show you the quickest route. It’s not far from our home—maybe a ten-minute walk or so. It’s your preference.”
“Thank you, but if it’s that close, I’ll just walk. It will be good to get my bearings.”
Helen nods. “I agree. But don’t concern yourself too much. I believe they just want to give you a quick tour of the campus and give you your schedule, so when you start classes tomorrow, you won’t be overwhelmed.” She turns her brown eyes toward me, sizing me up. But just as quickly, she’s back, focusing on the road.
“As much as I don’t like to admit it—or show it,” I say with a laugh, “I can get overwhelmed. So, a tour today will be a good thing.”
“I hoped you might think so. Either way, my son, Noah, is in your year and will show you the way. I’ve made sure he’s going to walk you to your classes and help you through your first few days. He’s a good boy, that one.”
I’m not sure if I actually need an assigned guide, but her reassurance is nice, and the idea of at least having someone there is comforting. I doubt I will need his help, but like she said, just in case.
Helen turns abruptly, and the street we move onto is beautiful. It’s lined with white houses with big columns on either side of black lacquered doors. Trees and a thin strip of grass separate the street from the sidewalk before thick steps lead up to each entrance.
“This is home,” she says, slowing down to point at a door.
“Number thirty-two,” I say, reading the number.
Helen nods. “Number thirty-two.”
Has me slightly freaked.
“It seems we’ve arrived home to an empty house,” Helen comments, taking in the silence.
Everything about this house screams warmth and family. The furniture is sturdy and long-lasting, but it has a certain charm and wear to it.
“I like your home,” I reply, carrying in my duffel.
“Thank you.” She smiles, rolling the last of my suitcases to the bottom of a set of stairs. “Let’s leave your cases here for the boys to see to.”
I drop my bag, taking in the wooden staircase and the small hallway.
“This is the living room,” Helen says, leading me into the front of the house.
It is a good-sized room with a fireplace and two large couches facing one another. There are two armchairs flanking either side of the fireplace, both looking well-loved.
My eyes drift across a stack of books to an empty teacup sitting on the coffee table. There’s an open book atop it and framed photos on every surface. It’s cozy. And very different from my mother’s decorating style. She believes that a home should be a place to display beauty, and even though every corner of our house is decorated meticulously well, it doesn’t really say anything about us as a family. Well, other than we have an affinity for neutral colors and modern, sleek style.
“I love it,” I comment, my eyes falling on a folded-up newspaper. The crossword section lies open and is partially filled in.
A smile comes to my face. I can already tell a lot about the people who live here, just by this room.
“Upstairs are the bedrooms,” Helen states after taking me through the kitchen and dining room. “We’ve got Mia’s room, where you’ll be staying, on the left. Next to that is Noah’s room, and across from that is the bathroom you will use. A little farther down the hall on the right is the master bedroom.”
I nod, trying to follow along.
“Why don’t you head up there and get familiar with the place? Settle yourself in and have a rest. I’ll pop up with some lunch in a bit, and then after that, you can make your way to school. I haven’t a clue why Gene and Noah aren’t here, but I suppose you’ll meet them later anyway.”
I nod in agreement. All of the flying and talking and driving has me tired—not just physically, but mentally. And lying down for a bit actually sounds really nice.
“Thanks,” I breathe out, relieved she didn’t ask for me to stay downstairs with her.
I grab my duffel and head up the narrow staircase, finding the door to Mia’s room. Her bed catches my attention first. There is a black-and-purple bedspread, which contrasts against her white walls. Well, what white you can find. There are photos and pictures everywhere. My gaze lands on the wall next to her door. It is covered with hanging string, zigzagging from the ceiling halfway down her wall. She has Polaroids attached with clips on each level, and I find photos ranging from groups of girls to pictures taken out in the city.
It’s nothing like my room at home with its neutral silver and cream colors. All my art is abstract and matching, opposed to this room, which is an eclectic mixture of color, art, knickknacks, and, well, memories.
I decide the first thing I have to do is rinse off the plane ride in the shower. Even if you get on a plane, sparkling clean, you always get off of it, feeling dirty. There’s something about the dryness of the air pumped in, mixed with stiff pillows, that has you staring in the bathroom mirror after your flight, wondering how you’ve managed to go from cute to disgusting in a matter of seven hours.
