Princess at Heart: Part 3 – Chapter 37

The figures at the end of the alley stepped into the half-light. They were not people she recognized. They were teenagers, not much older than herself, but the way they skulked towards her made her recoil like a trapped mouse.

‘Look, she’s one of those Rosewood students.’ The tallest one pointed at her, nose twitching like he’d caught a scent. ‘You must have a big brain, huh? Why don’t you let us pick at it over dinner?’

The question took a moment to register with Lottie. His tone was eloquent but not quite friendly, his smiling expression charming but not quite kind.

Now the second stepped forward, shorter and wearing an oversized coat in a decidedly peacocky way. ‘How old are you?’ he asked, nudging his friend in the ribs, and they all laughed again at whatever joke they were sharing.

Lottie knew what she should do. And she knew exactly what Ellie would do if she were there. She’d grab the tallest man by the scruff of his collar and tell him where to shove his dinner. But Lottie wasn’t Ellie, and she didn’t have her or Jamie to help her, so instead she backed away.

‘Please, I just want to go home, I –’

‘We’ll walk you home.’ The man in the middle grabbed her arm, pulling her up, his hands clammy, the feeling like slime on her bare skin.

On instinct she jerked out of his grip, trying to think of all the escape techniques Jamie had taught her, only she could think of nothing. Without him or Ellie to back her up, there was nothing. She couldn’t face the world without them.

‘Whoa, no need to cry,’ the tall one weighed in, his voice mocking like a jackdaw. ‘We’re just trying to be friendly.’

‘Did your boyfriend break up with you?’ the middle one asked. Hoots of laughter ensued, the sound grating.

Lottie couldn’t move. There was nothing kind, brave or unstoppable about her. She was just a little girl, who didn’t know who she was or what she was doing any more.

‘Come on – give us a smile,’ the shorter man said, pulling up the sides of his mouth like a clown. ‘What problems could a nice young lady like you have?’

Everything faded out of focus except him. He inched closer, his maniacal grin growing wider. She was sure she was about to collapse.

Suddenly the man’s smile shattered and his eyes grew wide as he was pulled backwards and flipped, spinning into the air and down hard on to his front where he lay gasping. A tall girl with a mane of golden hair and athletic build pulled his arm behind his back, every tug making the man squeak.

‘How’s this for “nice young lady”, you creep?’ Saskia growled at her captive, yanking on his arm again until he let out a pathetic yelp. ‘Come on – give us a smile. What are you crying about?

Then another small figure came up beside Lottie – curly hair softly brushing her shoulder. Binah looked up at her, glasses magnifying her eyes that were warm brown and as comforting and reassuring as melted chocolate.

She beamed, taking Lottie’s arm. ‘We’ve been looking for you.’

How did they find me? Lottie thought, blinking in confusion.

Before she could make sense of what was going on, the other men shouted a list of expletives, marching towards Saskia, furious at being humiliated.

‘Come here, you little –’

‘Excuse me.’ From behind Saskia, Anastacia stepped into the light, sweeping her hair behind her. ‘I must be mistaken. Are you threatening the French ambassador’s daughter?’ she asked, walking up to the tall man without an inch of fear. He looked like he’d just realized he was trapped. ‘Because if you were, I would have no choice but to alert Security at Rosewood, who would have you put away for the rest of your sad little lives.’ Her eyes narrowed into slits, leaning forward in a way that made her appear to tower over the two remaining men. ‘I would make sure of that, comprenez-vous?’

Saskia released the man underneath her. The three men gulped and shook as they retreated down the alley, but Saskia kept at their back, cracking her knuckles, itching for one of them to make a wrong move.

‘Lottie, do you have anything to say to these men?’ Binah asked, nudging her forward. ‘Remember you’re your own person, and we’re your friends no matter what,’ she whispered into her ear, her breath tickling her neck. ‘What would Lottie the friend do?’

Face to face with the three men cowering at her and the rest of her gang, she couldn’t believe how blinkered she’d been. She wasn’t alone. She wasn’t nothing without Jamie and Ellie. She had everything she’d learned from Rosewood and her friends all thumping in her every heartbeat. She was Lottie Pumpkin, built from every experience, good and bad, kind, brave and unstoppable, and she wasn’t going to let anyone push her around.

Taking a confident step forward, she brushed off her pinafore, and flicked her hair as she’d seen Anastacia do, coming right up to face the three sweating pigs in front of her.

Cocking her head to the side, refusing to smile, she asked, imitating their earlier tone, ‘Want us to walk you home?

‘N-no thank you,’ they stammered, squeezing together.

Smiling now, Lottie leaned forward. ‘Then kindly get the hell away from me.’

Saskia moved aside and the three of them bolted off down the alley with all the frantic energy of a balloon rapidly deflating.

The moment they were out of sight, the four girls burst into laughter. It only lasted a few seconds, until Lottie felt the laughter catch in her throat and twist into a sobbing fit, tears rolling down her cheeks.

‘How did you guys find me?’ she asked through her tears. But she wasn’t sad. She was simply overwhelmed and relieved, not able to comprehend everything she was feeling.

‘Binah saw you heading to the gates,’ Anastacia said. ‘She came to get us.’

Shrugging as if it were no big deal, Binah leaned into Lottie, holding her close. ‘We’ll always be here for you, remember.’

Lottie nodded, not able to speak, knowing she’d start crying again.

‘What the hell happened?’ Saskia asked bluntly, wrapping round the other side of Lottie as they all began walking back into the light. ‘Why are you all the way in town, and how are you so fast?’

Lottie laughed weakly, but she knew she had to tell them.

Together they stepped into the light and she paused, not able to keep going. Something on her face must have caved in, because their expressions softened, turning patient and thoughtful.

‘I think –’ Lottie began, struggling to find the words, because she hadn’t quite admitted it to herself yet. Reaching inside herself, feeling the ache where the wolf lay across her chest, hollow and empty, she knew what had happened, and she had to say it out loud.

‘Ellie’s left me behind,’ she said, voice catching. ‘She’s gone.’


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