Natalie whipped into action, showering and blow-drying her hair straight in record time. After ripping through her closet, she settled on a tank top over her favorite jean miniskirt: cool but not too try-hard. Not that her choice of clothing mattered much. Natalie would surely be given a new outfit the moment she got there—wasn't that how photo shoots worked? A photo shoot! Natalie just couldn't believe it. If only she and Jenna were still talking so she could boast about this.
James had made Williamsburg sound like some impossible-to-miss national landmark, but in reality the address she'd texted Natalie could only be reached by walking under two clattering bridges and along a stretch of junky houses and abandoned construction sites. The desolate sidewalks were a lattice of cracks and shadows, the sun occasionally peeking through the scaffoldings and subway rails overhead to warm Natalie's forehead and arms. Every time she stopped to ask for directions from bodega workers and Hasidim, she throbbed with anticipation.
Natalie had just turned down Broadway—but a very different Broadway from the one she and Jenna cruised on their Topshop-and-Sephora expeditions—when her phone rang, just audible over the rattle of the subway. With a little jolt Natalie saw Josh's name, and the embarrassing events of the previous night replayed at triple speed. She didn't know what she could possibly say. Or, worse, what he could be calling to say. I like you, but not in that way? I think you're pretty, just not sexy? You have cheeseburger breath? She rejected the call.
Natalie's Chutes and Ladders journey finally delivered her to the fourth floor of a partially converted warehouse with exposed pipes and stained cement flooring. There was nary a model—or any other living being, for that matter—in sight. In the corner was a drafting table littered with pizza boxes and cigarette butts. Crap—had she missed the shoot?
"I'm Alison." A cold voice startled Natalie, who looked up to see a smallish sallow woman standing by the entryway. She was dressed in head-to-toe white: shirt, cargo pants, nail polish, and even eyeliner. "You must be James' friend." Alison proceeded to assess her visitor with such concentrated disdain that Natalie briefly considered denying her identity and fleeing the premises.
"Have a seat." Alison cleared a pile of newspapers off a cowhide recliner. "The other girls are showing up in a bit."
Natalie waited until Alison disappeared again before taking a book out of her bag—a battered paperback she'd found in Teddy's study that he'd warned might be a little too "old" for her. Like that was going to deter Natalie. To her disappointment, the "legendary" book turned out to be just plain old, scene after empty scene of teenagers in Los Angeles sitting around doing drugs.
"Hey!" came a familiar voice behind Natalie. James blew through the door, looking outrageously fantastic in an oversize men's oxford shirt that hit her mid-thigh. Her hair was wet and her overjoyed greeting was the opposite of Alison's. "Sorry I messed up the time," she said after giving Natalie a wet kiss right on the lips. "For an aspiring literary great, I'm seriously borderline dyslexic. I was an hour off—the shoot doesn't start till 4."
"That's totally fine," Natalie said, "but I should probably call my aunt. She lives in the city, so just in case this runs late. …"
"Go for it," James said, snatching the book from Natalie's hands. "Oh my God, I can't believe you're reading this!"
"You've read it?"
"No, but I just met that guy the other night, at the Bowery Hotel. Total nutcase." James opened up her overstuffed black notebook and scribbled furiously for a few seconds.
It took Natalie a few seconds to get that James was talking about the book's author. Just—wow. Where she came from, barely 30 miles away, a person was considered lucky to glimpse a member of the Fabolous entourage from a hundred feet away in the Stop & Shop parking lot.
After getting the OK from her parents, who already thought she was in the city lunching with Maya, Natalie dialed first her aunt's cell, then her apartment. When Maya finally answered, she was thrilled to hear that Natalie was in town and invited her nice to dinner.
"Sure, dinner sounds great!" As Natalie spoke, she felt a tug at her wrist. Next to her, James was making a peace-sign signal, as if she wanted in, too. "Oh, and—could I maybe bring a friend along?" The question triggered a grin from James and an "Of course!" from Maya. "I think you'll really like her," Natalie told her aunt.
"I can't wait to meet Maya," James said when Natalie had hung up.
