Which matches the rest of her, now that I think about it, considering her whole coordinating jacket, boots, and snow pants look kind of shouts cover model for some Alaskan wilderness fashion magazine.
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure my look says I’ve gone a couple of rounds with a pissed-off caribou. And lost. Badly. Which seems fair, since that’s about how I feel.
Macy makes quick work of unloading my suitcases, and this time I grab two of them. But I only make it a few steps up the very long walk to the castle’s imposing front doors before I’m struggling to breathe.
“It’s the altitude,” Macy says as she takes one of the suitcases out of my hand. “We climbed pretty fast and, since you’re coming from sea level, it’s going to take a few days for you to get used to how thin the air is up here.”
Just the idea of not being able to breathe sets off the beginnings of the panic attack I’ve barely kept at bay all day. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath—or as deep as I can out here—and try to fight it back.
In, hold for five seconds, out. In, hold for ten seconds, out. In, hold for five seconds, out. Just like Heather’s mom taught me. Dr. Blake is a therapist, and she’s been giving me tips on how to deal with the anxiety I’ve been having since my parents died. But I’m not sure her tips are up to combatting all this any more than I am.
Still, I can’t stand here frozen forever, like one of the gargoyles staring down at me. Especially not when I can feel Macy’s concern even with my eyes closed.
I take one more deep breath and open my eyes again, shooting my cousin a smile I’m far from feeling. “Fake it till you make it is still a thing, right?”
“It’s going to be okay,” she tells me, her own eyes wide with sympathy. “Just stand there and catch your breath. I’ll carry your suitcases up to the door.”
“I can do it.”
“Seriously, it’s okay. Just chill for a minute.” She holds up her hand in the universal stop gesture. “We’re not in any hurry.”
Her tone begs me not to argue, so I don’t. Especially since the panic attack I’m trying to fend off is only making it harder to breathe. Instead, I nod and watch as she carries my suitcases—one at a time—up to the school’s front door.
As I do, a flash of color way above us catches my eye.
It’s there and gone so fast that even as I scan for it, I can’t be sure it ever really existed to begin with. Except—there it is again. A flash of red in the lit window of the tallest tower.
I don’t know who it is or why they even matter, but I stop where I am. Watching. Waiting. Wondering if whoever it is will make another appearance.
It isn’t long before they do.
I can’t see clearly—distance, darkness, and the distorted glass of the windows cover up a lot—but I get the impression of a strong jaw, shaggy dark hair, a red jacket against a background of light.
It’s not much, and there’s no reason for it to have caught my attention—certainly no reason for it to have held my attention—and yet I find myself staring up at the window so long that Macy has all three of my suitcases at the top of the stairs before I even realize it.
“Ready to try again?” she calls down from her spot near the front doors.
“Oh, yeah. Of course.” I start up the last thirty or so steps, ignoring the way my head is spinning. Altitude sickness—one more thing I never had to worry about in San Diego.
I glance up at the window one last time, not surprised at all to find that whoever was looking down at me is long gone. Still, an inexplicable shiver of disappointment works its way through me. It makes no sense, though, so I shrug it off. I have bigger things to worry about right now.
“This place is unbelievable,” I tell my cousin as she pushes open one of the doors and we walk inside.
And holy crap—I thought the whole castle thing with its pointed archways and elaborate stonework was imposing from the outside. Now that I’ve seen the inside… Now that I’ve seen the inside, I’m pretty sure I should be curtsying right about now. Or at least bowing and scraping. I mean, wow. Just…wow.
I don’t know where to look first—at the high ceiling with its elaborate black crystal chandelier or the roaring fireplace that dominates the whole right wall of the foyer.
In the end I go with the fireplace, because heat. And because it’s freaking gorgeous, the mantel around it an intricate pattern of stone and stained glass that reflects the light of the flames through the whole room.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Macy says with a grin as she comes up behind me.
“Totally cool,” I agree. “This place is…”
“Magic. I know.” She wiggles her brows at me. “Want to see some more?”
I really do. I’m still far from sold on the Alaskan boarding school thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to check out the castle. I mean, it’s a castle, complete with stone walls and elaborate tapestries I can’t help but want to stop and look at as we make our way through the entryway into some kind of common room.
