Chapter 1: Welcome Back! Welcome Back!
MY FINGERS SHOOK AS I clutched the planter balanced in my lap. It was shaped like a hardback book and held a flourishing African violet in a tiny pot in the center. Not just any African violet, of course, but one I’d been raising all summer. They could be very temperamental, and I’d managed to keep her alive, so yay! Honestly, the violet was one thing I could count on to provide silent but steady comfort after a summer of turmoil.
Dad eased the car up to the tall iron gates of Saddlehill Academy, and my breath caught for a second as I tried to take in the majestic campus, from the stone fences to the Gothic architecture to the cobblestoned driveway.
“Look,” I said in a whisper to Violet because, of course, that was her name. “Welcome home!”
“What, Abby?” Dad asked from the driver’s seat.
My cheeks heated up. “Sorry, Dad. I was talking to Violet.”
Dad laughed, but not unkindly. “Don’t let me interrupt. I’m glad you’re showing your plant-child her new home.”
“Well, it would be so rude not to,” I said. I touched one of her leaves with my pointer finger. “It’s her first day here!”
Yes, I had a plant obsession.
Yes, I talked to them. Sometimes! Okay, a lot of the time.
And yes, I’d managed to convince my dad to let me bring seven plants with me to my dorm room at Saddlehill Academy. Seven plants for seventh grade had sounded fair to me!
Saddlehill Academy was a preparatory boarding school nestled just north of Boston. I’d been attending since last year. It had become my home away from home, and I’d spent all of sixth grade learning how to live my best boarding-school-student life.
It had been a bit of a battle to convince my dad to let me go, but he knew it was my dream to go to boarding school and compete on an equestrian team just like my idol, Sasha Silver. Once I’d pointed out how he wasn’t home a lot anyway because of work, he’d finally relented. Plus, it was only about an hour away from my home in Fieldcrest, Massachusetts.
My phone vibrated in the cupholder. I swiped it and saw two new texts from Vivi.
Where are you??
Are you here yet???
Laughing, I typed a quick text back. Pulling in now!
“Let me guess,” Dad said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “Vivi?”
“The one and only,” I said, smiling. Vivi had been one of my closest friends at Saddlehill from the moment we’d met last year. We had talked every single day over summer break. She lived in upstate New York, and despite her not living too far away from me, we hadn’t been able to make hanging out in person over the summer work. There had been too much going on at home with my dad’s wedding to his shiny new wife, Natalie. Sigh.
But this year would make up for it, because Vivi and I had managed to snag a double room in Amherst House—one of the most coveted coed dormitories on campus.
“I’d forgotten how beautiful this place is,” Dad said as he eased the car down the long, winding driveway. “Even though I’ve been here quite a few times.”
I nodded. “It feels like forever since I’ve been here. But also like it was yesterday. So weird.”
As excited as I was to see the school, I really couldn’t wait to leave and go a few miles down the road to Foxbury Stables, where I kept my horse, Beau, during the school year. He was my everything.
As we rolled down the driveway, the beauty of campus wasn’t lost on me. Surrounded by woods, Saddlehill’s buildings were a rich variety of super-old structures that looked as if they’d come off the pages of a history textbook.
We took a left on Tristan Road, heading toward Amherst. I loved the dormitories at Saddlehill—they weren’t typical dorms. They were all actual houses or cottages dotted around campus, and their bedrooms had been converted to dorm rooms.
They had everything from triples to doubles to singles. Each house had a resident advisor who lived in that house too. Second-year students like me were able to apply for a double room. Last year, my only option had been a single, because Saddlehill wanted new students to “focus on adjusting to campus life.”
Dad snagged an empty parking spot in front of Amherst House. “Score!” he said. “Let me just check on Natalie and Emery, and then we’ll unpack the car.”
For a few minutes, I’d managed to forget all about Emery Flynn. My new stepsister as of this summer. She was a sixth grader who had also been accepted to Saddlehill. Like me, Emery was an equestrian for the Interscholastic Pony League. Unlike me, she was her division’s regionals champion and had placed third at nationals. I’d done well during my show season only to choke at regionals and miss going to nationals. So, that made things a little awkward between us.
We both rode on the middle school level and had shown in different divisions last year based on our skill level. But Emery had moved up to my division for this year after training with my current instructor, Rebecca, over the summer.
Although riding was an extracurricular at Saddlehill, the school took it seriously. That meant I had access to flexible class schedules that let me do work online or on weekends if necessary so I could ride and train with the equestrian team as much as possible. It was amazing. But what if having to ride with Emery changed everything? I gripped my violet harder and pushed the thought out of my mind.
