Being banished to a boarding school in Britain was the last way that Leonie wanted to spend her senior year.
Back in Boston, all her friends would be enjoying the final months of high school, partying and going to prom. And she would be stuck in a cold, rainy country thousands of miles away, locked up like a nun.
But her grandmother had insisted. Either that or she wouldn’t pay for Leonie’s college.
St Winifred’s School appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Her grandmother’s chauffeur drove her up and the journey felt endless. Leonie looked out of the car windows in increasing dismay as small towns gave way to villages and eventually to nothing but bare, bleak hills and some scattered forest.
Unless there was a boys’ school hidden behind the trees, this was going to be the dullest of dull years.
“It’s your own fault,” a little voice told her. Leonie decided to ignore it. She felt miserable enough without her conscience pricking at her.
The Bentley finally pulled up along a sweeping gravel drive and Leonie looked upon what could surely only be a mental asylum. Grey, grim and gargoyled, it was like something out of a Victorian novel.
Leonie loved English literature at least. That was the one slim redeeming feature of being imprisoned here in this foreign land, that she would get to focus more deeply on that subject than at her high school back in the US.
Jenkins carried out her trunk for her. The school required students to bring their possessions in old fashioned trunks rather than suitcases, imagine that! All around her there were people hauling huge trunks to the front door of the school: girls in the grey St Winifred’s uniform and their parents, brothers and younger siblings. Leonie even saw some nuns walking past the end of the building.
She stumbled and tripped while carrying a box that held some extra items that she hadn’t managed to stuff into her trunk. The gravel bruised her knee and the contents of the box tumbled everywhere. Mainly books, but most embarrassing of all, her battered old teddy bear Buster. She scrambled to pick everything up just as a male voice, with an English accent, asked if she was okay.
Leonie looked up and into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. The face they were set in - also possibly the most handsome she had ever seen - belonged to a young man. He wore jeans and a grey sweater and held out a couple of the books that she had dropped.
She felt a jolt in her stomach as his gaze bored into hers. For a moment the world stood still.
“I’m okay, thanks,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed by her clumsiness. Then his eyes fell on Buster and Leonie wanted to die of shame. Was it her imagination or was there a faint smile on his face that he quickly suppressed? Leonie wished the gravel would swallow her up.
He said nothing, but helped her gather the rest of the scattered things and stood up. Leonie was struck by how tall he was, with such broad shoulders. Powerful arms. Thick, dark hair. A strong jaw and perfect features.
Why oh why had she managed to make such of a klutz of herself in front of him? And why hadn’t she stuffed Buster into her trunk rather than risk everyone seeing him?
“It’s no trouble.” He didn’t smile, but there was a look in his eye that pierced her to the core. She actually felt heat in the pit of her stomach.
She was sure he must feel it too. A connection.
Before she had a chance to talk to him properly, he turned and went on his way. Damn. He must be someone’s brother, so he probably wouldn’t appear again until the end of term.
Leonie put the books and Buster back into the box, resolving to find out who his sister was and make best-friends-forever with that girl.
He looked way too old to be a high school student himself. He was probably at college, she reasoned. Or university as they called it here.
Still, at least there was one hot guy in this country. She’d imagined British boys would all be pasty from lack of sun, with bad teeth. But this one had model looks. He was the first hopeful thing she had seen all day.
Leonie had done her homework before coming to St Winifred’s. She had read all of the Malory Towers girls’ boarding school stories by Enid Blyton, where the only American student was a character called Zerelda Brass.
Zerelda was described as dumb, lazy and vain with ambitions of becoming a film star. Like Leonie she also had an English grandmother.
Given that Leonie herself dreamed of becoming an actress there were some horrible similarities. She hoped she wasn’t quite so vacuous as Zerelda.
Next she had watched a movie called The Trouble With Angels since it took place in a Catholic boarding school, albeit in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t very encouraging either, since Leonie had absolutely no plans of becoming a nun herself which seemed to be the central plot.