I try to be gentle with my hair, but my nails dig into my scalp. Everything is starting to feel real. It almost felt like a ruse or a prank my parents were playing on me. Even at the airport, on the plane, I really didn’t have to accept what was actually going to happen. I didn’t let it bother me. But now, being here, in a stranger’s home … well, reality is setting in.
And it has me slightly freaked.
Because I don’t want to try to imagine how things will go or what it will be like, living with this family. My parents know me. They know I love coffee brought to me in bed. They know that I absolutely love pasta, but I hate tomato sauce unless it’s freshly made. Even at some of the nicest restaurants in New York, I won’t touch the sauce because the tomatoes aren’t sweet enough. My parents know those things about me and love me. My dad laughs when I practically growl at him on days he wakes me up to run with him.
Because he loves my quirks.
And now, here I am, in my “new home,” trying to decide how much effort to actually put into this program. I don’t want it to mess with my grades or my future. And I’m nervous, because there are so many questions and possibilities.
Do I develop relationships that could help me in the future?
Do I not give a fuck and just pretend this is a long vacation?
Am I going to get attached if I make friends?
I let out a really long and dramatic sigh. The possibilities are overwhelming.
I don’t really want new friends. Or a new family. If I ever decide I need contacts in London, I’ll make them then.
I smile to myself and make my decision. No. I would rather try and do what the brochure says and immerse myself in a new culture. And I plan to do that by finding the closest local pub after my meeting at school and pretending I’m old enough to be served a pint.
Because why not?
I’m only here for a few weeks, and I might as well make the most of it. Have some fun. But then I think to Helen downstairs and how kind and welcoming she is, and my stomach knots up a little. I’m conflicted, and I don’t like the feeling.
I get out of the shower, brush my hair, and then give it a quick blow-dry. It’s a blessing and a curse that my hair is fine. On the upside, it’s quick to fix. On the downside, it won’t hold a curl to save its life. It always falls in a straight sheet almost to my shoulders.
I shuffle through my bag, pulling out my toothpaste, toothbrush, and perfume. I give my mouth a nice rinse before applying some fragrance to my wrist and transferring it to the other and then up to my neck. I decide, instead of napping, I should get this school stuff out of the way, so I just throw on a clean pair of jeans and a cute sweater. When I come out of the bathroom, dressed, I find Helen walking up the stairs with a glass of juice and a sandwich in hand.
“You look lovely and refreshed,” she says, leading me back into Mia’s room. She places the plate and juice down onto the desk before turning toward me.
“Thanks. I thought about the nap you’d suggested, but I’m afraid if I go to bed now, I won’t ever wake up,” I say with a laugh.
“I understand. Get some food in your belly, and then I will give you directions to campus and let Ms. Adams know that you will be headed that way.”
“Sounds good,” I reply, sitting down in the chair and taking a drink of the juice. It tastes a little more like orange Fanta than the fresh-squeezed juice I’m used to, but I don’t say anything.
Once I finish the snack, I’m on my way out the door with a set of keys to the house and directions written out on a piece of paper. I tried to tell Helen that, growing up in the city, I have a pretty easy time finding my way around, but she insisted on giving me written directions regardless. She also marked a few cafés on her makeshift map, telling me that I must stop for a scone and tea after.
School is only a few blocks away from their home, and it doesn’t take much to figure out that the building I’m standing in front of is Kensington School. It’s an imposing structure with classic lines, looking as if it could have had a former life as a house built for nobility, its borders guarded by an iron gate.
Honestly, it’s beautiful.
Greenery grows up one of the stone walls, and I walk through a brick archway into a central courtyard. There is a large oak tree in the middle with a circular bench built around it. The walls of the building climb up into the sky, and I take a moment to appreciate it.
My school in New York isn’t anything like this. It’s modern and industrial. It professes to promote creativity and the future, doing away with traditions and aged character. I love that about my school. It’s progressive and new.
But something about this school makes me feel happy. And the thought of walking through this courtyard tomorrow, dressed in the school uniform, hearing the faint sounds of the city moving on all around us but almost being both trapped and set free in this living piece of history, is … well, exciting.
I swallow hard, surprised at myself. I shift my gaze from the building, trying to discern which of the numerous doors to enter through. I walk a few steps, and then one of them opens. I can only assume that the large, round woman standing in the doorway is Ms. Adams.
“Miss James?” she questions, taking a few steps closer to me as I nod in affirmation. “I’m Ms. Adams, school administrator. It’s nice to meet you.” She shakes my hand. She doesn’t have a firm grip, but it isn’t the softest either. She’s wearing a thick wool skirt, topped with a brown sweater, and her formality is comforting.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, taking my hand back.
