The grass stirred languidly and a head of dark curls emerged, framing damp, flushed cheeks and bright brown eyes.
"Bother!" exclaimed Darrell Rivers. "It would be so hot just as I'm trying to concentrate on this beastly stuff."
"Yes, because the climate and our schoolwork are connected," her companion said dryly, from flat on her back.
Darrell bit back her grin. "Aren't they?" she asked, straight-faced. "I'd always the idea that the Cornish countryside rather had it in for me – glorious sunny days whilst I'm stuck inside doing geometry, pouring with rain just when I want to go for a good long ramble."
Alicia Johns sat up and propped herself against the trunk of the huge oak tree under which the two were sprawled. "Well, if the all-powerful Head Girl of the school can't control the elements, I don't see what you expect me to do about it," she teased. "Nineteenth century French poetry is another matter. Is it the Nerval?"
Darrell pulled a face most unbecoming of a young lady almost eighteen. "Yes, the horrid fellow. Right now I wish he'd never picked up a quill."
"Er … La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé. Et la treille où le pampre à la rose s'allie," Darrell said, squinting at her book, pencil hovering slightly. "I got flower, heart … and something about being sad. But the rest is making my head hurt – and I've still got the dratted Latin for after."
Alicia held out her hand. Darrell passed the book over and watched with undisguised admiration as Alicia quickly scanned the page.
"Yes, I remember this bit," Alicia said finally. "It says, 'The flower which pleased so my desolate heart. And the trellis where the grape vine unites with the rose." She grinned at Darrell. "But you'd best change desolate to 'barren' or 'bleak', or Mam'zelle will be after us for cribbing from each other. Can't you just see her, waggling her hands, screeching, "Les filles vilaines! I shall spanking at them, yes I shall!"
Darrell dissolved into delighted laughter. The mimicry had been uncanny. "Really, Alicia," she managed through her mirth, taking back her book, "don't you ever get tired of being so clever?"
"Not a bit," Alicia replied lazily.
There was no trace of vanity in her response. Some things just were. Alicia was a fun-loving and witty girl, and it was well known to all that she was the smartest member of the sixth form. However, the fact that she achieved this effortlessly had made her somewhat unsympathetic toward those less capable.
This often manifested itself in very blunt and pitiless commentary, and there was not a girl at Malory Towers who didn't fear falling under the spotlight of Alicia's legendary malice. Darrell had not been targeted for an attack of brutal honesty for a few years now. She was one of only two people who could claim so, however – the other being Alicia's clever, sharp-tongued and bold best friend, Betty, who was a resident of a different Tower dormy.
Although, Darrell thought to herself, she's been getting better all the time. Since she was ill in the Upper Fourth, she's hardly been spiteful at all. Guiltily, she acknowledged the further realisation that the few times it had occurred, she, Darrell, had usually agreed whole-heartedly, though silently.
Alicia was still speaking. "If I had to work harder I shouldn't have half as much free time to spend with Betty," she said. "Or with you, old girl," she added casually.
Darrell's cheeks warmed, but she made no response. She put her head down and attended to her translations, determined to shut away the old first-form thrill she still sometimes felt when Alicia approved of her. There was nothing to read into the statement; the girl was almost always casual. Everything she said was unaffected and truthful, sometimes too much so. Darrell felt they had a very odd affinity. For no reason that she had been able to puzzle out, Alicia appeared to both respect her immensely and enjoy her company. She sought Darrell out - and her opinion – on a regular basis.
"And where is your Sally?" Alicia asked, referring to Darrell's own particular friend. "It's not often we're given an afternoon like this to spend outdoors. I expected to see her along sooner or later."
"She's helping young Felicity with her serve," Darrell replied absently, though a flicker of guilt ran through her as she said it.
Alicia's sharp eyes apparently missed nothing. "I see. Would that be the same selfless giving of her time that Betty does directly we've had some idiotic quarrel?"
Darrell looked up in alarm. Did the girl have to be quite so intuitive? She and Sally had, indeed, quarrelled earlier that afternoon. It had been over an old and bitter subject, one as familiar – and exasperating – to Darrell as Sally herself.
"Hie, Sally!" Darrell had called, swinging into the sixth-form common room. "It's setting up to be such a fine afternoon - want to study outdoors? Alicia's gone and holed up under the old oak near the potter's shed. She asked if we'd like to join her."
Sally had stiffened slightly. "And you're going?" she asked, not quite meeting Darrell's eyes.
Darrell bit off a sigh. "She asked both of us to go."
Sally had lifted her chin a little. "Thanks, but no," she replied calmly. "But feel quite free to spend the only spare time we've had in ages with your precious Alicia."
And on it had gone from there. Darrell was still trying to rid her memory of the hurt, dull tone of resignation in Sally's voice when Darrell had finally stood up and angrily declared that if Sally were going to continue being so childishly jealous, she may as well do something to deserve it. She had collected her books with more force than was strictly necessary, and stalked from the room without a backward look.
