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Smoothing down the skirt of my pale-green sundress, I give myself a final once-over

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Smoothing down the skirt of my pale-green sundress, I give myself a final once-over. My cheeks are pink from too much time on the deck, my hair ever so slightly too wild from the humidity, but my reflection gives me enough confidence to temper my growing nerves.

I dance down the stairs, practising introductions in my head. From the living room, I hear a boy laugh and my stomach turns somersaults. It leaves me feeling younger than my sixteen years. I know it's illogical, but I can't shake the butterflies. Not when It's so rare for me to walk into a situation where I haven't prepped until I have the upper hand. The lack of control throws me off balance.

With girls, I'm an expert. After five years in a boarding house, I know what every eyebrow raise, pursed-lip and hair toss means. Silences and loaded comments are easy to decipher and I can even hold my own in the cattiest of hormone-fuelled fights.

But boys are a different breed altogether.

Of course, I've met a few - friends' brothers mainly and boys at closely monitored school socials - but I've never been friends with one, and most certainly never kissed one. I've never even held a boy's hand. In my sheltered all-girls boarding-school bubble, I never thought this was in the least bit strange - all my friends, except for Lissie, are just as inexperienced as I am. But standing on the Whittingham's staircase, I realise other people might think differently. That I might single myself out as an oddity.

'No beauty shines brighter than a good heart,' my mother had told me at thirteen when I wailed down the phone from the Housemistress's office. I'd overheard the new girl, Saffie Chambers, laughing about my chubby baby face and frizzy hair. Back then, I had so desperately wanted her golden plaits and coltish legs.

'That is what boys like, Mummy. Noone will ever like me because I've got short legs and red hair.'

'My love, you are a beautiful girl. And you have something far more desirable than Saffie Chambers. You have brains. Beauty without intelligence is like a masterpiece drawn on a napkin. Worthless and quick to fade.'

As always, she was right; long legs wouldn't get me to Oxford. Only brains could do that. My insane jealousy over Saffie's looks died down when I realised how shallow she was. It also helped that during the summer holidays, I grew three inches and had my braces removed. Blossoming towards a level playing field made it far easier to let go of the animosity.

Reaching the kitchen, I catch my reflection in a window. 'Come on, Martha, you can do this.'

The sound of footsteps behind me swirls my stomach with nervous anticipation, but I'm determined that this boy, no matter how good-looking, will not distract me from my goals. I prepare my most confident smile.

When I turn, I find a boy about my age staring at me. A mixture of disinterest and disgust registers on his face. Although this galls me, I'm so surprised by the stranger standing opposite me I gawp in silence. He isn't the golden-haired owner of that beautiful arm, but the antithesis of Lucille Whittingham's sunny Southern charm. His shoulder-length black hair falls in curtains across a cynical face. A bottom lip, pierced with a black stud, turns down in an unwelcoming sneer as his arms cross in front of a baggy Metallica t-shirt.

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