Her father was not oblivious to the fact that the neighborhood surrounding St. Stephen's had deteriorated, but he was obsessed with the idea that Meredith be raised in the same manner as the other upstanding, upright Bancroft women who had attended St. Stephen's for three generations. He solved the matter of the neighborhood by having the family chauffeur drive Meredith to and from school.

The one thing he didn't realize was that the girls and boys who attended St. Stephen's were not the virtuous little beings they'd seemed to be that day. They were ordinary kids from lower-middle-class families and even some poor families; they played together and walked to school together, and they shared a common suspicion of anyone from an entirely different and far more prosperous background.

Meredith hadn't known about that when she arrived at St. Stephen's to start first grade. Clad in her neat gray-and-blue-plaid uniform jumper and carrying her new lunch pail, she'd quaked with the nervous excitement of any six-year-old confronting a class filled with strangers, but she'd felt little actual fear. After spending her whole life in relative loneliness, with only her father and the servants as companions, she was happily anticipating the prospect of finally having friends her own age.

The first day at school went well enough, but it took a sudden turn for the worse when classes were dismissed and the students poured out the school doors into the playground and parking lot. Fenwick had been waiting in the playground, standing beside the Rolls in his black chauffeur's uniform. The older children had stopped and stared—and then identified her as being rich, ergo "different."

That alone was enough to make them wary and distant, but by the end of the week, they'd also discovered other things about "the rich girl" that set her apart: For one thing, Meredith Bancroft spoke more like an adult than a child; in addition, she didn't know how to play any of the games they played at recess, and when she did play them, her unfamiliarity made her seem clumsy. Worst of all, within days, she was teacher's pet because she was smart.

Within a month, Meredith had been judged by all her peers and branded as an outsider, an alien being from another world, to be ostracized by all. Perhaps if she'd been pretty enough to inspire admiration, it would have helped in time, but she wasn't. When she was nine she arrived at school wearing glasses. At twelve she had braces; at thirteen, she was the tallest girl in her class.

A week ago, years after Meredith had despaired of ever having a real friend, everything had changed. Lisa Pontini had enrolled in the eighth grade at St. Stephen's. An inch taller than Meredith, Lisa moved like a model and answered complicated algebra questions like a bored scholar. At noon that same day, Meredith had been sitting on a low stone wall on the perimeter of the school grounds, eating her lunch, exactly as she did every day, with a book open in her lap. Originally, she'd started bringing a book to read because it dulled the feeling of being isolated and conspicuous. By fifth grade she'd become an avid reader.

She'd been about to turn a page when a pair of scuffed oxfords entered her line of vision, and there was Lisa Pontini, looking curiously at her. With Lisa's vivid coloring and mass of auburn hair, she was Meredith's complete opposite; moreover, there was an indefinable air of daring confidence about Lisa that gave her what Seventeen magazine called panache. Instead of wearing her gray school sweater with its school emblem demurely over her shoulders as Meredith did, Lisa had tied the sleeves in a loose knot over her breasts.

"God, what a dump!" Lisa announced, sitting down beside Meredith and looking around at the school grounds. "I've never seen so many short boys in my life. They must put something in the drinking fountains here that stunts their growth! What's your average?"

Grades at St. Stephen's were expressed in percentiles carried out to a precise decimal point. "It's 97.8," Meredith said, a little dazed by Lisa's rapid remarks and unexpected sociability.

"Mine's 98.1," Lisa countered, and Meredith noticed that Lisa's ears were pierced. Earrings and lipstick were forbidden on the school grounds. While Meredith was noting all that, Lisa was looking her over too. With a puzzled smile, she demanded bluntly, "Are you a loner by choice or are you some sort of outcast?"

"I never thought about it," Meredith lied.

"How long do you have to wear those braces?"

"Another year," Meredith said, deciding she didn't like Lisa Pontini at all. She closed her book and stood up, glad the bell was about to ring.

That afternoon, as was the custom on the last Friday of every month, the students lined up in church to confess their sins to St. Stephen's priests. Feeling, as always, like a disgraceful sinner, Meredith knelt in the confessional, and told her misdemeanors to Father Vickers, including such sins as disliking Sister Mary Lawrence and spending too much time thinking about her appearance. Finished, she held the door open for the next person, then she knelt in a pew and said her assigned prayers of penance.

Since students were allowed to leave for the day after that, Meredith went outside to wait for Fenwick. A few minutes later, Lisa walked down the church steps, putting on her jacket. Still flinching from Lisa's comments about her being a loner and having to wear braces, Meredith watched warily as the other girl looked around and then sauntered over to her.

"Would you believe," Lisa announced, "Vickers told me to say a whole rosary tonight for penance for a little necking? I'd hate to think what penance he hands out for French kissing!" she added with an impudent grin, sitting down on the ledge beside Meredith.

Meredith hadn't known that one's nationality determined the way a person kissed, but she assumed from Lisa's remark that however the French did it, the priests definitely didn't want St. Stephen's students doing it. Trying to look worldly, she said, "For kissing that way, Father Vickers makes you clean the church."

Lisa giggled, studying Meredith with curiosity. "Does your boyfriend wear braces too?"

Meredith thought of Parker and shook her head.

"That's good," Lisa said with an infectious grin. "I always wondered how two people with braces could possibly kiss and not get stuck together. My boyfriend's name is Mario Campano. He's tall, dark, and handsome. What's your boyfriend's name? What's he like?"

Meredith glanced at the street, hoping Fenwick wouldn't remember that school got out early today. Although she was uneasy with the topic of conversation, Lisa Pontini fascinated her, and Meredith sensed that for some reason the other girl truly wanted to be friends. "He's eighteen and he looks," Meredith said honestly, "like Robert Redford. His name is Parker."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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