cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Lulu Taylor

Title Page

Dedication

Prologue

Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Part 2

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Part 3

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Part 4: Four Years Later

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Part 5

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Book

From the prestigious dormitories of Westfield to the irresistible socialite scene of present-day London: everywhere Allegra McCorquodale goes, scandal follows her. And in Allegra’s shadow are her closest friends since school, the Midnight Girls.

Romily de Lisle: super rich, brilliant and bored. She’s as blessed as Allegra when it comes to looks, but she’s a force to be reckoned with. And Imogen Heath: pretty, timid and hopelessly drawn to Allegra’s reckless charm. She longs to be a part of the glitzy high-society world where her friends move with such ease.

Once free of the cloistered worlds of school and university, the Midnight Girls face new and different challenges, but they are for ever bonded by a terrible secret they’ve sworn never to break.

Bitter rivalries arise as their professional lives soon cross paths. Greed, tragedy and sinister passions threaten their allegiance and each of them stand to lose what they love most…

About the Author

Lulu Taylor was brought up in the English countryside, educated at Oxford University, and has lived all over the world. Her novels, Heiresses and Midnight Girls, are sexy, dramatic and enthralling depictions of modern high society. She is married and lives in London.

Also by Lulu Taylor

Heiresses

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To Emily Hamilton
The most glamorous girl in any room

Prologue

London
2009

The car drew to a halt in front of the most glamorous nightclub in London.

The uniformed doorman, accustomed to expensive vehicles stopping beside the discreet entrance, stepped forward and opened the door. A slim foot in a champagne-satin stiletto emerged, followed by a young woman with a pale cashmere cloak wrapped tightly around her oyster satin ruched dress. Her hair was pulled back into a glossy chignon and, despite the late hour, she was wearing a large pair of sunglasses.

The doorman shut the car door. As the vehicle glided away, she paused on the pavement at the entrance to the covered stairway leading down to the club. Then, pulling her cloak a little tighter, she descended swiftly, turned to the left and entered a long hallway.

‘Madam.’ A man in a suit standing close to the entrance stepped forward. He glanced at her face. ‘Are you with a member?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘Mr White.’

‘Ah yes. Mr White is in the bar …’

Without waiting to hear more, she walked past him, poised and confident despite her high heels. The bar was crammed with well-dressed men and beautiful women, sipping cocktails or champagne or spirits, sitting on bar stools, leaning against the bar counter and the walls, perched on the low sills between the vaulted arches or on the velvet banquettes and comfortable little chairs in the sitting area. Scanning the room through her dark glasses, she still didn’t find the person she was looking for. She made her way through the crush to the dimly lit dining room.

‘May I help you, madam?’ asked the maître d’, smart in his dark suit, standing at his lectern with the reservation book before him.

‘Mr White,’ she said crisply. ‘He’s expecting me. Does he have a table?’

The maître d’ consulted his book and then said with the faintest tone of surprise, ‘He has the private room. Please, this way.’

He led her through the velvety darkness of the dining room, where the tables were illuminated only by candles in Venetian glass holders, and over to the right, through a door and up a small staircase to another door. He knocked.

‘Come in,’ said a deep voice from within.

‘Your guest, Mr White,’ said the maître d’, standing back to allow the woman to enter the room. She walked past him with slow, sure steps.

Mr White stood up.

‘Are there any more guests I should be expecting, sir?’

‘No. No, thank you.’

This time, the maître d’ remembered his training and did not show any surprise at there being only two guests in a room designed for thirty. ‘Very well, sir. I shall send up a waiter directly.’

‘Give us fifteen minutes, please, Gennaro. We have business to discuss.’

The moment the door closed behind him, the woman took off her dark glasses and cashmere wrap and let them fall to the floor. Then she moved quickly towards Mr White, who pulled her into his arms, sinking his mouth on hers in a passionate kiss.

After a moment, she pulled away, her eyes sparkling, and said, ‘This is very dangerous. Are you sure we won’t be seen?’

‘They’re not here. I’m certain of it. No one knows who we are.’

She laughed softly and they kissed again, more slowly and tenderly. This time, when they came apart, she sighed happily. ‘You’re here.’

‘Of course. What did you expect?’ He reached out and took her hand, and they sat down together at the table. He gazed at her yearningly in the soft candlelight. ‘You’re more beautiful than ever. Where did we last meet? Milan?’

‘Yes, Milan. It’s been so long,’ she said, stroking his hand.

‘Oh my God, too long! I’ve been burning up for you, I’ve hardly been able to stand it.’

‘How much longer will we have to go on like this? Only seeing each other in secret.’

‘Until we’ve done what we need to do. I promise the wait will be worth it.’

She looked around at the room. ‘This is my first time in here, can you believe it? After all these years. Will it really belong to us?

‘In time, it will – I guarantee it. Every last napkin, sweetheart.’

She laughed with delight. ‘I can’t wait. But I’ll be patient, I promise. Six months, a year – how ever long is necessary. And, you know, I’m getting rather fond of our clandestine meetings,’ she purred, stroking a finger down his cheek. ‘Aren’t you?’

