When they were back in the elevator, James said nothing about Maya or Stephen or ice cream. She had completely moved on and was energetically scrolling through messages on her BlackBerry and making clicking sounds. "I swear, I have no idea why I'm still with Jonathan," she said. "He's totally shallow and not exactly Einstein, either."
The elevator thudded to a halt, and James paused to push a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. "It's probably his talent that got me hooked. He's actually an amazing photographer." As she pulled the lever to open the door, James added, "It also helps that he's the opposite of ugs—you'll def comprends when you meet him."
"Can't wait," Natalie said as they stepped onto Sullivan. She was pretty sure Jonathan would dismiss her with one glance, but whatever.
"Well, in that case, I have good news for you," James said. "He's in the neighborhood, over at the clubhouse. You down?"
"But what about Maya? She's expecting us back in a few minutes."
"Oh, please," James scoffed. "She's been dying to get it on with that dude all night. She won't miss us, trust me."
Natalie felt a jolt of surprise. Was that the reason her aunt had acted so weird in there? Duh: She was always so clueless in these matters. She'd also been the last to figure out that Maya was dating Christopher, the wacky rock star turned "bicycle advocate" who kept showing up at family events a few years back.
"Um, OK, then," Natalie said with a note of caution. Maybe James was right: Maya had probably just been scheming for ways to get rid of her teenage intruders so she could have more time alone with Stephen. "But I should still call her, so she knows I make the bus back. How long do you think we'll be out?"
James smiled devilishly. "I don't know, an hour or two?" She glanced at Natalie, picking up on her trepidation. "Don't worry, it's not like she's your mother. She's your cool enlightened aunt, right?"
"Yeah, but it's still a school night …" Natalie's parents weren't strict, mostly because she'd never given them much reason to be.
"Right, which means school isn't until tomorrow," James shot back as she steered Natalie down the street.
The "clubhouse" turned out to be a bar in a dusky corner of southwest SoHo called the No. 1 Boys and Girls Clubhouse. James had clearly been here before. She scuttled up a 10-foot rope ladder and gestured for Natalie to follow. At the landing, James picked up the bright red plastic telephone from the floor. "Do you have bunks for two more campers?" she asked, and within seconds a curtain was pulled back and a sinewy man ushered them inside.
Everything about the place—from the square card tables to the vintage maps on the walls—looked straight out of a Hardy Boys book. Well, everything except the crowd. As she trailed James across the room, Natalie experienced a double-barreled rush of excitement and confusion. Her eyes shot from a table of guys in rumpled, paint-splattered T-shirts to a girl in a slinky strapless dress with two angel wings tattooed on her scapula. It seemed unbelievable that Edgemont was just 30 miles from this place. It felt more like 30 light years.
Just as James pulled out chairs for them, a guy swept over. "Evening, ladies," he said, scooping down to peck James on the lips. "I was hoping you'd make it."
Natalie instantly understood why James was so into Jonathan, with his delicate features, transparent ivory skin, and dark brown hair. He was beautiful the way women are beautiful, but somehow not at all feminine.
Natalie watched as James threw her arms around Jonathan and passionately returned his kiss. When was the last time Josh had kissed her like that?
But if Natalie had feared third wheel-dom, Jonathan instantly put her at ease. He was friendly and generous—he bought them both drinks—and effortlessly chatty. Natalie couldn't tell how old Jonathan was, early 20s or thereabouts. He was a photo student at the School of Visual Arts who "helped out" at Purple magazine's New York office, he told Natalie.
"Sounds just like my summer job," Natalie threw out sarcastically. "Except I'll be helping out at the Edgemont Express, the least fashionable community newspaper in all of New Jersey." She was impressed by how not-spastic she was managing to sound.
"No way—you're working at the Express?" Jonathan said with what sounded like genuine interest. "Do they still have that crazy advice column? With that heavily accessorized aging hippie woman?"
Natalie was stunned. "How do you know about 'Ask Denise?' "
"Those enormous parrot earrings were pretty unforgettable."
Natalie laughed. "In her new author photo, she's wearing equally gigantic hoops with dream-catchers dangling from them."
"What Jonathan's not telling you is that he and Denise used to date," James interjected. She flashed Natalie a bright-eyed look as she drained her drink. Natalie could never tell when James was joking, so instead of replying she took a big gulp of her cocktail, which tasted disconcertingly like turpentine and mouthwash.
"Seriously," Natalie said, eyeing Jonathan. "How do you know about the Express?"
"You're not the only New Jerseyite unleashed on Manhattan tonight," Jonathan said with a smile. "I grew up in Bernardsville."
"Wowzers, maybe your parents know each other!" James exclaimed.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Jonathan said earnestly. "The longer you live in this world, the more incestuous it becomes. At least that's definitely the case in the fashion industry."
