I’ll never forget that first glimpse of Winterhaven as we pulled up the long, curving drive—gray stones bathed in the lavender haze of dusk, looking like an old European university, all flying buttresses and stone spires reaching toward the sky. Leaves in every shade of the autumn spectrum—red, yellow, orange, brown—littered the ground at my feet, crunching beneath my boots as I stepped out of the car and looked around. This was it—my new home, my new life.
Typically, I had just been dumped there as unceremoniously as had the luggage at my feet. My mom hadn’t even bothered to come along for the ride. Okay, technically Patsy is my stepmother, but since my real mom died when I was four and my dad married Patsy about, oh, two seconds later, she’s all I’ve got. She was always clear about her priorities, though—my dad, and her career, in that order. I think I made the list somewhere between the Junior League and Jimmy Choo shoes.
To give Patsy credit, though, she had made an effort to spend more time with me after my dad died. I thought we were making progress when she took an entire Saturday afternoon off and invited me out to lunch. But that’s when she dropped the bomb—she’d been offered a job in New York, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she called it. So less than a month into my junior year, Patsy gave me a choice: stay in Atlanta with Gran, or move to New York with her.
There were no other options, no one else to foist me off on. No living relatives except for Gran, my real mom’s mother. And as much as I adore Gran, I just wasn’t sure that she was up to having me move in with her and Lupe, her companion/housekeeper. After all, Gran was old, set in her ways. I didn’t want to be a burden.
And, okay . . . I’ll admit that there was more to it than that. Way more. I can’t really explain it, but once I saw that Winter-haven brochure in the pile that Patsy had dumped in my lap, I somehow knew that this was the place for me. I’d been so sure of it that I’d actually refused to apply anywhere else.
And so . . . here I was. Time to see if my instincts had been correct. I made my way up the stairs toward the largest of the buildings, the one marked ADMINISTRATION. Taking a deep breath, I pushed open a set of double doors at the top of the stairs and stepped inside, looking around a huge rotunda. On either side of me, two staircases curved up, like a swan’s wings. Up above was a stained-glass-tiled dome, a huge chandelier hanging from its center. Directly below it stood a bronze statue cordoned off by red velvet ropes. WASHINGTON IRVING, the plaque read. The school’s founder. Which, I had to admit, was pretty cool.
Letting out a low whistle of appreciation, I turned in slow circles, admiring the view. Wow. The glossy brochure hadn’t done this place justice. I hoped it was costing Patsy a fortune.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, I froze, my heart thumping loudly against my ribs. A tall woman with graying auburn hair came into view, smiling as she hurried toward me, her high heels clicking noisily against the black-and-white checkerboard marble tiles.
“You must be Miss McKenna,” she called out. “Welcome to Winterhaven, chérie. I’m Nicole Girard. Are these all of your belongings?” She nodded toward the two trunks the driver had left at my side before disappearing without a word.
“That’s it,” I answered, my voice a bit rusty. “I had the rest of my stuff shipped.”
“Very good. Just leave them there, and I’ll take you right up to the headmaster’s office. Dr. Blackwell is looking forward to welcoming you.”
“Great.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. Glancing back one last time at my trunks, I followed Mrs. Girard up the stairs on my left and down a long hall lined with portraits of stern-looking old men in suits. Former headmasters, I guessed.
Finally we stopped in front of a large, arched wooden door that looked like it belonged in a medieval castle. Mrs. Girard knocked three times before turning the brass handle. “Dr. Blackwell?” she called out, stepping inside with me trailing behind. “The new student has arrived.”
A leather chair swiveled around, startling me so badly that I took a step back and nearly tripped over my own feet. A man sat behind the massive desk, watching me. His hair was totally silver, but his skin was surprisingly smooth except for crinkles at the corners of his eyes—eyes as silver as his hair. With his wire-rimmed spectacles and a pipe between his teeth, he looked just like I imagined a headmaster should.
“Welcome, Miss McKenna. What a pleasure to meet you.”
“Th-thank you, sir,” I stammered.
“And how was your journey?”
“I think I slept through most of it,” I answered truthfully.
“I do hope you were able to explore the city a bit before coming here. I told your stepmother there was no rush.”
“I did, thanks.” I had spent two weeks helping Patsy settle into her new apartment on the Upper East Side.
“Very good.” He nodded. “Thank you, Nicole. I’ll ring the bell when I’m ready for you to show Miss McKenna to her room.”