‘I love it, you know that. I love this –’ he cupped one hand around the soft satin that encased her breast – ‘and this.’ He ran his hand down her thigh. ‘But I want you all the time.’ He pressed his mouth against hers again and she opened her lips to him, savouring the exquisite sensation of his tongue exploring her. He pulled away with a moan. ‘My God! You’re driving me wild …’ Then he took possession of her mouth once more, moving his hands up and down her body, heedless of the extremely expensive gown she was wearing. When he pushed the satin ruching down to release her breasts and took a small rosebud nipple in his mouth, she sighed with pleasure and whispered, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful … don’t stop, don’t stop, my darling … I want more. I want everything you can give me.’

They made an odd couple as they burst, giggling, into the dark, dusty, plastic-hung foyer of the half-built hotel. He was a young workman in a T-shirt and grimy jeans, his hair streaked with dust from a day on the site. She was a beauty, fine-boned, with a mass of thick hair twisted up in a lazy arrangement at the back of her head, and expensively dressed in a black boat-necked jersey dress and black stilettos that laced up to her ankle.

‘Are you sure this is all right?’ asked the girl breathlessly.

‘Yeah. My boss won’t find out. Probably wouldn’t care if he did,’ declared the workman with a touch of bravado.

They stood still for a moment and looked at each other, suddenly aware that they were complete strangers who had met only an hour earlier in the nearby pub. Then the girl reached for him, hungrily pulling him to her, not caring about his dirty clothes against her costly black dress. He didn’t resist – she was easily the most gorgeous creature he’d ever seen and he hadn’t been able to believe his luck when she’d flirted so blatantly with him. Now she was all over him, kissing him wildly and running her hands under his T-shirt and over his torso.

‘Right here,’ she begged him, possessed with desperate desire. ‘Right here on the floor. Now. Please …’

The physical sensations she was igniting in him were so overwhelming that he could barely think straight, but he managed to lead her to a plastic-swathed sofa where they could sink down together. The girl moaned and cried, imploring him to kiss her, to touch her, to fuck her. He rolled up her short black dress to discover that she was wearing no underwear and she wrapped her long legs around him, pulling open his grimy work jeans to release his bulging cock, urging him to push it into her with no heed for the consequences. Unable to resist, he entered her soft dark warmth, gasping with pleasure as she dug her nails into his back and forced him deep inside. The pints he had drunk slowed him down a little, but he was soon in the grip of the fierce ride to his climax, pounding into her while she shouted and cried out, begging him for more.

‘Oh … shite!’ he yelled, as his orgasm burst out of him, and he collapsed on top of her, panting hard.

Barely a moment later, she was wriggling out from underneath him, pulling a tissue from her purse to mop away his spending, standing up and straightening her dress. He was still dazed by the whole experience as she looked down at him. There was a strange expression in her eyes: gratitude mixed with something else. Was it … sadness?

‘Thanks, darling, that was heavenly,’ she said in her low, musical voice with its perfectly rounded vowels.

‘No, thank you,’ he said with a lazy smile. ‘I’ve never enjoyed coming into work so much.’

‘Coming being the operative word.’ She flashed him a smile. ‘’Bye.’

And she scooped up her bag, ran a hand over her hair and walked casually away, disappearing into the night as quickly and mysteriously as she had arrived.

*

Only a mile away, in a hot Camden nightclub, a young man was watching a girl dancing. She was tossing her head with abandon, moving her arms and swinging her hips in time to the music, showing off her ripe curves and full breasts to their best advantage in an electric blue body-con dress.

He was drawn not just to her feminine shape, but to the energy and vigour that emanated from her: it was obvious that she wanted to be free, to dance, to feel alive. Her life force was irresistible. He made his way across the dance floor towards her, pushing his way through writhing bodies. The girl he was watching sang as she danced, smiling with pleasure as she moved sinuously to the beat.

When he reached her she was oblivious, continuing to dance alone. Then she opened her eyes and saw him. For a moment she carried on smiling, gazing at him as though sharing her joy with him, then she came to a sudden halt, frozen on the dance floor, her eyes wide. She blinked. She mouthed a single word. He couldn’t hear it against the noise of the music, but he could see clearly what she had said. ‘You.’

He smiled at her, nodding slowly. Then he took her hand, leant forward, put his other hand behind her head and pulled her to him, pressing his mouth to hers.

She was too astonished to resist and then, as she appeared to realise what was happening, she relaxed under his touch and began to kiss him back. At first, their kiss was almost unbearably tender: slow, gentle and beautiful. Then it grew more passionate as they both felt the spark between them ignite into flame.

The man felt a tap on his back. He pulled out of the kiss and looked round. Someone yelled, ‘Oi, get a room, mate!’ though their voice was almost lost in the music.

He turned back to the girl. Her eyes were shining now, her hands clutching his. He raised his eyebrows at her and cocked his head towards the door. She nodded eagerly and a moment later they were making their way through the crowd, her hand held tight in his so he couldn’t lose her.

Outside the club, they stood on the pavement, taking no notice of the people milling about them.

‘It’s been a long time,’ the man said, smiling at her.

‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ she said breathlessly. ‘What are you doing here?’

He said slowly, ‘I guess I was supposed to find you … I always had a feeling I would, you know.’ Then he kissed her again, wrapping her tightly in his arms as though he was worried she would float away if he let go.

PART 1

Chapter 1

Westfield Boarding School for Girls
May 2000

‘WE REALLY HAVE to do something about that awful cow,’ declared Allegra.

