Bitter by Eden Beck

Chapter One

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Bleakwood Academy isthe most prestigious school in the world for boys with talents like mine.

The only problem? I’m a girl.

The air is unseasonably hot and dry when I step off the bus. A gust of wind kicks dust up into my face, making me instinctively reach up to brush the hair out of my eyes—only to find it shorn short.

Right.Gotta look the part.

I push back that aching pit in the hollow of my stomach for what feels like the thousandth time as I glance back down at the map in my hands. It wasn’t easy cutting my hair so short, especially when I had to do it in the dim light of a tiny bus station with dull scissors bought from a bodega outside the airport in Zurich.

Who sells scissors outside of an airport? Isn’t everyone just going to have to throw them out once they get through security? I remember thinking, just to keep from thinking, as I snipped lock after lock of my curls into a neat pile on the tile floor. I didn’t stop until the face looking back at me from the mirror was unrecognizable.

I never knew before today just how small my head looks.

No matter which way I turn it, the map in my hands is completely useless. The tour guide had told me to use the mountains to help orient myself, but every time I look up and glance around me—all I see are mountains. And they all look exactly the same. Maybe if the map wasn’t some godforsaken mix of four different languages I might be able to use it—but for now, all I can do is stuff it back into my suitcase and start off up the winding road leading further up into those same mountains.

They have to end somewhere, eventually, right? They can’t just keep going up, up, up … spiraling forever into the fog at their peaks.

I haven’t made it more than ten steps up the road when I hear the roar of an engine followed by the sudden screech of tires behind me.

“Hey you there, idiot!”

I glance back just in time to see a boy pop head and shoulders out of the passenger side window of a very well-maintained Aston Martin. I’ve never seen one before, but with four overly rambunctious brothers there was bound to be one of them who ended up obsessed with cars. That brother turned out to be Caleb, the youngest of them at only a year older than me. He would die just to be this close to a car like that.

But even still, while my brother would take note of the car, I have to take note of the boy leaning out of it … and just how strikingly beautiful he is. Slicked-back blonde hair, broad shoulders, cut cheekbones. The Scandinavian in him somehow stands out even more here, in the heart of the Swiss mountains.

“You headed up to Bleakwood?”

Even as he stares me down, it takes me a minute to stop gawking and realize he is, in fact, talking to me. He registers the look on my face as it dawns on me too slow and doesn’t let it slide.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you, boy. So then, are you?”

It takes me a second to find my voice, and then another to remember to force it down an octave.

“Y—yeah. What of it?”

I cringe, inwardly. Apparently, the male version of me sounds like a total douchebag.

“Well, unless you plan on spending the semester tucking it up there at the little girl’s school, you’d better hop in with us.”

I glance back up over my shoulder. Girl’s school? You’re telling me there was a girl’s school here all along?

“Don’t look so shocked. Gonna give the impression you’re as stupid as you look.”

There’s a chuckle from inside the car when I finally look back. As classically attractive as this boy is, there’s something off about him. Something I don’t trust.

“Maybe I’ll just walk.”

The boy turns to someone else inside the car, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “Your loss. Don’t let it be said that I have no heart. Now no one can blame us when the wolves get you.”

The wolves?

I really hope that’s a metaphor for something.

There’s an edge to his voice that I don’t like. This is a boy who isn’t used to being turned down, not for anything. But this is also not the kind of first impression I wanted to make. Not if these are some of my new classmates.

Before I can backtrack, try to salvage what is quickly turning into an interaction I have a feeling I’m going to regret later, I hear the muffled sound of a third voice from the back of the car. I can see the shift of a face on the other side of the dark glass, but I can’t make out his features, or hear exactly what he says.

But whatever he does say has an effect on the boy in the window. He flashes me one last look, some mix of distrust and disbelief at being turned down, and then slips back into his seat as the engine roars back to life.

I have to squint against the sunlight reflecting off the mountainsides to watch which road it takes. With one last look over my shoulder towards the supposed girl’s school now behind me, I follow after it.

* * *

I’ve seenBleakwood in brochures, but no photograph could do this place proper justice.

Bleakwood Academy for Boys sits nestled in a mini valley between the peaks of three mountains, each one plunging higher up into the misty clouds than the last. Green hillsides meld with sheer rock cliffs that melt up into the still snow-covered peaks, even now, at the end of summer.

Any remnants of heat have long since dissipated with each footstep that brought me climbing higher into these mountains. Now, I’m eternally grateful for the oversized hoodie that both shields me from the chill breeze whipping up between their peaks as well as my body from any overly prying eyes.

Now that I’m here, staring up at the cluster of buildings more akin to a castle than a school, I have to stop a moment and catch my breath. It’s more than just the altitude. It wasn’t long after turning down a ride up the mountain that I realized another reason to regret my decision. The burn in my thighs and calves just reiterates that mistake. It’s one I won’t make again.

Especially now that I’m late.

I spot what looks like a tour group disappearing up the first flight of steps and into the main hall. Unless I’m mistaken, the boy from the car is there among them. His voice, sharp and loud, echoes out above the rest like the bark of a wolf.

My lips purse as I take in a deep, steadying breath to calm myself.

I can do this.

I can do this.

I didn’t know this was an all-boys program when I applied. I mean … I should have. Looking back, I don’t know how I didn’t see the signs; the imagery on the website alone, the pamphlets, the application.

I just thought whatever photographer they hired wasn’t exactly schooled in the meaning of the word “diversity” or “inclusivity”. For a girl who got into a school for geniuses, I sure can act like an idiot sometimes.

But it’s too late now. It was too late by the time I received the scholarship letter and realized my mistake. It might be a boy’s school, but it was too great an opportunity to pass up. Not when I know there won’t be another like it. At least, not in my lifetime. Not if I want the chance to become something more than the overlooked youngest daughter in a family that basically forgot she existed the moment she was born.

Average. Unremarkable.

That is Alex Trevellian, the girl. Alex Trevellian the boy … now that’s about to become a different story.

I reach for the handle of my suitcase again, but before I can follow, huffing and puffing after my classmates, a voice drawls out from behind me.

“Well, I’ll be damned … this isn’t a sight you get to see every day. Not here, at least.”

I don’t see who it belongs to at first. I take a step back and trace my eyes down the low, cobblestone fence curving around the edge of the driveway. Eventually my gaze falls on the gaunt face of a boy staring back at me, a long cigarette perched between his teeth. He has dark hair and eyes, and something about the way he looks at me … it’s like he can see right through me.

I don’t like it.

Almost as much as I don’t like the next thing that drops from his lips, and it isn’t the cigarette.

“You’re a girl.”