Natalie felt overdressed and underwhelmed as she followed her friends into the gym. Plastic punchbowls were lined up under the westernmost basketball hoop. Pop music fizzed through loudspeakers that had been all but destroyed by decades of fire drills, and the scoreboard lights had been adjusted to a sultry setting that was proving a safety hazard, given the drunkenness of most attendees.
A few minutes earlier, James had texted about the dance.
I can hitch a ride if u think I shld J
Hilarious, Natalie had texted back right away.
"It sure is frisky at the farmers market tonight," Meredith giggled, staring at the outlines of couples making out by the trash bins.
"Ew, could they be any more pathetic?" Jenna let slip.
Natalie got on her tiptoes and scanned the crowd for Josh's lanky figure. She didn't see him in the stands, and not on the "dance floor," either, where the only ones bold enough to boogie were graduating seniors, many of whom were wearing sweatpants and old T-shirts in honor of one of Edgemont's more obnoxious traditions.
A familiar yodel cut through the room as "Live Your Life" came onto the speakers. Everybody screamed and raced for the dance floor, as if Rihanna were a hometown hero.
Natalie felt somebody grab her arm and turned. Her face fell when she recognized Nathan Osh-Wallace, the Teddy Ruxpin lookalike whose most notable achievement was getting stuck in his time-travel machine at the eighth-grade science fair.
"Language arts fire drill, 2006!" Nathan screamed as he dragged her across the floor and proceeded to hop up and down, violating Rihanna's rhythm to a violent degree. "Remember the dance we made up? It was one of my top 10 moments of junior high!"
He gave Natalie a high-five, her signal to boing into the air—unfortunately, she remembered the dance perfectly. And so she shot up, her hair lifting from her shoulders to form a horizontal plane. She was five inches off the ground when she spotted Josh across the dance floor. He was staring straight at her with a crooked smile.
Natalie came down with a thud. Nathan was balling himself up in preparation for his "firecracker" move. "I have to go say hi to my boyfriend," she yelled over the chorus. She still felt a tingle of excitement every time she uttered those three magical syllables: My boyfriend. "He just got here—I'll see you later."
The second Natalie pulled up to Josh, he shocked her with an enthusiastic, "Baby!" followed by a big wet kiss.
Natalie pulled away when she detected the sour taste of Jägermeister on Josh's breath. She'd had a very unfortunate experience with the stuff at Todd Franco's party freshman year.
Josh gazed down at the infinity sign below her clavicle, and his eyes crossed ever so slightly as he pulled her close to whisper, "You look amazing." His breath tickled her ear, and now that she was expecting it, the musky licorice scent didn't bother her half as much. "C'mere."
Natalie smiled sheepishly as Josh dragged her through the crowd over to the bleachers. Mr. Shelton, the tight-assed head of the Civics department, was barely five feet away, but he was so absorbed in his iPhone reading that he didn't notice them swish past and settle into a crook under the bleachers. Natalie started to laugh, and Josh covered her mouth with his palm. "Shh." He looped his arms around her waist and kissed her with an urgency she'd forgotten he possessed.
Natalie's heart thumped as Josh slipped his hand under her spaghetti strap. They could so easily get caught, and she so didn't care.
Josh nuzzled his face into her neck. "Natalie," he murmured. "Do you have any idea how hot you look?"
She smiled in the dark. "I'm starting to get a sense."
Josh kissed her again, and she crumpled a little when his hand gingerly explored the skin under and then below the infinity symbol. She had to remember to breathe as he caressed the side of her actual breast. Josh hadn't been this forward with her since—God, she couldn't even think when.
The bleachers vibrated as a group of kids tramped up to the top. Natalie giggled when a stray shoe grazed her head. She kissed back even harder as Josh, his breath coming faster now, grabbed a fistful of her hair and gave it a light tug.
Natalie felt a whoosh of joy shoot up her chest—or maybe that was Josh's other hand! And then a voice rang over the music, mere inches from where they stood entwined: "Dirty minds think alike—I knew I'd find you down here."
They jumped apart, Natalie hurriedly readjusting the top of her dress and discovering with dismay that her strapless bra had fallen to about bellybutton level. Of course Mr. Shelton had busted them. He'd probably try to issue summer detentions.
When Natalie finally craned her neck upward, she found herself face to face not with Mr. Shelton or some random PTA mom, but with the one and only James Kay. The model was peering down from the bleacher directly above, head cocked upside-down and long silky hair dangling mid-air. She was wearing comically giant Woody Allen glasses that somehow only increased her attractiveness.
"What are you doing here?" Natalie cried.
"Way to extend a warm welcome," James said. "I've been looking for you for, like, ever. I'd ask why you stopped checking your texts, but I think I can see the answer."
Josh rubbed his eyes. "Sorry, will somebody explain what's going on here?"
"You were right—he is cute," James said to Natalie, as if Josh weren't there. "Definitely at least an A-minus." Then, without missing a beat, James turned to Josh. "I'm James," she said. "And you're Josh. At least I hope you are." She winked at Natalie, who was now scrolling furiously through her texts.
Is is the main door? Jx
Ok, either ur dressed up as Bon Jovi or not here yet?
"I've heard SO much about you," James said to Josh, now zeroing all her attention on him. "But obviously I wasn't told everything."
