"Oh, my sweet monkey, I'm so, so sorry," James said. "You are a million leagues cooler than that loserati. I swear you'll bounce back."
"Yeah, in, like, 2034," Natalie snuffled into the receiver. Why exactly was she seeking advice from a professional model who'd obviously never been dumped in her life?
"Nat, you ditched a dude who would rather play mind games than get it on—this is a good thing."
"It sure doesn't feel so good." And she hadn't ditched him: Josh had dumped her. Nothing in the world could change that.
James sighed. "Sorry, but I refuse to let you waste your summer pining after some cold suburban fish. It's never too soon to pick up the pieces and Move On Dot Org."
"Easier said than done," Natalie said. Though she did have to admit she felt a little less destroyed than when she'd picked up the phone a few minutes earlier.
"Au contraire!" James protested. "This very evening, I am taking you, my dear, to the most exclusive speakeasy this town has ever seen. It's right off the South Street Seaport and all kinds of awesome. Oh, and bring Lindsay if you want," James added, the first time she'd ever offered to include Jenna. "You'll forget about Mr. Tickle-Me-Emo in no time, I swear."
Natalie could feel the corners of her mouth tugging up a little. What would she do without James?
At lunch, when she asked her mom for permission to stay over at Maya's, Elena barely registered the request. She nodded "Mm-hmm" without even glancing up from the COBRA benefits letter that had arrived for Teddy that morning. If nothing else, her family's freefall certainly provided a good distraction.
When she climbed into the Stecklow town car later that night, Natalie was pleased and only a little suspicious to see Jenna smiling, as if she and Natalie had never squabbled in all their lives. In her red halter top and blue glitter eye shadow, Jenna seemed genuinely determined to enjoy their night out in the city.
"You look rad," Jenna said, taking in Natalie's short-sleeved trench coat and jean miniskirt combo.
"Do not," Natalie said, right then and there deciding to accept Jenna's good mood at face value. Maybe Jenna didn't hate James; maybe she just hated feeling left out.
"He's a total bastard," Jenna said a second later, referring to who else. She leaned forward and raised her voice to compete with the AM sports radio that the Stecklows' chauffeur Hisham listened to nonstop. "Hish, wouldn't you say any guy who dumps this hottie deserves a good beat down?"
Hisham slowed down the car. "Where does the idiot live?"
Jenna started to respond, "A hundred and twenty Fri—"
"Jenna!" Natalie lunged across the back seat to cover her friend's mouth. Hisham chuckled as he gunned the engine.
Thirty minutes and one state line later, Natalie and Jenna were standing outside a deli very far downtown. Several streetlights were blown out, and the only detectable motion came from the cars swooshing across the Brooklyn Bridge above them. Hisham usually dropped the girls at their destinations and returned for them at the stroke of midnight, but this time he'd insisted on waiting down the block with the engine idling. "I don't see no house party," he'd said when he'd left them outside the deli, per James' instructions.
Jenna pivoted to take in their surroundings. "This is, like, too sketchy to be central Sketchville."
"Ah, c'mon, it'll be fun."
"Salutations!" A familiar voice sliced through the silence, and a shape scissored out of the black night: James in a tiny white dress with peacock feathers sewn haphazardly around the very high hemline.
Nat and Jenna, once upon a better time:
Owen and Jonathan shuffled into focus a few seconds later. They greeted the high-school girls with polite nods, then immediately resumed discussing the latest celebrity tattoo gossip.
As always when she saw Owen, Natalie felt a little queasy. He had this animal magnetism that kept her eyes skittering all over the place. It didn't hurt that he shared a face and body with Nicolai, who'd starred in so many of her most elaborate daydreams.
Owen caught her staring, and Natalie shot her eyes back down to the cobblestones. So embarrassing. Luckily, James chose the same moment to hustle the group toward the water, where a plain white houseboat was anchored.
"They're all with you?" a hollow-eyed woman stationed on the pier asked James.
"I'd better not get seasick," Jenna muttered as they stepped aboard one at a time.
"You can say that again," James said. "This boat is a piece of art. The furniture alone is worth millions."
"She's kidding," Jonathan reassured Jenna. "You've stepped aboard a dump. You'll see."