Two hours of drowsy chatting interspersed with bursts of work had almost managed to take her mind off it, but Alicia's shrewd comment had dragged it all to the surface again.
"Alicia," she began nervously, "I don't mean to be secretive, but-"
"It's none of my business," concluded the other girl, nodding. "I quite agree."
Darrell sighed in relief.
"Unless you're troubled," Alicia said, her trademark wicked grin appearing on her face.
Darrell shook her head. "No, I-"
"Then, as an unofficial friend stand-in, that would make it entirely my business. And as you see, I'm not occupied just at the moment."
Again, Darrell stifled a smile. Really, Alicia was impossible. "That's because you've not done a whit of prep," she said, desperate to talk about something else.
"I've already finished, as you well know," Alicia said, her black eyes sparkling with mirth. "And don't think I'll overlook the unsubtle change of subject, you great oaf. That wasn't a segue, it was a charge of the Light Brigade."
Despite herself, Darrell laughed. "You never let me get away with anything, do you?"
Alicia's lazy grin surfaced again. "Very well, I'll cave. You shan't have to unburden after all! But is that jealousy or aggravation I hear in your voice, old thing?"
"Neither," Darrell replied, head bent over her book again. "Sheer despair. What can Mam'zelle have been thinking?"
Alicia leant forward. "What's got you stumped now?"
"Mon lèvres sont rouge encor du baiser de la Reine. Something about lips, something red, something queen."Darrell looked up at her friend, her forehead creased with frustration. "The Queen had red lips? The red Queen had lips?"
Alicia burst out laughing. "You're such a mutt, Darrell," she said. "But I'll not do it for you this time, that's dishonest. You do know this stuff – you're simply getting it muddled because you're rushing." She shifted to face her friend, crossing her legs, one hand carelessly brushing away the stalks of grass that tickled her bare knees. "I'll talk you through. Listen carefully: Mon lèvres sont rouge…"
Darrell cocked her head, blinking. Unexpectedly, Alicia's voice had lowered to a throaty rumble. The other girl's usual tone – although not strident - was never less than forthright. Alicia did not whisper, did not whine and certainly did not, well, purr.
Darrell shook herself a little, throwing off her surprise, and looked into Alicia's open, expectant face. "Alright, Mam'zelle Johns," she smiled. "Monlèvres sont rouge … My … lips are red?"
"Er … again?"
"No, this is the dative use, remember?"
"Oh, of course. Not 'again' –still."
"Yes, see, you're getting there now!" Alicia said, patting Darrell's knee. "Keep on. Du Baiser de la Reine…?"
"My lips are red – still red, rather – from the, the basin of the Queen!" Darrell crowed. Her face fell as Alicia shook her head.
"Basin? Honestly, Darrell. What was the Queen doing – keeping gallons of red wine on hand to dole out to admirers?"
"I don't know, I don't know," the defeated translator groaned, flopping to the ground, book discarded. "I'm terribly backward today. My brains have gone on half-hol, apparently."
Dappled sunlight filtered through the oak tree, just enough to prompt Darrell to drape an arm across her eyes. Her outstretched hand brushed against the leg of the girl beside her, coming softly to rest there, the skin warm and alive beneath her fingertips.
Alicia eyed Darrell's hand curiously. When she made no move to retrieve it, an odd expression crossed Alicia's face – flickering once and gone again, like a darting firefly. Had Darrell been watching, she would have seen Alicia's usually animated features sober, and a thoughtful frown appear – a face of concentration. Of debate. Of decision.
Suddenly, Alicia spoke. "Baiser?"
Darrell did not open her eyes. "If you were any kind of friend, you'd take pity on me and tell me, you beast."
"No," Alicia said, enjoying the torment. "When you think of it, you'll hit yourself."
"If I hadn't promised myself I'd keep my temper this term, I'd hit you for not showing me," Darrell said playfully, and swatted at the taller girl.
"Showing you?" Alicia asked, suppressing a smile.
"What a good idea!" Darrell said, sitting up suddenly. "Don't tell me, show me. Then it's not quite cribbing, is it? I'll have guessed."
Alicia looked as if she was smothering a laugh. "Are you quite sure, Darrell?" she asked, her head tilting to one side.
"It's either that, or I go to French tomorrow and throw this book at Mam'zelle," Darrell declared.
Alicia appeared to think this over. "Well," she said finally, "we can't have that, can we?"
And suddenly, she bent her head forward.
A few minutes later, silently, Darrell scrawled the word 'kiss' in the relevant place on her book, trying not to notice the trembling of her fingers and erratic beating of her heart. Or that beside her in the warm grass, Alicia of the smooth voice, ready wit and fabled calmness – that Alicia - had flushed a deep, dusky red.