Natalie blinked: Had she mentioned her aunt's name? As if reading her mind, James said, "Your mom was talking about her at your house that night. The hyperactive yoga teacher, right? She sounded really cool."
"She is totally cool," Natalie said as her phone began to ring. She glanced down to see Jenna's photo. She rejected the call, but it was too late. James was already squinting at the phone. "Who is that?" she asked as Jenna's face reappeared; Jenna was a big fan of the redial button.
"It's just my—my ex-friend Jenna," Natalie said, surprising herself with the severity of the statement. "Remember, the girl who came with me to the Dark Shadows audition?"
"Oh, right, that Lindsay-ma-bobby?" James said.
"Jenna, you mean?"
"No offense," James said, "but I don't care what's on that girl's birth certificate. She's a total Lindsay." She shrugged. "She seemed nice enough, just … well, sort of not who I'd picture you being friends with."
"Who do you picture me being friends with?" Natalie asked uncertainly.
James shrugged. "I don't know. But she's kind of aggressively normal, no?"
Natalie smiled blankly, unsure how to react to this comment. Deep down, she feared she was the "aggressively normal" one—boring and, as the Josh situation proved, aggressive. Ugh.
Just then, a gust of laughter from the hallway announced the models' arrival. Like James, the girls who filed into the room were all wearing rumpled androgynous clothing, and also like James, they were all mind-bogglingly beautiful. Why exactly had Natalie been invited here again? She so clearly wasn't in the same league.
And then she saw the guy behind them and let out a gasp.
"What's wrong?" James sounded concerned.
"Is that—is that Nicolai?" As during the Dark Shadows open casting, Natalie couldn't take her eyes off the astonishingly handsome boy vampire.
James burst out laughing. "You mean Owen?" she asked. "Ha, yes, unfortunately, that guy is like a bad celebrity nudie pic—cropping up everywhere. Not to be a total narcissist, but I think it's because he sweats a certain fellow cover model."
So Terra and Nicolai had a relationship off-screen as well? Natalie felt confused and dehydrated.
"Much to his dismay, Owen is actually responsible for my raging romance with Jonathan," James said in a low voice. "They took the same summer photography course in high school and I met Jonathan through him. Owen creeps me out, the way he's always staring at me, but Jonathan won't listen to any of my extremely incisive complaints about his beloved bestie. He worships Owen because he knows all these big-deal fashion world people. Whoop-de-doo." She rolled her eyes. "At least Jonathan has better taste in girls than friends!"
"I know how that is," Natalie said, thinking of Josh's inexplicable loyalty to Simon Cloth. She was still staring at the graceful, altogether beautiful Nicolai as he hurried around the room, setting up lights and arranging barstools in a semi-circle. "But what's he doing here, anyway?"
James shrugged. "He knows Alison and must've heard I was coming. He assists her on some shoots. Owen's the total aspiring-photographer cliché, minus the slightest smidgen of talent."
So Owen was a photographer, too, just like Natalie! Not that she could in any way compare herself to this gorgeous god-on-earth.
While Alison stood in the corner, chain-chewing Nicorette and grumbling, Owen brought a large pile of starchy white lab coats from the closet and started distributing them to the girls. When he got to James, he stalled. "We meet again," he said, handing her a coat. His mouth was hanging open a little, but somehow the slack-jawed look suited him.
"Quel thrill," James said with maximum sarcasm.
"And you are?" Owen asked, turning reluctantly to Natalie.
"Natalie." She felt dizzy in such close proximity to extreme male beauty. "I, um, saw you a few weeks ago, at that audition."
Owen raised a dubious eyebrow. "The Dark Shadows casting," James clarified. "Natalie's the coolest person I've met in yonks. She's also a mega Fiona groupie, so she's a bit star-struck in the presence of Nicolai."
"Ah, yes, dear old Nicolai," Owen said, looking back at Natalie. "So is that where you guys met, too?" Natalie nodded, and Owen squinted at James. "And now you're, what—hanging out?"
"What, are you jealous?" James chuckled.
"No, it's just a bit odd," Owen said. "Don't you think?"
Before Natalie could fumble out an answer, Alison hustled all the girls into the center of the room and took a couple of test photos. She looked into the screen and glared at the results.