She sucked hard on her Marlboro Light and puffed the smoke out of the open attic window and into the warm spring night beyond.

The previous term Allegra had discovered the caretaker had the key to the attics and, with her fearless charm, had persuaded him to lend it to her, then had it copied and returned it. ‘Now we’ve got our very own headquarters. Isn’t it brilliant?’ she’d said proudly. She’d insisted that they make the most of the unlimited access to their secret place, and almost every night led the expedition out of the dorms and up into the filthy attic with its mountain of junk – broken chairs, trunks, shabby old desks and boxes – where they could indulge in their favourite vice in private. ‘We won’t be able to do this next year when we move into the sixth-form boarding house,’ she’d said, ‘so we have to make the most of it while we can.’

Now she looked over at the other two. ‘I mean it, she’s totally doing my head in at the moment.’

Imogen knew exactly who was meant. She blew out a stream of smoke, pleased with the nonchalant ease with which she did it. No one would guess she’d only been smoking for a few months and that, the first time she’d tried it, she’d been violently sick. She seemed just as cool as the others now. ‘But what on earth can we do?’ she said.

Romily looked blank. ‘What are you talking about?’ she asked as she pulled a packet of Gauloises out of her pyjama pocket.

‘I can’t believe you smoke those things,’ Imogen said, shaking her head. ‘They’re so strong! They make me feel queasy even when they’re not lit.’

‘I can’t believe you waste your time on those,’ Romily said, gesturing at Imogen’s cigarette. ‘They taste of nothing. You might as well not bother lighting them and just breathe in.’

‘They’ll do me fine, thanks very much. They’re better for you anyway,’ Imogen replied. She held out the white and gold packet. ‘Lights, see?’

Romily snorted. ‘If you believe that, you’ll believe anything! I’ve heard there’s fibreglass in the filters that goes straight into your lungs and cuts them to shreds. Give me an honest French brand any time.’

Allegra frowned. ‘Aren’t we getting a bit off the subject? I was talking about Sophie Harcourt.’

‘Ah.’ Romily took out a lighter, clicked it into life and sucked at her Gauloise, the strands of tobacco and cigarette paper flaring orange. She exhaled a long plume of smoke. ‘That’s better! I needed that. So … what’s La Harcourt done now?’

Romily hadn’t been in the lesson to witness the event; she had no need of French tuition and was allowed to do other revision while the others rehearsed their verbs, tenses and vocab ahead of the exams.

Allegra made a face and crossed one long slim leg over the other. She was sitting on an old box in her night clothes of flowered cotton shorts and a blue T-shirt, her cigarette clamped between her fingers. ‘She threw ink-covered blobs of tissue at me on her ruler. You saw it, didn’t you, Midge?’

‘Yeah.’ Imogen took a puff on her cigarette, which she held exactly as Allegra did hers. ‘She tried to pretend it wasn’t her, but I saw her giggling with Arabella Balmer.’

‘I hate her,’ spat Allegra. ‘She covered my shirt with ink splats, and it won’t come out. It’s the one I got at Camden Market too. She knows how cool it is … that’s why she wanted to wreck it.’

‘She’s so jealous,’ Imogen declared, a little pleased that someone like Sophie felt that way about them.

Romily nodded. ‘She hates the fact that we aren’t frightened of her like everyone else is.’

Sophie Harcourt was a powerful force in the fifth form; her wit and forceful personality made her popular, but her ability to turn her gimlet gaze on some poor unfortunate and ruin their life also made her feared. She had a talent for finding the weak spot in others and then teasing and mocking and bullying them until their life became a misery. As a result, everyone tried to keep on her good side or else well out of her way. Except for Allegra’s little group of three.

‘I don’t know why she doesn’t just leave us alone!’ Allegra said, frowning into the night beyond the attic window. ‘What is there to be so jealous about anyway?’

Imogen knew the answer to that: Allegra couldn’t help drawing all eyes to her, wherever she was and whatever she did. She was very naughty, constantly breaking rules and playing tricks – she had once been suspended for a fortnight for organising the biggest food fight the school had ever seen – but her naughtiness was without the personal malice of Sophie Harcourt’s, and everyone loved her for it. Except the teaching staff, of course. But even when she was behaving herself, no one could ignore her for long. Charisma seemed to shimmer out of her, partly because of her beauty – fine-boned features with porcelain-and-gold skin, navy-blue eyes, thick blonde hair, and a slender, graceful figure – and partly because of the incredible air of self-confidence that enveloped her. It was as though she knew she mattered, and took it for granted that everyone thought the same. It armoured her impenetrably against Sophie and her cohorts. And then there was the title …

‘She’s jealous now that you’re Lady Allegra,’ Imogen said wisely. ‘Ever since she found out, she’s been ten times worse than usual.’

Allegra sighed. ‘Bother that bloody title! I wish I’d never got it. Everyone’s been different with me since Grandpa died, even Miss Myers. She told me the other day that ladies didn’t run in the corridors and that I had to set an example to the rest of the school. What bloody nonsense.’

