"That did not just happen," Natalie said in disbelief. She and Jenna had been waiting for the elevator for five minutes, only for its unpainted doors to open—and close—lightning-fast. Neither girl made it on. "It's, like, haunted or something."
"I told you coming here was the worst idea ever." Jenna was laughing. "It's not too late to bail, you know."
"Hang on. We can win this battle." Natalie jammed her finger into the lighted Up button and held it there. When the elevator doors whinnied open a second time, she thrust her arm into the chamber and leaned hard against the door to keep it open. "After you."
"Remind me why I'm here again?" Jenna asked as she squeezed past Natalie onto the elevator.
"Because you promised, and because that's what best friends since kindergarten do for each other," Natalie said as she started to slip in next to Jenna. But she'd forgotten how evil the elevator was, and the doors snapped shut before she could get her arm all the way inside.
"Ouch!" Natalie shrieked. "Oh, please, please, no," she whispered, staring at her stinging arm and willing it not to turn into eggplant caponata.
Jenna shrugged dismissively. "Oh, don't worry—a nice new bruise will only add to your vampiric qualities."
"Thanks a lot," Natalie grumbled. Maybe Jenna was right after all. Coming out here was the stupidest idea ever. Typically, on a sunny Saturday morning in late May, Natalie would be jogging on any number of woodland trails near her house in central New Jersey; Jenna would be liquidating any number of retail outlets at the Short Hills mall. So why exactly had they lied to their parents and hauled themselves past all the sex shops and discount-theater-ticket kiosks to this gritty Times Square lobby that reeked of cigarette butts and orange soda?
Because ever since Natalie had read the news on Fiona St. Claire's Twitter page, she'd thought of little else. Fiona's publisher was holding an open casting call for the cover of Dark Passages, her seventh and "juiciest" book yet, and Natalie just had to be there.
Natalie had devoured every Dark Shadows vampire novel since halfway though seventh grade, when a four-hour-long bath with Epsom salts and a paperback of Dark Impaling (the first and, as Natalie later came to conclude, weakest in the series) had completely changed her life. Dark Nightfall, the third installment, ranked right up there with The Awakeningand The Giving Tree as Natalie's all-time favorite books. The possibility—however remote, however ridiculous—of appearing on one of the covers …
But who was she kidding? Dark Shadows books always featured adolescent models on their covers, ethereal figures with lips set sultrily apart and chins jutted out to expose porcelain necks just waiting to be punctured. Natalie was normal-looking to a fault. The only book cover she could picture herself on was one of those ancient paperbacks they kept on a creaky carousel in the Edgemont Public Library Children's Room—some not-quite classic with a title like Better Luck Next Life or Autobiography of a Gerbil Girl.
She and Jenna had hopped the 8:38 a.m. bus to Port Authority, allegedly to see a matinee dance performance at the Joyce Theater with Natalie's Aunt Maya, who lived in the city. It was a totally legit-sounding activity, since Jenna and Maya were both dance nuts. Anyway, Natalie's mom and stepdad almost never talked to Maya and probably wouldn't fact-check the story.
"You don't think we'll actually get chosen, do you?" Natalie whispered as the elevator spat them out onto the seventh floor. She kept glancing nervously down at her forearm, but much to her astonishment, the skin still looked clean and smooth.
Instead of answering, Jenna blanched and let out a scream. "Ew! You're bleeding!"
At the same moment, Natalie realized the stinging sensation was coming from higher on her arm than she'd thought. She looked down to see thick blood oozing from a gash on her right elbow. "Oh, crap!" she cried. "Do you have a napkin?"
"No," Jenna said, unwrapping the sweatshirt from around her waist and handing it to Natalie. "Just take this."
Though she knew that the Lacoste hoodie cost more than her entire sweatshirt collection combined—and that squeamish Jenna would never wear it again—Natalie took the sweatshirt and cinched it around her arm to staunch the bleeding. "Wow," she said as they resumed walking down the narrow, fluorescent-lighted hallway. "You just saved me from the most embarrassing moment of my life."
"Just helping to keep the dream alive," Jenna said with a smirk. Then she shook her head. "I love you, Nat, but you are such a hopeless dork."
"Oh, come on," Natalie said, tightening the sweatshirt to create a tourniquet at her elbow. "How cool would it be to get to say you spent your summer as a vampire model?"
"It does sound juicier than day-camp counselor or community-newspaper slave," Jenna allowed, referring to the pair's summer plans.
Natalie would be interning in the photo department of the Edgemont Express, their New Jersey town's weekly paper. Jenna would once again be working at Holy Trinity Boys and Girls Club, the day camp run by nuns and a staff comprised of Edgemont's hottest girls and horniest guys—not that Jenna was in it for the heavy petting.
"It just might happen," Natalie said. "Glorianna"—for that was the vixen being cast that day—"is described as having wavy auburn hair just like yours."
"Ugh, I hate my hair," Jenna said insincerely, flicking her favorite physical feature for effect.
"I'd take it over a mini-moustache," Natalie said. A few weeks earlier, after her family's traditional Sunday lunch at Olio's, Edgemont's super-fancy sponge-painted Italian restaurant, Jenna had shown up at the Pollock house unannounced and found Natalie crouched on the edge of the toilet with white cream bleach smeared over her upper lip.
"Oh, c'mon, 'staches are sexy!" Jenna giggled as they stopped outside room 701.
Natalie caught her breath: 7 was the second digit in 17, which was the magic number that unlocked some of the darkest mysteries in Fiona St. Claire's universe. Was it just an eerie coincidence that the casting was taking place in room 701—17 backward, with a 0 between the numerals?
Natalie wasn't about to share her speculations with Jenna, who had agreed to waste her precious Saturday at what she called the "Dork Shadows" summit only after extracting multiple promises of "eternal indebtedness" from Natalie.