"Your collars are interfering with the lines," she said through a locked jaw. "Can you all take off your shirts and bras?"
Natalie couldn't believe how low-key Alison's request sounded, or how quickly all the girls obeyed, and this in spite of Owen standing right there, making no effort to avert his eyes. He was watching the girls with an intense stillness and restraint, something almost like boredom. It probably helped that he wasn't allowing himself to look at James.
Natalie had to remind herself that Owen was just a human being, a flawed mortal like the rest of them. He was not Nicolai standing on the precipice of Eden's Bluff, shooting deadly mental heat bombs at the packs of royal ravens swarming overhead. Not even close.
Even so, she felt deeply grateful for her experience on the track team just then: All those years in the locker room had taught her how to disrobe without ever exposing an inch of flesh.
"Stand very still," Alison quietly commanded after Natalie had wriggled out of her tank top and bra under her lab coat. "Wipe your face of all expression. No emotion, no reaction, nothing."
The room was silent. Natalie envisioned a blank piece of paper, then immediately saw it filling with doodles of flowers and caterpillars and games of tic-tac-toe.
"Look dead," Alison encouraged. "Become a void."
Weirdly, none of the models, including James, seemed to find Alison's crackpot directions remotely funny. Their seriousness soon began to infect Natalie, who focused on looking the deadest of all. Her facial muscles relaxed as she remembered her father, six feet under the ground in the Brooklyn cemetery that housed the other dead Pollocks. Rest in peace, rest in peace. Turned out Natalie was kind of good at playing dead.
"OK, we're almost done," Alison said a little later. "Now turn around and take off your coats."
Natalie, who was in a trance from standing motionless for so long, was momentarily confused. None of the models had clothing on underneath, not even bras. The girls around her, however, shrugged off their coats without hesitation.
She turned to James and saw that she was already topless, which only made Natalie feel more panicked.
"Don't worry," James said, without a shred of self-consciousness. Her small breasts sat high up on her torso. "She's shooting us from behind. Nobody will know it's you."
"Unless you're the only one with a bra," one of the models snickered.
Natalie glanced over and saw that Owen had taken a seat facing away from the girls.
"It's fine," James said, assurance pouring out of her.
And so, even though Natalie was wearing nothing but sandals and her favorite jean miniskirt, she, too, removed her lab coat. And to her great surprise, it was the opposite of scary; it was exhilarating, intoxicating. Her nipples hardened from the rush of cool air, and James threw her a secret smile.
"OK, now come back to life with the music," Alison said, bending over an iPod. "I want to feel your vitality, I want to taste it."
She put on an old Joan Jett song that Natalie recognized from the Runaways movie she'd seen with Jenna. Right on cue, the other girls started whooping and bouncing and gyrating, and that was before Alison had even returned to her tripod to record their movements.
Natalie smiled as she rotated her shoulders and hips, her inhibitions dropping away like autumn leaves. The more she moved, the giddier she felt. Maybe all her insecurities coated something else inside her, like an extra layer of fat.
"Now pivot your bodies to the wall and turn to face me," Alison instructed.
Natalie felt a pull in her throat as the other girls complied. "It's OK, Nat," James whispered behind her. "Nothing bad's going to happen. I'm here to protect you."
Natalie smiled bashfully, then turned toward the lens.
The other girls were taking it up a notch and rocking out, but Natalie barely registered their movements. She was thinking of a night two summers ago in Nantucket, when she and Jenna had gone skinny-dipping in the icy Atlantic well past midnight—just about the only time Jenna had voluntarily taken her clothes off. On both occasions there had been a charge in the air, an unexpected thrill in experiencing a private moment in the company of others. Yet today was the winner, hands down.
As she shook her hair out in front of her, Natalie had the sensation she was being watched. Her eyes cut through the screen of messy brown hair and she saw James staring at her. A shiver rode high on Natalie's neck and just as quickly rolled away. Everywhere James' eyes had touched felt golden and warm.
On deck for next week: Natalie encounters more blood, gets a taste of New York City nightlife, and finds out who this mysterious Risa Baynar is. Like the My Darklyng Facebook page to see Natalie's life unravel in real time.