“Okay, Natalie and Emery will be on campus in a few minutes,” Dad said, putting down his phone. “They’re going to get Emery moved in, and once you’re all set, I’ll meet up with them and say goodbye to Emery.”
“Oh” was all I said.
“Abby, c’mon,” Dad said.
“What?” I asked, trying to keep any hint of attitude out of my tone.
“I know this is all new. It’s only been a couple of months since the wedding, so I’m going to give you time to adjust.”
I nodded. “Thank you.” I blew out an exaggerated breath. “I’m trying, Dad. I promise. I like Natalie and Emery. But I don’t know them. At all. And we went from strangers to insta-fam this summer, so yeah, I need time.”
Before he could say anything back, I flung my door open and hopped out of the car, placing Violet on my seat. I’d come back and get her and my other plant babies in a minute.
I glanced up at Amherst, my new home. According to the school website, the three-story German stone farmhouse had been built back in the 1700s. It was gable-roofed, with stark white shutters and an attached four-season porch that I could not wait to use. A carriage house, where all ten of the Amherst residents could store boxes and suitcases, sat just in back of the main house.
My eyes roamed over the small courtyard with a couple of stone benches surrounding a tranquil water fountain. The lawn was landscaped to perfection, and there was even an herb garden near the porch. Towering trees flanked the edge of the backyard, and I couldn’t wait for the leaves to turn brilliant fall colors soon.
I dug in my pocket for my keys. The front door was open as parents and students carried boxes and luggage inside, but I would need keys for my room if Vivi wasn’t there to let me in.
“Why don’t you wheel this suitcase up to the house?” Dad suggested. “Leave it beside the porch steps, and I’ll carry it up to your room once I get a couple of boxes in there.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks, Dad.”
Dad winked at me, then went for the first box in the trunk.
I grabbed the suitcase’s handle and tugged it out of the car. Campus was popping. It felt as though everyone was moving in at once, even though move-ins had started yesterday. I’d be glad once all the adults left with their cars so campus would go back to the quiet, woodsy space it usually was.
“ABIGAIL ST. CLAIR!”
Laughing, I looked toward the house and smiled at the oh-so-familiar voice. “VIVIENNE MILLS!” I called.
Straining, I pulled my suitcase behind me as I hurried the last few yards to Amherst’s porch, where Vivi stood. I let go of the handle and ran up the steps, nearly tackling Vivi in a hug.
“I missed you sooo much!” Vivi said.
We hugged each other hard. “I missed you so much!”
After another squeeze, we let go. Vivi was hands down one of the prettiest people I’d ever seen, and today was no exception. Her dark brown skin was flawless, and her curls were pulled back in a high ponytail. She had the softest brown eyes and a smile that lit up her entire face.
“Seeing each other on FaceTime was not enough,” Vivi said. “Next summer, you’re coming with me to New York City.”
“Deal! I can be your assistant and go with you to casting calls.”
Vivi grinned. “Exactly!”
Vivi was an actress. She was always at auditions, and over the summer, she’d even filmed a small role on a big breakout Netflix film! She’d been only a little—okay, a lot—disappointed to find out that her character was attacked and killed by a zombie in the first three seconds of her appearance. But at least she’d had one line—“Ahhh!”
“Hi, Vivi,” my dad said, puffing as he came up the stairs carrying one of my boxes.
Vivi gave him a big smile. “Hey, Mr. St. Clair! Oh, our room is on the second floor, and it’s the first door on the left.”
“C’mon,” I said as I motioned to Vivi. “Come with me to the car while I grab some stuff.”
I’d been so lucky to meet Vivi last year. We’d become insta-friends from the very first English class we had together. Now that we were back on campus, we’d be spending a ton of time together—no doubt.
“Fair warning,” Vivi said. “Our room is a mess right now. I’m pretty much moved in, but my stuff is everywhere until we decorate.”
“I can’t even believe it!”
“Me either!” Vivi said. “This is going to be the best year ever!”
Vivi reached in and picked up a box from the trunk. “You don’t have to do that,” I said.
“Pffft,” she said. “I’m helping. Deal with it.” She tossed me a grin.
She started away from the car as I reached back inside to grab a plant, frowning when I saw that it had turned sideways on the drive.
Vivi turned back to wait for me, but I shook my head. “I’ll be right there!”
I took a minute to look it over to make sure my plant was okay and none of the leaves or stems had been damaged. But aside from a tiny bit of spilled gravel, it was fine. Whew.
As I walked up to Amherst, I couldn’t keep the bounce out of my step. I was back! And nothing—absolutely nothing—was going to stop me from having the best year ever.
And then… I saw her coming out of Amherst House and groaned.
The one person who could stop me from having the best year ever.