Natalie beat her alarm clock and woke up at 10 minutes to 6. The sun was just starting to lift over the Grubners' redbrick colonial as she leaned into her windowsill and peered up and down the street. The scene was entirely still, a snow globe waiting to be shaken. She gazed out at the sky and sensed a sudden tug from the great beyond. Somehow, escaping like this, she felt closer to her dad than ever before.
I love you, she told him.
I love you, too, baby girl, she imagined Izzy saying back.
I'll find you, she promised.
You just did.
Natalie took a deep bracing breath. She looked back out on the street, which was no longer quite so still. Something seemed to have shifted, and the morning was churning into motion. There was no time to waste.
Natalie had already showered and packed the night before; now there was nothing to do but leave. She slipped on the gray James Perse T-shirt dress she'd laid on her desk chair, then slowly laced up her Tretorns. She dropped her phone into her purse after making sure it was switched off.
Then, slinging her overnight bag over her shoulder, she slipped into the hallway, careful to keep her movements quiet. She'd seen way too many made-for-TV movies not to expect to stumble upon one of her parents lounging on the living-room couch and doing a crossword puzzle, oh-so-conveniently experiencing a totally out-of-character bout of insomnia.
But the only activity downstairs was the ticking of the grandfather clock and the whirr of the refrigerator. It amazed Natalie, how easy it all was.
She was in New York by 8 a.m., winding her way through a dank passage of the Port Authority. The fluorescent lighting overhead flickered, and the tiled floor smelled of urine overlaid with bleach.
Natalie walked briskly down the corridor, slowing down only when she came to the life-size statue of downcast-looking commuters. This mini-landmark had always served as her family's designated meeting point whenever they'd come into the city to meet Teddy after work. Even though the last big Pollock-Pendleton excursion had taken place in March, not even three months ago, the white statue seemed like an ancient relic, a monument to a lost life Natalie could barely remember.
She kept walking in eager strides, quickly passing the sluggish knots of confused Times Square tourists and identical salad bars and the public library with its majestic lions. By the time she made it beneath Grand Central's arches, the last of the weekend commuters were zigzagging about the cold marble concourse. The big four-sided clock told Natalie she still had a few minutes to spare, so she ducked into the Aveda store and daubed her wrists with a vanilla aromatherapy stick. The smell reminded her of Elena's crème brulée: "The best in New Jersey," Teddy always said. Natalie shook her head, determined to banish her mother—and her guilty conscience—from her mind that morning.
Before leaving, she'd left a note on her bed that she'd hoped would calm Elena down:
Went off on my own special outing today. Really just needed some time alone after all this. Dad would understand. I hope you do, too.
By the time Natalie made it back to the main concourse, it was a few minutes after 9, finally time to find Jonathan. She scurried down the corridor and right away she saw the newsstand James had mentioned. Phew.
Natalie peered inside the Hudson News to make sure Jonathan wasn't waiting in there. She didn't see him, and as she was turning back around, her eyes lighted on something that made zero sense, something that made her temples throb and her vision cross. What the—?
Between a stack of The Help and a cut-out display for Glenn Beck's unauthorized biography was a large stack of hardbacks with a font Natalie would've recognized anywhere. But it couldn't be. It just—couldn't.
The book was Dark Passages by Fiona St. Claire, the seventh in the USA Today best-selling series.
Natalie staggered inside to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. But no, there it was, Fiona St. Claire's long-anticipated latest, right in front of her. The cover featured the cute redhead Natalie had noticed at the audition, locked in an embrace with Owen. Their mushed-together faces formed a lopsided heart, and icicles of blood were dripping from the wounds on the redhead's neck. Terra stood in the misty background of the picture, looking on with hatred.
Natalie's hands shook as she picked up the top copy. Why hadn't James mentioned this—was it to protect Natalie's feelings? She tried lamely to console herself as she got in line to pay for the book: So what if unglamorous she hadn't been chosen as Fiona's latest cover model? At least the long wait for Dark Passages was finally over, and after all, it wasn't every day Natalie had an all-new installment of Dark Shadows to devour. She resisted the very strong temptation to open the book then and there: Far better to wait until she was settled into the country house, where she could swallow it whole, in one blissful sitting.
"Natalie?" a voice came behind her. "Jesus, there you are."
Natalie whirled around and found herself face to face with Owen. For a good five seconds, she was too distracted by his beauty—those inky black eyes, that sculpted jaw line—to wonder at his presence there.
"God, I've been looking everywhere for you," he said, sounding slightly out of breath. "I didn't know which newsstand James meant. There are, like, 10 of them in here, and of course she didn't bother specifying."
"But I'm supposed to meet Jonathan here," Natalie said, hiding the book behind her back.
"Oh, is that who you were expecting?" Owen smiled ruefully. "Well, sorry to disappoint, but you're stuck with me instead."
What was this, a trick? And then Natalie remembered the fedora shoot Jonathan had been working on and the fact that her phone had been off all morning. That must be it, duh. Jonathan must've put James off again, and she hadn't been able to contact Natalie about the change of plans.
"I have some friends who are staying up in Catskills anyway, so it made sense for me to drop you. I'll see them after I hand you off to the boss," Owen said matter-of-factly. "Your turn."
"My—?" Natalie furrowed her brow—so now she owed Owen an explanation for what she was doing here? And then she saw that he was gesturing at the cashier. "Oh, right," she said.
Owen smiled when his eyes fell on the hardback in Natalie's hand. "I keep forgetting you're an actual fan," he said, his velvety voice dripping with condescension. "There aren't that many of you in major metropolitan areas, you know."
Too flummoxed to defend herself, Natalie just let Owen take the bag and lead her outside. "I'm double-parked a few blocks from here," he said. "We'd better hurry—I wouldn't want to interfere with James' plans."
Natalie shot him a questioning look. "What do you mean, what plans?" She'd been looking forward to just hanging out by the pool.
But Owen just shook his head. "When it comes to James, the less I know, the better."