James nodded. "Soooo true."
"Oh, hey," Natalie said suddenly, "speaking of fashion, does the name Risa Baynar ring a bell? She's this, like, stylist who friended me on Facebook, but I don't think we've ever met. I was wondering if either of you knew her?"
A few days earlier, Risa Baynar had left yet another weird wall post—a wacky old record cover of a miniature princess reaching up for a club-wielding ogre—on Natalie's wall, and she still didn't have any idea why.
"What do you mean?" James cried when Jonathan shook his head. "Jonathan, you are SO late to the party, hello? Everyone knows Risa Baynar! Well, at least in the quote-unquote industry. She was Kate Moss's bestie back in the day—responsible for heroin chic before it was chic. Damn, girl, you're lucky she friended you. … It must have something to do with your kick-ass photo from the audition."
"But I haven't—"
"But how could she have—?"
Natalie and Jonathan broke off in unison, for without warning the magnetic Nicolai had materialized over their table. He was holding a large glass of pomegranate-colored liquid, and he looked more like Johnny Depp, i.e., heartrendingly perfect, then ever.
The eviscerated squirrel flashed through her brain, and Natalie knew she should feel angry and repulsed. After all, this guy, a total stranger—whose name was Owen, not Nicolai—had hacked into her phone for no apparent reason. Why, then, was her every pore tingling?
In Fallen Darkness, Nicolai's glitter trail was only visible to Imogen, who also happened to be the one creature in the last 1,000 years immune to his deadly seductions. But Natalie was no Imogen; she was more like the Half-Cinder Nicolai shoves into the Blood-Red River in the chilling prologue of My Darklyng. Vulnerable, weak. Easy prey.
"Hey, sexalicious," James said, stretching up to kiss Owen on both cheeks European-style. He was straining not to drool; it was painful to watch.
"Have a seat," James said, surprising Natalie with her warmth.
Then again, maybe James felt bad for him. From what she'd said on the subway to Maya's, Owen had been pining for James since their first Dark Shadows cover shoot, and she'd "rather make out with a piranha than that creep." As Owen nodded greetings at everyone, James scooted closer to Jonathan and twined her legs around her boyfriend's waist. Poor Owen.
"Hi, Owen," Natalie eventually mustered the courage to say.
It took him a moment for him to recognize her. "What are you doing here?" He curled up his lip and shot a questioning glance at James.
"I was about to ask you the same," Natalie replied boldly. She was so not used to drinking hard liquor. "I thought you were more of a taxidermy bar type."
Owen responded with a blank stare, and Natalie flushed with embarrassment. James must've sensed her discomfort, because she immediately jumped to Natalie's defense. "Why is it weird that she's here? Or is it that you don't want my affections any more divided than they already are?"
Owen looked from James to Natalie and back again, a study in contrasts, then shook his head. "Forget it."
"Come with me to the bathroom?" James said to Natalie a second later. What was technically a question might as well have been a royal decree. "Grab us round two, will you, Jon? We'll be back in a flash."
Natalie obeyed without hesitation; she was grateful to be spared Owen's intense scrutiny.
"Don't let Owen mess with you, he's just a little sad," James said after they lined up outside a door decorated with a wooden anchor. "Seriously, his whole unrequited-love shtick is beyond pathetique."
"It's weird, though," Natalie said. "You'd think he could just get his own girlfriend. I mean, he's super cute—it would take him, like, two seconds."
James' eyes widened as she stared at Natalie. "Omigod, I can't believe I didn't pick up on it before!"
"What?" Natalie looked in both directions.
"You totally like Owen!" James squealed. "He's your bloodsucking prince-hero fantasy come to life, isn't he? C'mon, admit it! You think he's fascinating and beautiful and want to stroll off into the sunset snapping intimate portraits of each other, don't you? Ha! I love it!"
"Shut up!" Natalie felt her cheeks redden. "I'm not—I do not!"
A woman shot out of the bathroom door and the man who'd been waiting ahead of them moved aside for James. Hot girls, Natalie thought with a sigh. They had no idea.
James didn't even notice the guy's chivalry: She was too busy cracking up at Natalie. "O-M-G, girl," she said as they crammed into the tiny bathroom and pushed the door shut, "Let me tell you, if you get involved with Owen, you'll get a lot more than an invite to the Frozen Darkscope."
Natalie cast her eyes down at the tile floor, knowing better than to tell James she was mixing up Grigory's all-knowing magiscope with the Darkscape where restless vampires were condemned to wander for eternity. "Don't worry," she told James now. "I swear that isn't even a remote possibility."
"Good," James said. "Because trust me on this one—a real vampire would make a much safer hook-up partner."