“Now, if you’d like to follow me to the office, we will get you all sorted out.”
She turns, leading me into the building. It’s just as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. I love the old stone walls and thick wooden moldings. She turns a corner, taking me into a room that branches off into offices. A moment later, she has me seated at her desk.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asks, turning on a kettle.
“I’m all right. Thank you though,” I reply politely.
She looks a little taken aback by my answer but gives me a nod before proceeding to sit in silence until her kettle rings out, and then she has a cup of steaming water in front of her.
It’s possible that she already doesn’t like me simply because I don’t like tea.
“Now then, I won’t keep you too long, as it’s Sunday and I want you to get settled in. I’ve got a packet here for you,” she says, handing me a thick brown envelope, “that I thought we might go through together. First off is your schedule. You’ll be taking Statistics, Latin, Art, and Geography. Those classes run every day and then are shortened on Tuesdays and Thursdays to account for sports. You’ll have to choose one sport, and I’ve included the list of options here.”
She gestures to another piece of paper on the desk before flipping it over and looking at the next one, moving at a fast clip. “You’ll be expected to attend all classes. If you’re ill, please have your host family contact the school. You’ll need your student card for lunch, as it runs as a charge card. Your class schedule is listed here with buildings and room numbers along with a map. This sheet has your locker information on it. You’re in locker number seventy-five on the main floor, and here,” she says, pointing, “is the combination. We’ve already put your textbooks for classes in it, so they will be there, waiting for you in the morning. Be sure to take the appropriate one with you to each class.”
I nod my head, following along. So far, all she’s rambled on about is the schedule and locker, and those things are pretty standard.
“As for your uniforms, we have a school spirit shop at the far end of campus. I’ll escort you there now to get your uniforms sorted out. Pick out whatever you like, and again, it can be directly charged to your student card. We will have it packed up and delivered to your host home this evening so that you’re prepared for school tomorrow. Please read over the list of rules, which includes regulations on the dress code.
“We have a full-time counselor on staff, and if you’re having trouble adjusting or need someone to talk to, she is the one to contact. We’ve put you with the Williams family, as you already know. This is advantageous to you, as their son, Noah, is also in your year and can help guide you through daily life at Kensington.”
The mention of Noah makes me perk up a bit, and I’m starting to wonder what he’s actually like.
I nod my head at Ms. Adams, giving her a smile because, all of a sudden, she has stopped talking and is staring at me.
“All right then,” she says, getting up. “I will give you a quick tour and then have you on your way to the shop.”
I stand up, following her out of the office and into the hallway. As she leads me down it, I find lockers, noticing that the aged facade has transitioned into a clean and modern school.
“If you follow this hallway, it takes you to our sporting facilities.” Ms. Adams points and then continues walking. “In front of us is the common room, and over there is the lunchroom. Everyone in your year attends lunch at the same time.”
I try to get a peek inside, but all of the lights are switched off, and I end up looking at my reflection in the glass.
“If you follow this hallway, you will find your locker at the end as well as most of the classrooms. This stairwell here will take you up to the first through third floors. If you go through those doors”—she points again—“there is a connected building, housing the nurse, teachers’ offices, and such. If you continue past that, you’ll find the building for our younger students, but the majority of your time will be spent here.”
I try to take in all of the information, feeling slightly turned around. I’m silently grateful for the map included in my packet. I follow behind her until we’re standing in front of the school shop.
“You’re allowed to wear skirts, shorts, or trousers. If you wear skirts or shorts, black tights are required to be worn underneath them. Every day, you need to be in a white button-up, but you may add one of the school jumpers if you’re chilly. Black shoes are mandatory.” She nods to herself as I look over the clothes, not impressed by their fabric choices or design, not to mention the overuse of navy and red.
“Oh, and please come back to my office on Tuesday morning before classes start and let me know which sport you will be participating in. We can then get you set up for it that afternoon.”
“Okay,” I reply, taking the packet that she hands to me.
“Mr. Hughes,” she calls out, causing a man to pop his head out into the shop from an office.
“Ms. Adams.” He smiles, moving toward us at a snail’s pace.
“Please see to it that Miss James is prepared for her first day of classes tomorrow.” She gives him a warm smile, and I’m starting to wonder if she just doesn’t like me or if she is more friendly to people she knows.
“Very well.” He nods, taking my elbow and leading me to a section full of skirts and pants.