The only problem is that the deeper we move into the school, the more students we come across. Some are standing around in scattered clumps, talking and laughing, while others are seated at several of the room’s scarred wooden tables, leaning over books or phones or laptop screens. In the back corner of one room, sprawled out on several antique-looking couches in varying hues of red and gold, is a group of six guys playing Xbox on a huge TV, while a few other students crowd around to watch.
Only, as we get closer, I realize they aren’t watching the video game. Or their books. Or even their phones. Instead, they’re all looking at me as Macy leads—and by leads, I mean parades—me through the center of the room.
My stomach clenches, and I duck my head to hide my very obvious discomfort. I get that everyone wants to check out the new girl—especially when she’s the headmaster’s niece—but understanding doesn’t make it any easier to bear the scrutiny from a bunch of strangers. Especially since I’m pretty sure I have the worst case of helmet hair ever recorded.
I’m too busy avoiding eye contact and regulating my breathing to talk as we make our way through the room, but as we exit into a long, winding hallway, I finally tell Macy, “I can’t believe you go to school here.”
“We both go to school here,” she reminds me with a quick grin.
“Yeah, but…” I just got here. And I’ve never felt more out of place in my life.
“But?” she repeats, eyebrows arched.
“It’s a lot.” I eye the gorgeous stained glass windows that run along the exterior wall and the elaborate carved molding that decorates the arched ceiling.
“It is.” She slows down until I catch up. “But it’s home.”
“Your home,” I whisper, doing my best not to think of the house I left behind, where my mother’s front porch wind chimes and whirligigs were the most wild-and-crazy thing about it.
“Our home,” she answers as she pulls out her phone and sends a quick text. “You’ll see. Speaking of which, my dad wants me to give you a choice about what kind of room situation you want.”
“Room situation?” I repeat, glancing around the castle while images of ghosts and animated suits of armor slide through my head.
“Well, all the single rooms have been assigned for this term. Dad told me we could move some people around to get you one, but I really hoped you might want to room with me instead.” She smiles hopefully for a second, but it quickly fades as she continues. “I mean, I totally get that you might need some space to yourself right now after…”
And there’s that fade-out again. It gets to me, just like it does every time. Usually, I ignore it, but this time I can’t stop myself from asking, “After what?”
Just this once, I want someone else to say it. Maybe then it will feel more real and less like a nightmare.
Except as Macy gasps and turns the color of the snow outside, I realize it’s not going to be her. And that it’s unfair of me to expect it to be.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, and now it almost looks like she’s going to cry, which, no. Just no. We’re not going to go there. Not when the only thing currently holding me together is a snarky attitude and my ability to compartmentalize.
No way am I going to risk losing my grip on either. Not here, in front of my cousin and anybody else who might happen to pass by. And not now, when it’s obvious from all the stares that I’m totally the newest attraction at the zoo.
So instead of melting into Macy for the hug I so desperately need, instead of letting myself think about how much I miss home and my parents and my life, I pull back and give her the best smile I can manage. “Why don’t you show me to our room?”
The concern in her eyes doesn’t diminish, but the sunshine definitely makes another appearance. “Our room? Really?”
I sigh deep inside and kiss my dream of a little peaceful solitude goodbye. It’s not as hard as it should be, but then I’ve lost a lot more in the last month than my own space. “Really. Rooming with you sounds perfect.”
I’ve already upset her once, which is so not my style. Neither is getting someone kicked out of their room. Besides being rude and smacking of nepotism, it also seems like a surefire way to piss people off—something that is definitely not on my to-do list right now.
“Awesome!” Macy grins and throws her arms around me for a fast but powerful hug. Then she glances at her phone with a roll of her eyes. “Dad still hasn’t answered my text—he’s the worst about checking his phone. Why don’t you hang out here, and I’ll go get him? I know he wanted to see you as soon as we arrived.”
“I can come with you—”
“Please just sit, Grace.” She points at the ornate French-provincial-style chairs that flank a small chess table in an alcove to the right of the staircase. “I’m sure you’re exhausted and I’ve got this, honest. Relax a minute while I get Dad.”