“Very well, sir,” the woman replied, then took her leave with one last smile in my direction.
Dr. Blackwell motioned for me to take a seat opposite him, so I settled myself into the chair across from his desk.
“Well, then,” he said, laying down his pipe and shuffling a stack of papers. “I have your transcripts right here. Quite impressive. Windsor Day School, advanced classes, honor roll. A fencer.” He took off his glasses and looked up at me. “Hmm, on the state championship team, it says.”
“Yes, sir. I’m recovering from an injury, though.” Almost out of habit, I reached across to rub my right shoulder.
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve quite a fencing program here at Winterhaven. Our instructor is an Olympic gold medalist. I’m sure there will be a place for you on the girls team.”
I shifted in my seat. At Windsor we’d had just one team— and I had been the only girl on it.
“As to your schedule, we’ve made some placements based upon your credits, but you’ll find our class offerings a little different here from those at Windsor Day. If anything doesn’t appeal to you, let us know at the end of the day tomorrow and we’ll make the necessary adjustments.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” I took the page he pushed across the desk.
“Breakfast is served in the dining hall from seven till eight thirty, lunch at noon, and dinner from five to six thirty.” He shuffled through some more papers on his desk. “Let’s see, you’ll be in the East Hall dormitory. Mrs. Girard is house-mistress there, and her word is law. I’m sure I needn’t tell you that smoking and alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden. Mrs. Girard will inform you of the remaining dormitory rules when she shows you to your room.”
I must have looked panicked, because he smiled a gentle, grandfatherly smile. “I assure you, they are nothing too strict. Now then, have you any questions for me?”
“Um, a roommate?” I asked hopefully.
“Ah, yes. You do have a roommate, and she’s eagerly awaiting your arrival. Miss Cecilia Bradford. I believe you’ll get on famously.”
I nodded, hoping he was right. I wanted to fit in. To blend in.
Dr. Blackwell steepled his hands beneath his chin, silently watching me for a moment. “I’m very sorry about your father’s death, Miss McKenna,” he said, startling me.
My stomach rolled over in my gut. Was that information there in the papers on his desk? It had happened two years ago, but it still felt like yesterday. I couldn’t stand to think about it, even now. Especially now. What doesn’t break us only makes us stronger, Gran liked to say, but it never did make me feel any better.
“Quite tragic,” the headmaster added. “Not something one can easily forget, is it?”
“No,” I muttered, dropping my gaze to my lap. It wasn’t easy to forget, especially when people kept bringing it up.
“I imagine that tomorrow will be a day of discovery for you. You might find yourself somewhat . . . surprised by what you find here at Winterhaven. If you have any questions or simply need to talk to someone, my door is always open. Figuratively speaking, of course.”
I only nodded in reply.
“Well, then.” He tipped his head toward the door. “Shall I ring the bell for Mrs. Girard?”
“That’d be great,” I said, standing on shaky legs.
“I hope your first night at Winterhaven is a pleasant one, Miss McKenna.” He extended one hand toward me as Mrs. Girard bustled back in.
“Thank you, sir.” As I took his hand, a shudder ran up my arm. His hand was cold—like ice—despite the fire crackling away in the fireplace behind him.
“Come now, Miss McKenna,” Mrs. Girard said. “If we go quickly, we might catch Miss Bradford before she heads down to dinner.”
With a nod, I picked up my bag and stuffed my class schedule inside, then followed her out. We seemed to walk forever, one corridor leading to the next, up one staircase and down another. How in the world was I ever going to find my way around this place?
Finally we entered what looked like an oversize, paneled study with a stone fireplace on one side, a wall-mounted television in the corner, and bookshelves taking up the opposite wall. Brown leather couches and chairs were scattered about.
“This is the East Hall lounge,” Mrs. Girard explained, “where you’ll have study hour after dinner each night. Other than that, it’s to use as you please. Vending machines are just over there, beside the mailboxes. Girls’ rooms are this way.” She motioned to the right, and I followed her into yet another hall, this one lined with group photos of girls, all wearing blue velvet gowns. About halfway down the hall we stopped in front of a door with the number 217 on it, and she knocked sharply. When no one answered, she produced a key from her pocket and turned it in the lock.
“Here we are,” she said.