The patterns are classic, and the shirts are plain, but I manage to collect a pile of clothing, adding in some sweaters—or should I say, jumpers—and tights, like she instructed.
Mr. Hughes smiles as he folds the clothing. “We will have this delivered by evening’s end,” he tells me, and then I’m free to go.
I take in the fresh air again, feeling the weight of my new schedule and the school rules heavy in my hand.
I want the distraction.
As I make my way off campus, I decide to go to one of the cafés that Helen recommended. It’s still light out, and having a little me time before going back to the house sounds nice. It’s my last moment of freedom where I can still pretend tomorrow isn’t happening.
I peek through the window and decide against it. It looks nice, but it’s quiet and small.
And right now, I don’t want that.
I want the distraction of people. I want noise and chatter to drown out my thoughts.
I walk a little farther and find the perfect place—The Queens Arms. I go into the pub, quickly absorbing the vibe coming from within it. The place is packed. There are groups of men sitting at tables, couples at the bar, parties of friends all gathered together. Normally, I would hate sitting at the bar alone. I would hate not being out with, well, anyone. But this afternoon, I couldn’t be more thankful for it. Because for the next three weeks, I’m never going to be alone.
Back home, my dad’s always at work. Mom is out in the city, at some function or another. It’s normally just me. We do dinners together, but that’s about it. Sometimes, we will go to the park over the weekend or out for brunch, but they’re typically planned events. Planned time. And I already know from the warmth of the Williams’ home that it is lived in. That they spend a lot of family time there together.
I smile at the bartender and order a cider. He looks me over, and I half-wonder if he’s going to ask for my ID, but he simply pulls out a pint glass and turns on the tap. I try not to let out a visible sigh of relief as he sets the pint onto the bar. I pay him and then look around, trying to find an open table.
Or even an open seat.
I walk farther into the pub and am struck by the thick wooden beams that match the wraparound bar. I squeeze past a group of men talking about an upcoming football match—which to the British, means soccer—and smile to myself. I finally spot an open seat farther down the bar that’s perfect.
I sit down, take a few large gulps of cider, and enjoy the fruity taste lingering in my mouth.
This is exactly what I needed. Time alone to relax and unwind.
“Excuse me, miss,” a loud voice says from over my shoulder, causing me to roll my eyes.
Honestly, can I not have just a minute to myself?
“Miss?” I say, frustrated, turning toward the voice. I meet the gaze of a cute boy, whose blue eyes narrow in on me.
“I have to ask you,” he says, “is that cider you’re drinking?”
“Yeah. Why?” I ask, perplexed.
“Why? Well, this matters a great deal actually, for two main reasons,” he says, grinning. His light-blue eyes are set against short blond hair, and he cocks his head at me.
“Really?” I say, biting my lip so he isn’t encouraged by me smiling. “And why’s that?”
“Well, firstly, cider is absolute shit, and it should be thrown out immediately,” he says seriously, moving in a little closer.
I can smell beer on his breath, and I can already tell he’s one of those boys who likes putting on a show.
“And if I won’t do that?” I question.
“Well then,” he says, leaning on the bar and setting his pint down next to mine, “we’ve made it to my second point. Which is, if you’re going to drink cider—which, again, I point out is fucking terrible—then you must counteract it by not drinking it alone. So, here I stand before you, your moral support for the task.”
He raises his eyebrows at me, obviously pleased with himself. And I can’t help but smile along with him.
“Oh, I see. You’ve come to my rescue then?” I take another sip of the supposedly fucking terrible cider, which I’m actually enjoying.
“I’m no knight in shining armor. The opposite really. I was hoping you’d rescue me. You see those lads over there?” he says, pointing over his shoulder to a table in the corner. A few guys are sitting around it, and at least a half-dozen empty pints decorate their table. “They’re a terrible time, and I was hoping you might take pity on me.” He pouts, giving me sad puppy-dog eyes.
And I want to give in, but I know exactly what he’s doing.
“You’re a charmer,” I admit, but I pull back a little.
“And you aren’t having any part of it, are you?” he says, a laugh escaping his lips. His mood lightens, and he turns back to look at his friends.
I take in his button-down shirt, how it’s rolled at the sleeves and how the top button is undone. This guy isn’t bulky, but he isn’t thin either. He’s the perfect combination of put together yet adorably undone.
He looks like trouble.
But he looks fun.
And fun is exactly what I need right now.
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