Imogen nodded sympathetically, but in her heart she thought that having a title must be wonderful – so romantic, so old-fashioned, so pretty. When Allegra’s grandfather had died, her father had succeeded to the earldom and Allegra had automatically gone from The Hon. Allegra McCorquodale (and no one cared about that, there were plenty of hons kicking about the school) to Lady Allegra, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Crachmore, sounding like the heroine of a Walter Scott novel. Suddenly, she was someone of importance and it had put certain noses out of joint.

‘Sophie loathes us all, for different reasons,’ Imogen said, taking another delicate puff of her cigarette. ‘She hates the way I beat her in everything, especially English. And she’s green about Romily’s money.’

Romily nodded, tapping her ash into a jar lid kept handy for the purpose. ‘I saw her listening in when I was telling you all about Paris, and she had a face like thunder. And I swear she was trying to get my pink cashmere jumper out of my bag the other day.’

‘See?’ Imogen spread out her hands. It was perfectly obvious to her. ‘She feels threatened by us, and by our club. She can’t rule over us like she does everyone else.’

‘I wish she’d leave me alone,’ Allegra grumbled. ‘If she doesn’t, she’ll be sorry.’

Imogen knew that Allegra was too strong-willed to let Sophie victimise her, and was sure that Sophie would be making a bad mistake if she tried to take any of them on. But lately there had been some minor skirmishes – such as the inky missiles fired in French – and there was a feeling in the air that a big battle was not far off.

There was a loud bang from down below in the dormitories at that moment and the girls all froze, staring at each other with frightened eyes. Imogen’s stomach plummeted with a sickening swoop, and her hands began to tremble. ‘What was that?’ she whispered, her heart racing.

They were breaking some of the strictest of school rules: they were out of bounds, at a time when they were forbidden to be out of their cubicles, and they were smoking. Any one of these was an offence worthy of expulsion; taken together, they would mean instant dismissal.

They all listened a moment more, Romily with her Gauloise poised ready to be stubbed out on the jam-jar lid.

‘Oh,’ Allegra said finally, relaxing, ‘it was nothing. An old pipe banging or something. You know what this place is like.’

It’s all right for you, Imogen thought, her heart still pounding. Allegra seemed cool and unfazed by the terrible risks they were taking, but then, her parents didn’t give a damn what she did and wouldn’t even care if she was sent away from Westfield in disgrace. Romily’s family would no doubt consider the school rules very petty and bourgeois, and simply find an even grander school for her. But Imogen could hardly bear to think of her own parents’ disappointment if she spoiled this chance for herself. She could see her mother’s face now, and the look in her eyes if she discovered that Imogen had forfeited her precious and hard-won education for the sake of a stolen cigarette in the night.

Please don’t let us be caught, she prayed. She knew how dangerous their nocturnal activities were but couldn’t resist them or bear not to be included, even when she risked expulsion. They were a special club after all, with Allegra as their leader, and they did everything together. Allegra had dubbed them the Midnight Girls, because that was when they made their secret treks to the attic, and it made them sound even more special, like a pop group or something. She had led them into all sorts of trouble, from adorning the statue of their founder, Dame Mary Westfield, with a particularly enormous bra and comedy straw hat, to the instigation of the great sock rebellion of the previous year when all girls began to wear forbidden colours of sock and, worse still, around their ankles instead of pulled up to the knee. But this was by far the most serious of her pranks, and every time they made the trek to the attic Imogen was filled with fluttering nerves, though she did her best to hide it.

‘Come on,’ Allegra said, stubbing out her cigarette end, tossing it through the open window on to the roof and then pulling the window shut. ‘We’d better get back to bed.’

The other two disposed of their cigarette ends and got up to make their way back to the dormitory.

Thank goodness for that, Imogen thought, relief beginning to creep through her. Another Midnight Girls meeting over and safely done. I’ll be glad to be back in bed.

She happily followed Allegra down the attic stairs, padding softly after her, with Romily behind. When they reached the bottom Allegra pushed at the door. When it was still only open a crack, she gasped and stepped back, pulling it shut again.

‘Fucking hell,’ she whispered, looking round at the other two with wide, fearful eyes. ‘I just saw Sophie Harcourt walking down the corridor towards us.’

Imogen supported herself against the wall, feeling her knees weaken under her. Her heart started pounding again, and her breathing quickened. Behind her, she heard Romily gasp with fright. If Sophie caught them, they would be reported to Myers before morning and probably expelled by the following lunchtime. Oh, God, I knew something like this was going to happen! Why the hell have we been so stupid? Imogen asked herself.

‘What is she doing?’ murmured Allegra under her breath. They waited, trembling, for three long minutes before Allegra finally said, ‘She must have gone.’

‘Be careful!’ hissed Romily as Allegra slowly opened the door again.

‘Is anyone there?’ asked Imogen, her voice high and breathy with fright.

Allegra poked her head round the door and looked up and down the corridor. ‘She’s gone.’

‘Are you sure it was her?’ Romily asked as they crept out of the attic.

‘Of course I am.’ Allegra frowned and looked back down the corridor away from their dormitory. ‘But where was she going?’

‘Who cares?’ Imogen whispered, desperate to get back to the safety of her cubie. ‘Let’s just get back to bed, for God’s sake. If she’s up and about she may disturb Myers, and then we’ll all be caught.’

‘She was heading towards Kat’s,’ muttered Allegra. ‘Perhaps she’s meeting someone there.’