Natalie glanced under the knotted sweatshirt and was relieved that the hemorrhaging appeared to be under control. She looked back up to see Jenna had opened the door to a scene unlike anything Natalie had ever witnessed before. The room, which was much larger than the cramped hallway had suggested, was packed with dozens of girls—some of them fairly pretty, especially a tall pale redhead with expensive-looking accessories—in disorganized zigzagging lines. A few anxious mothers huddled on the sidelines, and a handful of official-looking, black-clad adults were zooming back and forth, shouting into cell phones and earpieces.
And then, at the center of the fray, were two people Natalie recognized with a jolt: Terra and Nicolai, the immortal bloodsucking teenagers whose ill-fated love formed the centerpiece of Fiona St. Claire's best-selling series. OK, really—Natalie shook her head rapidly—these were just the professionally beautiful people who posed as Terra and Nicolai on the book covers, but still. The models had actually come?
Though they were in the middle of the room, Terra and Nicolai seemed completely remote from the frenzied proceedings. They might as well have been stuck alone in the Emerald Forest with only each other's bodies for consolation, as in the nail-biter ending of Dark Sinister.
Natalie felt dizzy, on the verge of passing out, and it wasn't from the loss of blood. She absolutely couldn't believe that she was sharing oxygen with the real-life models of her all-time favorite fictional characters—this was way more than she could've hoped for.
"Come on," Jenna said, tugging at the sweatshirt that was still tied around Natalie's elbow. Jenna—who had yet even to crack open the hologram edition of DarksDay Natalie had given her for Christmas last year—was completely uncowed by the scene before them.
As they settled into the line (pushy Jenna somehow managed to cut about three dozen people), Natalie could not tear her eyes off Terra and Nicolai. Nicolai looked exactly like he did in the photographs: tall, wan, too pale to be entirely healthy, a young Russian vampire through and through. Only his teal Havaiana flip-flops gave him away; Nicolai would never wear those.
But God, was he hot. Natalie had read about this guy on Fiona's Twitter page. He'd come with the esteemed author to one of those conventions she was always tweeting about—FangCon or something like that. Fiona had expressed deep admiration for … what was his name in real life? Ollie? Oscar? Ethan? Natalie was too overwhelmed to think straight.
As for "Terra"—well, she was even more breathtaking in person than on the book covers. And, unlike Nicolai, she was not at all vampiric. Though she didn't have a typical model physique—she was noticeably flat-chested and probably no taller than Jenna—Terra had classic Hollywood features: transparent, backlit skin; shiny jet-black hair, a mouth that curved into a perfect heart. ... Could a person really look this good without the benefit of airbrushing?
And it wasn't just Terra's appearance: It was the extreme, infectious confidence she projected. While Nicolai looked ill at ease, even shifty, Terra was chatting it up with all of the would-be cover girls brave enough to approach her. Terra treated them like old friends, laughing hoarsely at regular intervals, affectionately squeezing wrists and shoulders, warmly consenting to pose for cell phone pictures. In her hunter-green leggings, white tank top, and visible yellow bra straps, the girl was a force of nature—a human thunderbolt, a tornado tearing through town.
Natalie tugged at her medical bracelet, unable to tear her eyes away. She felt a powerful, instantaneous draw to this girl.
"Earth to Natalie," Jenna was saying. "Hello, are you there?"
"What?" Natalie squeaked, her eyes on the black curtain Terra was disappearing behind.
"Even though my parents are registered Republicans," Jenna said, "I'm totally open-minded, and I swear I'll still be your friend if you turn out to be a lesbo. Josh's the one you'd have to worry about."
Jenna was smirking now, as she did at every mention of Josh Cheng-Erickson, the chess-playing jazz bassist who had become Natalie's boyfriend seven and a half glorious weeks earlier. Jenna treated her best friend's relationship like a quaint, old-fashioned indulgence, ignoring the fact that she herself had a) never had a boyfriend or even b) gone past second base.
Jenna had no idea what she was missing. Natalie's mind toggled to Josh at Zach Coulton's party the night before, the way he'd pulled her into the laundry room and propped her on the washing machine and without so much as a peck on the lips started running his tongue along her neck. He'd pressed his palm against her mouth and kept licking, moving down to her collarbone, where he made slow circles as she moaned into his hand. She'd gotten so into it, she'd barely been able to make eye contact with him for the rest of the night.
"He'd be devastated," Jenna went on. "What a totally tragic end to the romance of the century."
"Will you shut up?" Natalie play-punched Jenna, missing her arm and instead landing her fist on the impossibly soft leather of her friend's mint-green bag. But the truth was, she had zero desire to admit her Fiona St. Claire obsession to Josh this early in their relationship. Instead, Natalie had gone to great lengths to play up her other interests: photography and, to an admittedly less intriguing degree, running.
"Can't I dork out every once in a while?" she asked Jenna now. "These people are, like, my—"
"Idols?" Jenna completed the thought with a grunt. "I swear, Nat, you can be such a social liability, kind of like everyone else in here."
"And you can be such a bitch."
"Seriously, how many of these girls do you think actually stand a chance?" Jenna was scrutinizing the same attractive redhead Natalie had noticed. "Well, maybe that girl up there, with the fake Chanel belt—"
Just then a wan woman in black accosted the pair. "Who's next?" she barked.
"She can go first," Jenna said automatically.
Natalie removed the sweatshirt and was sized up, handed a consent form, and directed to the photo area. "Good luck," the skinny lady said in a zombie tone.
Natalie lifted the heavy curtain, and right away she locked eyes with Terra. The model's eyes were dark, spheres of hard black glitter that seemed to swallow the room, and Natalie, right up.