Stepping inside, I quickly surveyed the place. The room was surprisingly big, with two white wooden beds on either side of a window. The required desk and dresser were there beside each bed, and an open doorway on one side of the room led to what looked like a little sitting area, complete with love seat, chair, and coffee table. Not bad, I thought. It was actually pretty nice.
Mrs. Girard cocked her head toward the bare side of the room. “I’ll send the housekeeper right up with some clean linens for your bed.”
“Thank you,” I said, setting my bag on the empty desk.
“I see your trunks made it up here already, and your course books are there on the shelves.” With a nod, she rubbed her hands together. “Now, then. House rules. No boys on the girls’ floor, and vice versa. No smoking, no alcoholic beverages. You will find snacks and beverages in the lounge and the café. The housekeepers come on Tuesdays and Fridays, so I ask that you have your clutter cleared away on those mornings. No cell phones in the lounge, or anywhere else on campus, for that matter. They must remain here in your room at all times. No music so loud as to disturb your neighbors. Lights out by eleven on school nights, midnight curfew on weekends. I suppose that’s it for now. The rest can wait.”
There was more? I wasn’t what you’d call a party animal— not at all—but lights out at eleven seemed a little harsh, and so did the cell phone thing. I wasn’t used to going anywhere without my cell.
“Oh, and the restrooms and showers are just next door, on your right.” Just then the door was flung open, and a girl about my height wearing a pink robe and bunny slippers burst in, her hair wrapped in a towel.
“Oh!” She stepped back in surprise when she saw us standing there. “You’re here!”
“Good evening, Miss Bradford,” Mrs. Girard said. “I’ve brought you your new roommate.”
“You must be Violet,” she said brightly.
“And you must be Cecilia.” Deep brown skin, dark eyes, curly hair peeking out of her towel. She was beautiful, and I felt like a pale plain Jane in comparison.
She waved one hand in dismissal. “Oh, everyone calls me Cece. You have no idea how glad I am you’re here.”
Mrs. Girard moved toward the door. “Well then, I think we’re done going over the rules, Miss McKenna. Here’s your key”—she laid it on my desk—“and I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. You have your class schedule?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Very good. You’ll find a campus map on the back. Have a wonderful evening, then. And don’t forget, Dr. Blackwell and myself are available to answer any questions that might arise over the course of the day tomorrow.”
After she left, I turned my attention to Cece. She was standing by her bed, watching me curiously. “I cleaned out the closet and made sure your half was empty,” she offered.
“Thanks. The room is much nicer than I expected. Big.”
“Yeah, it’s not too bad, except for the shared bath. But you get used to it. And hey, at least it’s right next door.”
I cleared my throat, trying to think of something to say. “You’ve been here since freshman year?” I asked at last, knowing it sounded lame.
“Yup. Home sweet home.” She removed the towel from her head, revealing dark curls that fell just past her shoulders. “So you’re from Atlanta?”
“Lived there my whole life,” I said with a shrug. Same neighborhood, same house—just down the block from Gran, who’d live there her whole life. God, we were a boring bunch.
Still, it had been comfortable. If only Patsy had left well enough alone, hadn’t forced me to choose between her—the closest thing I had to a parent—and the only place I’d ever called home.
But she had made me choose, and I’d chosen Winterhaven. I tried to think of this as a new beginning, a fresh start. I’d reinvent myself—the new-and-improved Violet McKenna. No one here would know the names I’d been called—freak, weirdo. Half-jokingly, of course, but my friends had no idea how close to the truth they’d been, and how much that scared me. I was a freak, and I’d do just about anything to make sure no one here noticed it.
“Well, I’ve lived here my whole life,” Cece said. “The city, I mean. My mom’s family is from New Orleans, though, so we spend a lot of time down there. I think I’ve got some voodoo queen in my blood!”
“Now that sounds interesting.” I sat down on my bed, watching as Cece walked over to the sitting area and started picking up magazines that were scattered about.
“Just don’t let my mother hear you say that,” she called back over one shoulder. “So, what is it that you do?”
“You mean, like, fencing?”
“You’re a fencer?” she asked, carrying the magazines over to her desk and leaving them in a pile that looked in serious danger of toppling over. “You mean swords and all that stuff?”
“Yeah. I hear the program here is pretty good.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure. But I meant . . . you know . . .” Cece trailed off, shaking her head when I said nothing. “Never mind,” she said with a shrug, glancing up at the clock above her desk. “Crap, when did it get so late? I’ve got a student council meeting tonight.”