The dormitories were named after saints, perhaps to inspire their occupants towards a life of purity and obedience. Allegra, Romily and Imogen were in St Helen’s, known as Hell’s. Down the corridor was Kat’s, from St Katharine’s. In the other wing of the school were Mag’s and Ag’s, after St Margaret and St Agnes.

‘I’m going to take a look,’ Allegra said determinedly.

‘No!’ exclaimed Imogen in a fierce whisper. ‘We’ve got to get back!’

‘But don’t you see? If Sophie’s up to something, we ought to know about it. That way we’ve got our ammunition ready if she finds out about us. She may already know.’ Allegra shot the other two a determined look. ‘Go back if you want to. I don’t care.’

Imogen looked at Romily and saw her own fright and anxiety reflected in the other girl’s eyes. She reached out involuntarily and clutched her friend’s arm, her hand chilly on Romily’s bare flesh.

Allegra ran lightly on tiptoe down the dark corridor towards Kat’s.

‘What shall we do?’ Romily said quietly.

‘We can’t just stand here.’ Imogen looked up and down the passageway, eerie in the darkness and without the usual scramble of rushing girls. She knew that she couldn’t bear just waiting for whatever it was to happen – whether it was Sophie returning from her mysterious errand or Myers appearing in the corridor, wearing her night-time hairnet and with her hideous towelling robe tied tightly round her barrel-like stomach. ‘Come on, let’s go after Allegra.’ She walked lightly down the hall, keeping to the shadows as though they might somehow protect her, while Romily followed behind.

They turned the corner and saw that Allegra had already opened the door to Kat’s and disappeared into the darkness. Imogen gave a tiny gasp. This was getting stupidly dangerous. They were familiar with the routines of their own house mistress but they knew nothing about Miss Jennings, who guarded Kat’s. She might be in the habit of striding about the dorms at night, making sure that all was well and that none of her charges was up and about when they were supposed to be asleep.

Romily and Imogen reached the open door and glanced at each other, worried and pale. Then Allegra loomed out of the darkness, looking shocked and yet gleeful.

‘Oh my God,’ she whispered, ‘look at this! Be very quiet. Silent as the grave.’

She led them through the doorway and into the blackness of the corridor beyond. All the boarding houses were laid out the same way: dormitory bedrooms divided up into cubicles on one side, and the house mistress’s room, a common room and other amenities on the other. Kat’s common room was in the same position as Hell’s, looking oddly familiar and yet strange at the same time. Allegra stopped at the doorway to it. She glanced round at the other two and held her finger up to her mouth to indicate absolute silence was required.

Imogen peered into the darkness. She could hear a curious rustling noise, and then the sound of heavy breathing and some short, high gasps. What was it? she wondered. Her eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness and she could make out that two figures were lying together on the common-room sofa. Like Hell’s, it was long and large, big enough for about eight girls to sit comfortably when they were watching television. The figures were intertwined and furiously active.

It took a few more seconds for Imogen to register what she was seeing, but then she knew without a doubt. Her mouth dropped open and she felt a strange mixture of embarrassment, disbelief and a kind of excitement. There was Sophie Harcourt, lying half-naked on the Kat’s sofa, wrapped in the arms of Martha Young, and they were snogging furiously. Martha was wearing only a pair of knickers. One of her long legs was tucked over Sophie’s hips, and one of her hands was thrust down Sophie’s pyjama bottoms where it seemed to be moving. Her naked chest was pressed against Sophie’s.

Of course the girls thought and talked about sex all the time but the whole place was boy-mad. Everyone seemed to be pining away for some pop star or film actor, or else a boy they had met through friends or family. Every girl was desperate to be kissed, to move to first base and beyond. They were sex crazy – but, without exception, opposite-sex crazy. No one talked about any other kind of activity, as though it didn’t exist, and other girls were appraised only on their relative attractions for men.

Imogen’s heart started racing and she jumped back into the corridor, pressing her hand to her mouth. She knew that she should not be witnessing whatever it was she had seen: it was deeply intimate and private. She felt immediately tainted and dirty, as though she was a voyeur, preferring to watch other people rather than do anything herself. But she could also feel a fizzing, treacherously sweet excitement, filling her belly and making her almost uncomfortably aware of herself. Whatever Sophie was feeling now, she, Imogen, had never felt anything like this, having just had a glimpse of what awaited her, perhaps not with another girl but with someone, sometime in the future. It looked terrifying and tempting at the same time: could she really abandon herself as Sophie was doing? Could sex really do that to you? Could it really create the pleasure that Sophie seemed to be feeling?

‘Let’s go,’ she whispered to the other two. Romily looked pale and frightened, half horrified, while Allegra’s eyes were dancing and she was grinning widely.

There was no argument. The other two followed her quickly as Imogen led the way swiftly out of Kat’s and back to the safety of their own dormitory. They didn’t speak again as they made their way to their separate cubicles.

Imogen lay in her bed, staring into the darkness, unable to shake the image from her mind: all she could see was Sophie, pushing herself into Martha’s embrace, thrusting her tongue into Martha’s mouth, and Martha’s hand at its mysterious work inside Sophie’s pyjama bottoms.

‘Oh, God,’ she murmured to herself, hardly able to believe she was thinking it. ‘Poor Sophie. Poor, poor Sophie.’

