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Forbidden French
Author: R.S. Grey

 


Part One

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Lainey

 

 

I shouldn’t be here, deep in the woods that surround St. John’s Boarding School. This land is owned by the school, but only the southern half of it is open to the public. Students and locals can enjoy the neat walking trails and historical markers. Wooden benches and worn logs make for easy rest stops. The northern half of the forest is closed, though. It’s meant to be a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife. Left alone, nature reigns.

I passed a No Trespassing sign a mile back. Thickets and brambles and overgrown vines block my way as I try to find the path the others have taken. I’m not confident I’m going in the right direction. In fact, I’m more than a little worried I’m wandering aimlessly into the woods never to be seen or heard from again.

A thick spiderweb grabs ahold of me and a shiver of disgust rolls down my spine. I leap and flail my arms like a fool, glad no one can see me trying to fling off the sticky wisps. I heave a deep breath, trying to compose myself. I’m letting the woods get to me. The darkness is hard to get used to. I’m using my phone’s flashlight but have it pressed to my chest, trying to dampen the beam and stay in the shadows.

Another few steps and I see it now, the blades of grass and shrubs worn down from foot traffic over the years. Either the school’s administrators don’t care or they can do nothing to stop the select few St. John’s students who wander wherever they please.

Here, the woods are quiet, but not silent. Peals of laughter and conversation lure me deeper, past where my good sense tells me to stop and turn back.

I see their campfire before I hear it. The burning logs whistle and hiss, crackle and split, sending sparks up into the night. A dozen people sit in ceremony around the fire, some on chairs or fallen logs, a few splayed out on blankets on the ground.

I’m careful as I continue to approach them. I don’t have an exact goal. I think I just wanted to see it for myself: the infamous group in action. Why do they come out here? Why’s it worth the trouble?

I don’t want to be caught. It’s safer if I hover on the periphery, watch for a fleeting moment, and then dash back to the safety of the paved road that leads to the heart of campus.

I slow my pace, edge closer, half concealing myself behind a beech tree.

I’m shaking like a leaf. Worse than the idea of being caught as a loser, arriving at a party I’ve not been invited to, is the sensation of being a witness to a crime. They shouldn’t be here, and I’m privy to that now. What would they do if they caught me lurking like a voyeur?

My imagination is getting the better of me. All the stories I read are winding together in my head, mischievous pirates and spell-casting magicians. It’s like I really expect them to capture me, withdraw a sharp blade, and start performing some sort of blood ritual. Sacrifice the virgin. This group would love to conjure up the wicked—a role they know so well themselves.

My interest stems mainly from the secrecy. Like everything on this campus, any organization worth participating in is exclusive and elitist. Sure, there are the sanctioned school clubs and sports, but placement in this group is predestined.

The upperclassmen at St. John’s are something else entirely. A band of brothers—no, a band of bluebloods so tightknit they’d never break ranks.

I press my hands to the bark and lean against the tree, edging closer as I scan the scene. I only stop when I spot him. He’s across the circle from me, the furthest from where I stand. My stomach squeezes tight, and after a good long look, I continue taking attendance, convincing myself I’m here for everyone, not just him. But who am I kidding?

My fingernails dig into the bark as my gaze drifts back to him, prepared for one more self-indulgent glance.

Except when I look again, he’s spotted me.

Fight or flight.

Now.

Neither.

I’m completely frozen, pulse pounding in my neck, in my stomach, in my hands as they shake against the tree.

He’s the only one who’s seen me, and I wait for him to call attention to my presence, to inform the rest of the group that there’s an outsider among them.

My muscles tense as I hold still, barely breathing as he watches me lazily. A few more seconds pass, and I’m forced to breathe deeply, knowing it’ll have to sustain me if I should need to turn and run.

I’m braced for him to lean forward and wave his hand, halt the conversation, and end this little game we’re playing.

But he doesn’t say a word.

Emmett Mercier, the crown prince of St. John’s Boarding School.

His short, disheveled, soft curls almost look sweet compared to the rest of him. He has a straight, aristocratic nose and dark, furrowed eyebrows. Clustered black lashes frame blacker eyes. Leaned back like he is, it’s his sharp jawline that taunts me as he closes his lips around a cigarette. No, a joint, I think, though I can’t be certain—I’ve never seen one in real life. He inhales, and my breath arrests until he slowly releases a practiced exhale. He doesn’t take his eyes off me through the rising haze of smoke. They rove over my dress and down my bare legs to the strappy sandals I picked from the back of my closet before the dance. Without him uttering a single word, I feel lacking. With one glance, he’s managed to pull at my stray threads and unwind me.

It bothers me how handsome he is. There’s an unfairness to looking like a fully formed adult while the rest of us still toddle around with our gangly limbs and soft cheeks, me especially. I’m so much younger than him, a child in his eyes.

He reclines in black dress pants and a crisp white shirt—his clothes from the dance. He’s undone the top few buttons and rolled up his sleeves. His black suspenders slide over his broad shoulders. I wonder who his date was. Any of these girls would be a perfect fit. Francesca, Marielle, Collette—they’re not just pretty faces. Good looks aren’t enough at St. John’s. Take Francesca, for example: not only is she stunning and at the top of her class, she’s also a budding documentary filmmaker. She took off four weeks last semester to capture footage of the humanitarian disaster in Haiti that followed after a devastating earthquake.

Of course, there’s the possibility that he didn’t go to the dance with any of them.

That idea is so much more appealing, and my heart runs wild with hope.

Then someone in the circle speaks up. The voice is booming and cheesy, a fake Shakespearean drawl.

“Behold little Lainey Davenport. Bow, peasants.”

My stomach plummets.

So I was wrong. He wasn’t the only one who noticed me lurking here.

They all did.

It was all a game. It always is with them.

“Well don’t just stand there like a freak,” Marielle says, waving me forward before taking the joint out of Emmett’s hand. “Stop staring at us and say something.”

I take a half-step out from behind the tree, but I don’t move any closer. I know better.

They all sit there, staring and judging me, in their heads and out loud.

“You know, everyone calls you a ghost, but I don’t see it. You’re everything a little princess should be,” Francesca notes, looking down her nose at me.

“Full of sweet innocence,” Marielle agrees mockingly.

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