The boards underneath their feet creaked as they shot off the gangway and into a dark vestibule. Jonathan was right: The boat was shabby chic, minus the chic. It reminded Natalie of a TV-movie prison, with graffiti-smeared walls and shrill cries bouncing off the low ceiling. Out on the deck, Natalie recognized a few local celebrities—Whitney Port's bestie Roxy and one of the guys from MGMT—and she suspected the revelers she didn't recognize were even more important.
"You OK?" Owen asked Natalie.
"Yeah, sorry," she said, blinking. "I'm just not used to—is that Alexa Chung over there?"
"God, you are green," Owen said, and at Natalie's sharp glance added, "Just be careful, OK? This world was made to gobble sweet little girls like you right up."
As if having overheard the warning, a hulking man ahead of them whipped around, his bloodshot eyes sweeping over Natalie before he turned away.
"Hey!" James whistled from a small table she'd claimed in the corner. "Specially reserved for my Natty Dread and any man she chooses to bed!"
"She's totally just kidding," Natalie whispered to Jenna, just in case. Jenna shrugged, but her jaw was tensed.
"Sit down, sit down," James said when Natalie and Jenna had snaked their way across the crowded room.
But there was only room for one in the booth against the wall, and Natalie saw no extra chairs in their immediate vicinity. "I'll go grab that one," she said when at last she spotted a lone stool on the opposite side of the cabin.
"Don't be redonk," James said. "You sit now, and then we'll swap out every couple of minutes."
Natalie was relieved when Jenna nodded at this suggestion. "Wow, there are so many hot guys here," she said, her voice high-pitched and nervous.
"And speaking of, how hottinski does Nat look tonight?" James wrapped her arm around Natalie. "I swear to G, you will totally love every second of your new life—I'm making it my personal mission!"
As the room filled up, James kept sliding closer to Natalie so they could hear each other. Jonathan showed up with a round of drinks, and Natalie was relieved when he immediately launched into New Jersey small talk with Jenna.
"I once saw Whitney Houston outside a falafel restaurant. She lives one town over," Jenna said in the same high-pitched voice.
"No way! She's a really great singer!" sweet Jonathan exclaimed with apparent sincerity.
"Come with me to the bathroom," James whispered to Natalie. "I have the best idea."
Natalie glanced at Jenna, who was happily discussing the Short Hills mall food court with Jonathan, then got up. "Hey, Jenna, the seat's free," she said. "I'll be back in two seconds."
Once inside the tiny bathroom, James pulled out a grey eyeliner pencil and pushed Natalie onto the crickety toilet. "Close your eyes."
The houseboat's tiny bathroom was cramped and smelly, and partygoers kept pounding on the door. James didn't seem to care, and continued her work undistracted.
When it was time for Natalie to assess her kohl-lined eyes in the mirror, she couldn't believe how much older and, well, hotter she looked. "Smoky eyes are always the answer—even if you don't know the question," James said, admiring her handiwork. "I'll totally teach you. Here, use this, too. Just be super-careful, or you'll mess everything up." She passed Natalie a Visine bottle and watched with a puckered expression as her protégée awkwardly stuck the nozzle between her lashes.
"The key is not making contact with your eyeball," James said. "No, lean your head back. Like this."
"Weird!" Natalie exclaimed when the cool liquid finally washed over her eye. "Thanks," she said as someone started pounding on the door again. "So should we go back out there now?"
"Not just yet—I have one more yummy sensation for you." James snapped open her purse again and brought out a tiny jewel-encrusted pillbox. "Isn't it gorg?" She popped open the box. "I got it on the Quai Voltaire during Fashion Week last year."
Inside the box were two orange pills, so round and beautiful they looked like little jewels themselves. James put one in her mouth and handed the other to Natalie. "Total relaxation guaranteed."
"I'm already relaxed, and pills aren't really my thing," Natalie said bravely. "I mean, since I already have to take a bunch of stuff to regulate my platelet levels." She pictured broad-shouldered Hisham scrutinizing her for wear-and-tear.
"Don't worry, sweetie, the dosage is miniscule. My genius shrink prescribed them for just the kind of emotional hiccup you experienced today—they'll help take the edge off, I swear."
"Hurry up!" somebody hollered from outside, and James arched her eyebrow at Natalie.
"But I have this huge track thing tomorrow …"
"You'll be fine." James stared deeply into Natalie's eyes. "Trust me."