Chapter 2

Stanley’s Restaurant
West Coast of America
2000

MITCH BENT OVER his paperwork, laboriously filling in the answers to his homework. It didn’t come naturally to him, all this writing, and it wasn’t what he’d come into the catering industry for. He’d come because he wanted to cook, do things with his hands, taste things with his mouth, and make things he could see and feel. But he also knew that he needed an education to get on, so he was taking a night course in business and accounting at the local college. It was hard for him, especially when the only quiet time he had to study was after his late shift finished, at one o’clock in the morning, when he ought to be getting to bed, considering it was a six a.m. start the next day. But his blood was buzzing from service now even though the next day he’d be pole-axed with exhaustion, fit only for making stocks and prepping for at least four hours, with a break before the evening shift started all over again.

So here he was, still in his chef’s trousers – baggy black pants that didn’t show the spills – sitting in his boss’s office at the desk under the chipped aluminium lamp, making himself think about profits and percentages, and keeping going with the aid of Diet Coke.

A noise made him look up. In the doorway stood a woman wearing tiny denim cut-offs and a little pink T-shirt that strained tight across her large breasts. She shook out her canary-yellow curls, ran her tongue over her lips and said breathily, ‘Hi, Mitch. How ya doin’?’

Mitch felt apprehension creep along his veins. ‘Hi there, Jo-Lynn. Where’s Stanley? He here?’

She shook her head. ‘Uh-uh. I’ve come on my own.’

Ah, Christ. I’ve been expecting something like this. Mitch had been noticing lately that his boss’s wife was taking an interest in him, and he’d been doing his best to deflect it. Jo-Lynn was an attractive woman, there was no denying that. Those long brown legs that she showed off so nicely in her little shorts were enough to give him a hard-on on their own, let alone those tits of hers, but he knew better. Stanley would not take kindly to the prospect of his pretty young wife being boffed by his sous-chef, and he was a large man with a meaty pair of fists on him. So Mitch had taken to keeping out of Mrs Baker’s way whenever she sashayed into the kitchen.

‘Actually,’ Jo-Lynn went on, ‘he’s asleep.’

Mitch just stared at her.

‘Pretty sound asleep, if you wanna know. I crushed up a couple of my sleeping pills in his Bourbon. I don’t think he’ll be stirring till morning.’

Mitch put down his pen, feeling uncomfortable. A nervous sweat was breaking out on his upper lip. ‘Why’d you do that?’

She looked at him coyly, acting a little shy and girlish. ‘Oh, you know … so that I could have some time on my own. A little bit of peace and quiet. You know what Stanley’s like. He ain’t easy. Sometimes I need …’ she sighed softly and smiled at him, lowering her lashes ‘… some relaxation.’

Mitch nearly jumped up in fright. ‘OK! Er … er …’ he stuttered. ‘Well … I …’

Jo-Lynn giggled. She advanced into the room, pushing out her ample bosom and giving him a look of burning lust from her china-blue, baby-doll eyes. ‘You’re so cute,’ she purred. ‘D’you know that? I love those brown eyes of yours and those muscles … how did you get ’em? You work out or something? You don’t get those slaving in a kitchen, or Stanley would be Mr fuckin’ Universe.’ She perched on the edge of the desk, gazing down at him. ‘I’m sure we could have lots of fun together.’ Leaning forward, she licked her lips again and whispered, ‘Stanley doesn’t have to know about it.’

‘Jo-Lynn …’ He tried to sound masterful instead of frightened but knew he was out of his depth with this temptress, who was not at all like the girls he remembered in high school or the waitresses in the diners he’d worked in.

‘How old are ya, Mitch?’

He put his pen down. I guess I’m not going to get much more work done. ‘I’m twenty-four.’

She smiled. ‘Huh! You look younger, honey. But I don’t mind.’ She leant forward again, showing him the vast lane of cleavage that ran between her breasts. ‘I like ’em young. Plenty of energy.’ An expression of distaste passed over her face. ‘Not like Stanley. He’s got nothing left. Not that he had much to start with.’

Curiosity overcame Mitch’s anxiety. He’d often wondered why a pretty thing like Jo-Lynn was married to an overweight, balding, sweating, two-bit chef like Stanley. ‘So, why do you stay with him?’

She gazed down at the desk then flicked her eyes back towards him, sadness in their blue depths. ‘It’s not like I got so many options, you know? I needed Stanley to get out of my home town and away from my piece-of-crap family. But I want something else … Stanley says you’re good, really good. You’re the best cook in the place, and the smartest. He thinks you can go far.’

‘Really?’ Mitch couldn’t help the pleasure welling up in him when he heard this. Stanley might be a shitty boss, but his praise was worth having. He thought Mitch might be able to cut it on his own – that meant something. After flunking high school he’d worked in cheap eating joints, flipping burgers and dipping fries in boiling oil, until he’d suddenly realised that maybe he’d found his way out. He’d begun to wonder if cooking – real cooking – was what he could do with his life, and if it could lead him somewhere else, into business perhaps, where he could really make his mark … It had taken him six years already but he’d worked his way up into a proper restaurant, and he was sure he could go further if he only applied himself.

Jo-Lynn nodded. ‘So how about it, Mitch? You and me? Right here?’ She cast a longing look at his groin.