Finally she had found a very old movie called Girls’ Dormitory. Set in a Swiss finishing school, it turned out to be less about boarding school life than a sultry French student seducing the headmaster. As St Winifred’s was staffed by nuns and headed by a Mother Superior, Leonie couldn’t see her school career taking that route.
In a bit of a blur with everything being so new, she joined a group of girls crowding around a noticeboard. They were looking at lists to see who had been assigned to each dorm. Leonie was encouraged to hear some colourful expletives from those disappointed with the selections. These Brits didn’t hold back when it came to swearing. There were no goshes and darns here.
Finally she reached the front and could look for her dorm. All the bedrooms seemed to be named with Catholic terminology: Rosary, Liturgy, Matins, Ascension, Beatitude. Leonie eventually discovered her own name next to Pentecost.
She was apparently sharing with three other girls: The Honourable Iphigenia Davenport, Mai Li Chen and Lady Harriet Venn. What the hell? Was this school or Aristocrat Academy? Leonie could only imagine how they would look down on her as a yank.
Mai Li sounded okay, but she’d doubtless turn out to be a Chinese princess or something.
With a very heavy heart, Leonie trudged up the wide staircase to the third and top floor, where Pentecost was supposedly located.
Inside her dorm she found a thin, tall girl with small wire-framed spectacles. She was pretty enough, but looked kind of shy. She also stooped a little as if to downplay her height. Then there was a shorter, very pretty dark-haired girl who was clearly Mai Li.
They introduced themselves as “Mai” and “Figgy”.
Leonie was confused. “Figgy?”
The tall girl, who had a nervous appearance with wisps of wavy hair escaping her ponytail, blushed. “Iphigenia. It’s a bit of a mouthful, I know.”
“So she’s Figgy. Much simpler,” Mai said. “You’re obviously Leonie. Feel free to bags the other window bed. Harry’s rarely here so she won’t care.”
“Bags?” Leonie was confused.
“Reserve it. Grab it for yourself.”
Pentecost dorm was at the corner of the building, giving it windows on both sides. This meant three beds enjoyed being next to windows, with the fourth by the wall and the door. They were simple, iron framed beds with grey woollen blankets and Leonie couldn’t help thinking of the movie Annie.
Hoping that Mai was right about Harry - presumably Lady Harriet - not minding, Leonie put the box she was carrying onto the bed. She’d have to go back for her trunk, and probably have to beg someone else to help her carry it up the stairs.
As if reading her mind, Figgy asked: “Need any help with your trunk?”
“That would be super kind, thanks.”
“You’re American, aren’t you?” Mai said. “What made you come here?”
“My grandmother. She’s British.” Leonie hoped this would be enough explanation. She really didn’t want to get into any specifics.
Fortunately Mai didn’t question her any further. She looked at her watch. “There’ll be tea in the dining hall now but it’s casual today, we can skip it if we like. Then nothing but unpacking until supper at seven.”
Leonie, who was feeling hungry, said she should probably find out where the dining hall was.
“I’ll take you after we’ve got your trunk,” Figgy offered. “It’s usually a good spread on the first day.”
“It’s so any parents dropping by don’t realise that they’ll starve us from tomorrow onwards,” Mai said.
Leonie hoped she was joking. Given the dorm looked like a film set from Annie, she had a horrible feeling that cold mush might be on the menu.
Over tea Mai grilled her about high school in America. Leonie was amazed how much actual tea these British girls drunk, she had thought the stereotype was a joke. But it was more than true.
“I envy you so much. No uniforms and all those hot guys and parties,” Mai said.
“Yes, like on TV. Driving around in open top cars and wearing designer clothes.”
Somewhere along the line Mai had got the impression that the whole of the US was an episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
“It’s really pretty dull, at least where I’m from,” Leonie said. She found she was already starting to pick up their idiom and avoid words like “darn”, though she wasn’t sure why. “Like small town, no beach, no rockstars.”