She hurried over to her dresser, pulling open drawers and haphazardly pulling things out. Minutes later she was dressed in jeans and a pink T-shirt, a touch of gloss on her lips. Very low maintenance—I liked that.
“So, you’re on student council?” I asked, just trying to make conversation.
“Yep, you’re looking at the newly elected junior class president,” she said with a grin, grabbing her keys off her desk and stuffing them into a pocket.
“Cool,” I said.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Is it cool? I swear, sometimes I think I’m headed toward total dorkdom.”
“No, it really is cool.” Actually, everything about Cece seemed cool, which made me feel like an even bigger loser.
She paused by the door. “I feel terrible just leaving you here, fifteen minutes after you walk through the door. Want me to call some of my friends, ask them to come over and show you around?”
I shook my head. “No, I swear I’ll be fine. By the time you get back, I’ll have everything all unpacked and organized.”
She bit her lower lip, then nodded. “Okay. I guess I’ll go, then.”
“Go,” I answered with a laugh, shooing her out.
As soon as the door closed behind her, I looked around with a sigh, surveying the blank side of the room—my new digs, such as they were. I’d never shared a room with anyone before, much less a bathroom. It was definitely going to take some getting used to, but I had a really good feeling about Cece.
I couldn’t resist the urge to go over to her desk and straighten the magazines, though. Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone. Yeah, we were going to get along just fine.
Across the room, my cell phone made a chirping sound. Hurrying back to my own desk, I dug around in my bag till I found it. I expected a message from Patsy, checking to make sure that I’d arrived safely and all that. Instead I found a text from Whitney, my best friend since the very first day of kindergarten, when we’d trooped into our classroom and found our cubbies, conveniently alphabetized by first name, right next to each other. We’d sort of started to drift apart lately, mostly because she’d left Windsor for a performing arts school freshman year. She had new friends, new interests, and I had gotten increasingly busy with fencing. Still, she’d always been a phone call away. She still is, I reminded myself.
I scanned her message—asking how it was going so far—and smiled. At least someone cared. I sent her a quick text back, promising to e-mail her as soon as I got my laptop set up.
If I could find my laptop, that is. I glanced down at the trunks that held nearly all my earthly possessions, and sighed. Time to start unpacking.
Morning came far too quickly. Still in my pajamas, I winced at the sight of my bloodshot eyes staring back at me in the mirror.
“You’re going to miss breakfast if you don’t hurry and get dressed,” Cece said, eyeing me from across the room as she pulled on her shoes.
“I know. I just . . . I didn’t get much sleep last night. New bed and all.” I’d actually lain awake most of the night, only drifting off somewhere near dawn.
“I’ll wait for you,” she offered.
I weighed my options. I could go down now and face the crowd—get it over with. Or I could enjoy some quiet time alone and pull myself together. Ultimately I took the coward’s way out. “It’s okay, you go on ahead. I just need some coffee.”
“There’s a coffee machine in the lounge. At least, they call it coffee. Personally, I think they’re using the term a little too loosely.”
I had to laugh at that. “The way I feel right now, just about anything will do. What time’s first period?”
“Eight forty-five. What’s your first class?”
I hadn’t even glanced at my schedule yet. “Let me see.” I grabbed my bag and rummaged through it till I found the sheet Dr. Blackwell had given me. “First period, Hackley Hall, Corridor A, Room 312. Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Wow, that was a sophisticated-sounding course for high school.
“That’s an advanced-level class,” Cece said, wrinkling her nose. “You must be a brainiac or something.”
I just shrugged. I’d been called worse.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Hackley Hall is where all the junior- and senior-level classes are held, and it’s the building just behind us. Here, give me your schedule and I’ll show you on the map.”
I handed it over along with a pen and watched as she scanned my class list, turned it over and circled a big rectangle on the map, then drew a line from what must be the dorms to the circled building. “There you go,” she said, handing it back to me. “After that, you’re on your own. Your classes are all more advanced than mine. But I’ll save you a seat in the dining hall at lunch, okay?”
“That’d be great. Will I get lost trying to find my way there?”
“Nope. Just follow the hungry crowd.”
Grinning, she stuffed some notebooks into a pale pink backpack. “I just know you’re going to love it here,” she said, pausing by the doorway.
God, I hoped she was right.