‘No … no way, Jo-Lynn, I can’t do it …’

Her face hardened. ‘I hope you’re not gonna make a fool of me, Mitch,’ she said, a note of warning in her voice. ‘I’ve gone to a lot of trouble for this, you know.’

‘’Course not. But it’s more than my job’s worth, you know that.’ He tried to sound jokey and nonchalant.

‘You might find it’s more than your job’s worth not to.’ She dropped her chin coquettishly on to her shoulder. ‘If you’re not nice to me, I can always tell Stanley that you came on to me, made a pass at me …’

He was shocked. ‘You’d really do that, Jo-Lynn?’

‘Sure.’ Her blue eyes were suddenly flinty. ‘If you don’t play ball. Now, why don’t you bring that handsome face of yours round here and kiss me?’

Mitch floundered. He couldn’t believe he was turning down a gorgeous woman who was sitting there, inviting him to fuck her, but he couldn’t do it. For one thing, she was terrifying the life out of him. And whatever she said, it was just too risky. If he gave in once, he was sure she’d come back for more – she was the type to enjoy the thrill of the illicit. She’d make him do whatever she wanted, and eventually Stanley would find out anyway. ‘I’m sorry, I really am, but … I gotta study. I gotta do my homework.’

‘What are ya? Some school kid? Don’t fuck me around, Mitch, I’m warning you.’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t do it. I’m sorry.’

Her face turned stony. ‘No one turns me down. No one. You’re gonna regret it, Mitch. I promise you that.’ She slid off the desk, turned her pert rear into his eye line, and looked over her shoulder at him. ‘You better think of some other town you’d like to work in, honey, ’cos you ain’t gonna be here much longer.’

Chapter 3

Westfield Boarding School for Girls
2000

THE MIDNIGHT GIRLS didn’t meet for a week after they discovered Sophie Harcourt’s secret. It felt too dangerous, somehow: they’d come perilously close to being discovered themselves and it was best to hold off for a while until things had quietened down.

Imogen couldn’t help staring at Sophie in lessons, astonished that the other girl looked exactly the same as she had before: utterly innocent and normal, working away at her French verbs and preparing for the exams as though nothing had changed. Imogen had half expected to see signs of depravity on her face or maybe a new look of sophistication and knowledge, the kind of expression that Eve must have had after eating the apple. After all, Sophie had taken steps into the secret world they all longed to explore: she had experienced things they could only imagine.

She watched carefully to see if Martha Young and Sophie went near each other, but they didn’t. They were in different houses and different forms. The only time they were together was in the upper-fifth common room during any free or revision periods. Imogen saw them together when Sophie went to make a cup of tea and Martha was rinsing a mug in the sink: they appeared not to notice each other at all, but Imogen thought she saw the merest flicker of a glance between the two of them. She remembered them embracing in the darkness, their skin soft against the rough old wool of the well-worn sofa, and looked away, her face burning.

The day after the discovery, Allegra had been in high spirits.

‘I can’t believe it,’ she’d said excitedly, as they walked around the games field during break. ‘Sophie Harcourt’s a lesbian! And with Martha Young. Shit. I wonder if Arabella knows about it? Bet she doesn’t. God, when you think about how mean Sophie is … Do you remember when she and Arabella spent the whole time teasing Portia Clifford about being a lezzer – and all along Sophie was one herself! Martha had her hand down her pants, for Christ’s sake. She must have been fingering her. What a fucking hypocrite!’

They all agreed that Sophie was a terrible hypocrite, but Imogen found it hard to share Allegra’s elation; something about the discovery worried her, though she wasn’t sure if it was the revelation about Sophie’s sexuality or the power of the secret they now guarded. No matter how worldly wise and grown-up everyone pretended to be, they would still be shocked by a gay relationship – it would mark Sophie out, make her the target of gossip and secret jokes. Romily maintained her cool French exterior as always and didn’t say much, but the glances she swapped with Imogen showed that she secretly shared the same misgivings.

When the games mistress nominated Allegra to help collect kit from the sports hall, Romily pulled Imogen to one side.

‘What are we going to do about all this?’ she said, her dark brown eyes worried. ‘Look at Allegra, I haven’t seen her so cheerful in ages.’

‘I know.’ Imogen gazed at the ground. ‘It’s because of what we’ve found out. I think she wants to use it.’

‘I don’t think she should,’ Romily said urgently.

‘Nor do I.’ Imogen couldn’t help noticing that her friend wore even her games kit with her customary sense of fashion: her tartan kilt was a little more rakish and stylish than the others, her initials stitched on to it in flowing pink script.

‘If Sophie gives Allegra any reason or provokes her, she’ll use it to get her revenge,’ said Romily. ‘She won’t be able to help herself. It’s bound to get out somehow, and it’s going to cause a terrible scandal. Poor Sophie. I know she’s a bitch, but I can’t help feeling sorry for her. It will be so, so embarrassing. How will she face everyone? It will ruin her life here. And Martha’s too. They’ll have to leave.’

They stared at each other.

‘Can we stop Allegra?’ asked Imogen at last.

‘All we can do is try and persuade her to go easy,’ Romily said. ‘I’m sure she’ll listen to us.’ The games mistress returned then with Allegra, whose arms were piled high with bibs. ‘Come on. We’d better go and warm up.’