“What about cheerleaders? Were you a cheerleader?”
Leonie laughed. “In Junior High.”
“In those outfits with the little skirts and the pompoms?” It was clearly some kind of dream for Mai.
“We had cheerleading uniforms, yes. But truly it wasn’t that exciting.”
Mai wasn’t deterred. “But LA though, that must be amazing right? Hollywood stars everywhere you go.”
Leonie had to explain that she’d never been to LA, let alone Hollywood. Mai’s mouth fell open.
“Doesn’t everyone go there? That’s like being in England and never visiting London.”
Leonie tried to redeem herself by mentioning she had been to Washington DC and New York several times.
Mai buttered a piece of bread. “New York’s cool, I guess. Like Friends or Sex and the City. We don’t get to watch that here though, it’s not considered suitable.”
“They have TV here? At school I mean?” Leonie asked.
“Of course. We’re stuck here for months on end, there’s not much else to do. Unless you like chess or knitting or you have a lacrosse stick welded to your hand like Harry. So what subjects are you doing?”
This hadn’t been determined yet, as Leonie was arriving half way through A-levels. She said that she hoped to do Maths - she remembered to use the UK English term and not say “Math” - as well as English and History of Art.
“Maths is awful but the other two are okay. We all do English too. Why those subjects?”
“I guess they seemed the most similar in the US and UK,” Leonie said. “Shakespeare is Shakespeare and trigonometry is trigonometry, wherever you go.”
Figgy nodded. “And History of Art is universal too. I’m taking that.”
“So what do you want to do when you graduate?” Mai asked. “Will you go to an American college and join a sorority?”
Leonie suspected that Mai’s notion of US college was the opening scene of Legally Blonde.
“I actually want to be an actress,” Leonie confessed. She always felt as though this needed to come with a disclaimer. “But not Hollywood. I mean theatre acting, like Shakespeare.”
“You should use your time here to learn a British accent then,” Mai said.
Figgy was concerned that Leonie might have taken offence at this. “Actually it’s believed that the American accent is closer to the Elizabethan accent than how we speak now.”
Mai shrugged. “Good luck finding a casting agent who wants Ophelia saying aluminum and acclimate. Anyway you couldn’t be as bad as Gwyneth Paltrow. When she plays English roles she sounds like she has a broomstick up her backside.”
Leonie laughed. She looked along the table at the other girls, wondering which one of them would be Lady Harriet Venn. “Is Lady Harriet - our other roommate - here?” she asked.
Mai started choking on her sandwich and her sandwich and Figgy had to slap her on the back, causing people to notice. One of them was a girl with wavy dark hair and a kind of pretty-but-bitchy look going on. She seemed to regard Mai more with contempt than concern, staring over and clearly giving her the evil eye.
Pouring a glass of water for Mai, Leonie asked her if she was okay.
By now recovered, Mai grinned. “Fine. It’s just that no one ever calls her that. You’ll see why. I just found it really funny, particularly with your accent.”
“Harry’s very down to earth,” Figgy said. “She’ll probably be at some lacrosse team thing. They’re all so mad keen having not played all holiday that they start straight away.”
Leonie had never played lacrosse and wasn’t entirely sure what it was. “So what do you do for fun around here? Is there a boys’ school nearby?”
“Nowhere near. I can promise you that there isn’t a single cute guy in a fifty mile radius,” Mai said, stirring sugar into yet another cup of tea.
“I saw one earlier. I guess he was someone’s brother?” Leonie asked. But the others had no idea who the mystery blue-eyed guy might be.
Leonie kept replaying the way his eyes had met her over and over again. And then the terrible moment when he’d seen her teddy bear. Even if she did find out who his sister was, she’d probably blown it. Who would be interested in a girl who still needed a big furry teddy bear guarding her bed?