"Seriously, who are you?" Josh looked a little frightened.
"I told you about James," Natalie said. She had, hadn't she? "The girl I met in the city? The model?"
James laughed as she sat down on the bench above them. She was wearing a tiny knit miniskirt, and when Natalie looked up, she could see where James' spindly legs ended in lace underwear, and she knew that Josh could see, too.
"OK, obviously, I wasn't the only one who wasn't told everything," James said with a mischievous grin. "Most especially about you."
"What were you told?" Josh was now gazing intently, but still not all that happily, up at the interloper.
"Don't worry, all good stuff," James said. "She's just always complaining about her smart, cute, annoyingly virtuous boyfriend—I guess she was protecting your reputation." James giggled; Natalie wanted to die.
"Oh," James went on, "and Owen wanted to tag along as usual, but it's a good thing he didn't. Wouldn't want you dying of excitement or anything."
Josh turned his glance to Natalie, and his wounded expression said it all. "Who's Owen?"
"He's just a friend of James'," Natalie spluttered. "He's, like, obsessed with her."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"There's no need to be upset, sweetmeat." James reached down to stroke Josh's hair. "I'm totes delighted to meet you, but I must say I'm also a tad surprised. From what Natalie was telling me, I assumed you were a born-again virgin or, like, afraid of girl cooties."
James leaned down to bring her face level with Josh's. She stared into his eyes, slowly traced his forehead with her index finger. Josh stared back, and for a second Natalie wondered if her boyfriend was falling under James' spell.
James pulled back and turned toward Natalie. "What do you say, Nat? Maybe the three of us can have some extra-special fun?" Her eyes widened and she threw back her head. "I saw a super-sexy Comfort Inn on the bus ride over."
Natalie was too freaked out to respond. Had James just suggested what it sounded like she'd suggested? Natalie glanced at Josh, whose eyes were flashing with fear or hatred or both. "I have no idea who you are," he said to James. "All I know is that you're wack." He jumped away from her like an untamed animal and started to back out of the bleachers.
"Josh!" Natalie reached out to stop him, to tell him none of this was her idea, but Josh pushed her away, causing her to lose her balance. She teetered forward and blindly flailed for support. Her fingers flew into something cold and hard—Josh's belt buckle. God, of all things.
"Get the fuck off me!" he screamed. "Both of you!"
Natalie was still struggling to regain her balance when Josh broke away from her. She heard herself call after him, but the words sounded watery, without substance. After he'd vanished, she was still wobbling from one foot to the other, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
"Well, that went over swimmingly, wouldn't you say?" James slid through the space between the stands and lowered herself to the ground. It amazed Natalie—no fattie herself—that a human body could squeeze through such a tiny space. "I'm sorry if I upset him," James went on, "but hello, I was totally joking. I mean, sorry, I don't do that sort of thing, or at least not with an army of random math teachers watching."
Natalie tried to steady her breathing. "I'm not sure he got the joke," she managed weakly.
"I mean, damn—is he always such a Jerkules?"
"He had a lot to drink." Natalie's eyes stung as she tried to untangle the recent blur of events. Was Josh the jerk in this situation? Maybe. She'd definitely told him about James, and James had obviously been kidding about the whole—threesome thing. So what was the issue?
"I think I need to go straighten this out," she told James.
James caught Natalie's wrist. "Don't," she said. "Better wait till he's sober and sorry."
"No, I really have to."
But James was firm. "You absolutely do not. It's not your job to fix everything all the time, Nat. It's not even possible."
"I just need to—"
"Trust me. His overreaction clearly had zero to do with you. So instead of always taking it on the chin, why not stand up for yourself every once in a while?"
James's words startled Natalie. She'd seen her mother turn into a human armchair when Teddy got in his moods, trying to make everything better when it wasn't her place. And she could only imagine how much of an apologetic pushover Elena had been with Izzy, whose foul moods were legendary. She'd always vowed to avoid Elena's fate in this respect. Had she somehow failed already?
"Thanks, I appreciate that," Natalie said, trying to conceal how shaken she was.
"In other news, aren't you so thrilled I came?" James asked. She pushed her oversize glasses up her nose. "I mean, the Edgemont Express runs two ways, after all. Since you're always coming out to me, I figured I'd accept your invitation this time."
"But James, I wasn't serious when I—"
"Of course you were," James said, latticing a hand through Natalie's. She traced the infinity symbol of Natalie's dress with her free index finger. "Now, onto more important matters. Can we please talk about this dress?"
Natalie groaned. Not this, too. "Why—what's the matter with it?"
James shook her head quickly. "N-no, nothing. I couldn't love it more—and that sideways eight thingie is a particularly rad touch. But, btdubs, your bra situation could use a little help."
"Right." Natalie had completely forgotten about the strapless bra a very different Josh had almost pulled out the top of her dress. She grinned bashfully as she arranged it back into place, then scanned the dark mass of students to make sure nobody had noticed the indiscretion.
Her shoulders eased as she finished surveying the gym. It wasn't until her eyes reached the far end that she blanched. Jenna was standing underneath the scoreboard, staring straight at Natalie. Her face was twisted, her eyes burning with fury. Oh, Jesus. What had Natalie done now?