It felt strange for Imogen to be sharing a confidence with Romily. Allegra had always been their leader, the other two her close lieutenants with their first loyalty to her rather than each other. And Imogen had been at Allegra’s side even before they came to Westfield, two girls from Scotland anticipating their grand English boarding school, Imogen with nervousness and Allegra with unbridled excitement.

They had first met when Imogen was almost ten years old.

‘What an amazing coincidence!’ her mother had marvelled as she dressed Imogen in her smartest clothes.

‘What is? Where are we going?’ she’d asked while her mother brushed out her hair and tied it in a ribbon.

‘My old school friend, Selina Garrett … all this time she’s been living ten miles away and I never knew!’ Imogen could sense her mother’s excitement. ‘Who would have thought it? I met her quite by accident in Edinburgh and it turns out that she’s only gone and married Ivo McCorquodale, the eldest son of Lord Crachmore, and they live at Foughton, that magnificent old castle on the edge of the loch. I can’t believe how many times I’ve driven past it, and all the time Selina’s been living there! We were very best friends at school, though we lost touch afterwards when she went abroad. We’re going to visit today, and you’ll meet her daughter who is the same age as you are. I’m sure you’re going to be friends, just as we were!’

They seemed to drive for ages, out of town and into the countryside, and finally down long, twisty, overgrown roads that led to a beautiful, crystal blue loch, with Foughton standing craggy and impressive at its side. It was amazing, like something from Imogen’s favourite storybooks, a castle where gorgeous princesses danced in satin slippers and where good fairies and wicked witches flew among the grey stone turrets and battlements.

I would love to live here, she thought at once, her imagination alight. It’s so much more exciting than our boring house in our boring road

She watched as her mother fell, screaming with pleasure, into the arms of her old friend, followed dutifully as they were led through the endless dark corridors and listened as her mother said what an incredible place it was, but her friend said it was a bore to live in something so big and that it was freezing in the winter and how difficult it was to find people to work there – and all the other adult problems that seemed so dull. Who cared, if you could live in a castle like this? And then, they came out into an enormous sitting room and suddenly they were in the light again. Huge windows opened on to a stone terrace edged with what looked like battlements, and beyond that was the sparkling loch and nothing else to be seen for miles and miles except soft Scottish hills melting into the horizon. And there, sitting on the rug in front of an enormous hearth, was a pretty blonde girl, her skinny limbs emerging from a T-shirt and some denim shorts, playing with a grey kitten.

‘This is Allegra,’ her mother’s friend said cheerfully. ‘Allegra darling, get up and say hello to Imogen. She’s just your age and I’m sure you’re going to be great friends.’

Imogen stood awkwardly on the edge of the rug while Allegra got slowly to her feet, her face impassive and her dark-blue eyes watchful and cool.

‘Take her up to the nursery, darling, and show her your things. I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time together. Take Zaza with you.’

Allegra tucked the grey kitten against her chest and padded towards the door without giving Imogen another glance.

‘Go on, Imogen,’ said her mother, obviously eager to sit down for a good chat with her friend, ‘off you go with Allegra.’

So she’d gone after her, following in her footsteps and feeling silly in the smart tartan pinafore and patent Mary Janes that her mother had put her in for the visit. Allegra’s clothes, although they were nothing special, seemed a million times more stylish and desirable. On that first visit she barely said a word to Imogen for the first hour. Up in the nursery, she put a cassette tape into a player and they listened to rock music at top volume while Allegra played with Zaza the kitten and Imogen lost herself in the nursery bookcase, which was crammed with Enid Blytons that she hadn’t yet added to her collection. After an hour or so they went back downstairs and Allegra took her to the kitchen where the housekeeper gave them each a glass of orange squash and some digestive biscuits.

‘Do you like Nirvana?’ Allegra said at last, as they munched their biscuits.

‘Mmm, yes.’ Imogen nodded. That must be what they’d been listening to. She’d never heard of them. They were certainly loud, and seemed very het up about things.

‘I fucking adore them,’ Allegra announced. Imogen’s eyes widened with surprise at the extremely naughty word she had just heard. ‘I’m going to marry Kurt Cobain when I grow up.’ She stared at Imogen. ‘Who are you going to marry?’

Imogen didn’t know whether to tell the truth about who she wanted to marry, but she had been brought up to be honest and wanted to be like this glamorous girl, so she swallowed her biscuit and said in a quiet voice, ‘Kevin fucking Costner.’

Allegra laughed so hard she squirted orange squash all over the table. Imogen started giggling too, and the next minute they were squealing hysterically, with Allegra rolling on the floor holding her stomach, until the housekeeper came to find out what on earth all the fuss was about.

After that, they were friends.

Back home, Imogen’s mother couldn’t stop talking excitedly about Selina’s life, her marriage into the aristocracy, her beautiful children, and her amazing house.

‘Who would have thought it?’ she kept marvelling. ‘Selina Garrett. Well, well, well. Of course, it can’t all be a picnic. Ivo’s been married twice before and poor Selina’s got three stepchildren to cope with, as well as her own two, and her boy Xander won’t inherit a thing. And her grim old father-in-law still rules the roost, but still … Perhaps it’s not too high a price to pay for everything she’s got.’

Imogen wondered if her mother was drawn to her old friend and her impressive home because it was a life that perhaps she herself could have had. After all, they had both started