On their longer-than-necessary walk to the car, Owen kept mumbling angrily to himself, then clawing at Natalie's shoulder every time a car skidded past. So condescending! She'd been crossing streets without getting run over for 16 years, thank you very much. Owen really did have some sort of personality disorder; he only pretended to be civil in James' presence, not that she even noticed.
"Here we are," he said when they reached a teal Subaru station wagon with a "Got Hope?" bumper sticker and grocery bags crammed in the backseat. "Everything OK?" he asked as the doors clicked unlocked.
Warily, Natalie nodded and wished she could ever think of anything interesting to say around Owen. She was single now, after all, and if for just one instant he would ever look at her the way he looked at James, he might … Natalie shook her head quickly; she really was losing it.
Owen continued mumbling to himself as he navigated out of the city and onto the Tappan Zee Bridge. The city traffic seemed to agitate him, and Natalie decided to wait until they were on the open road to break the ice.
But outside the city, Owen only became more distant.
"So who are these friends of yours?" Natalie asked, watching him through the dashboard mirror. When he only raised his eyebrows quizzically in response, she pressed, "Your friends upstate. Where we're going." God, he really never gave an inch, did he?
"Right! Just a couple of cats from California." He swerved into another lane and stole a glance at Natalie. "They rented this old ... I guess it's a cabin."
"And it's near Jonathan's parents' place?" Natalie asked.
"Sure." Owen let off a light chuckle. "Jonathan's parents' place. You're buckled up, right?"
"Yup." Who was this guy, her mother? She searched for another possible topic of conversation. "So, are you—" Natalie caught herself about to ask a yes or no question, and started over: "You must be happy about Fiona St. Claire."
Owen shrugged. "If you say so."
"You know, about her recovering in time for the book to come out on schedule." Natalie was still watching Owen out of the corner of her eye. Was it possible she knew about Fiona's recovery before he did?
"I'm not sure I really follow," Owen said, "but then Fiona and I have never really been close. That's more James' department."
Owen reached for the radio dial, obviously to silence his companion. Lady Gaga's voice shot through the car, tinny and cold and a little scary. Natalie squirmed in her seat. The words "bad romance" made her think of Josh and wonder again why—no, no, she'd come on this trip to forget Josh, not that Owen was helping her much with that.
Natalie slouched back, resigned to a depressingly uncollegial ride. She turned to the window and focused on the blurry landscape. The trees looked different than they did in New Jersey, fatter and darker somehow.
Natalie jolted forward with a start. The radio had been switched off, and the silence was absolute. Had she fallen asleep? She stretched and turned toward Owen, a little tingle spreading across her skin as she took in his perfect marble profile. If only he shared more than a creamy complexion with the heroic Nicolai.
"Are we there yet?" Her question came out whiny.
"I thought you were a big reader," Owen said.
Natalie looked out the window and saw the green sign for Woodstock and Saugerties. Owen had put on the turn signal and was exiting off the thruway. Thank God: The purgatory was over, and the relaxation could finally begin.
Some silent minutes later, Owen turned down a dirt road that ran along a barbed-wire fence. "Almost there," he said, sounding as relieved as Natalie felt. Then, more to himself than to Natalie, he mumbled, "No idea how James finds these places."
Um, because her boyfriend's parents happen to own them, Natalie thought with irritation, but she said nothing.
After bumping down the long driveway, Owen brought the car to a stop outside a smallish farmhouse. There were no cars parked outside, no lights visible from the inside. It was a far cry from the mega-villa James had described over the phone.
Natalie was about to ask Owen if he had the address right when James came bursting out of the front door. She was barefoot and wearing a white T-shirt over skinny black jeans.
"Natty! You're here!" she cried exuberantly, then leaned down to look past Natalie and frowned. "What's going on here? Where's Jon-Jon?"
"You told me he was working," Owen said.
"Well, whatever—you could've called to tell me there was a change of plan," James said crisply.
"But you said—"
James cut him off. "Forget it. The important thing is that Natty-Pie has made it up here in one piece!" She helped Natalie out of the car, kissed her on both cheeks. "I'm so glad to see you, sweet pea. I've missed you desperately, you have no idea."
"I tried calling you a bunch of times this morning," Owen said from the driver's seat, "but your phone doesn't work."
"Actually, it's the countryside that doesn't have reception," James snapped, then made a visible effort to control her impatience. "Anyway, Mr. Owen, thanks ever so much for lending a hand, but that's all we'll be needing from you today. You're dismissed now." She looped her hand around Natalie's waist and kicked the passenger-side door shut. She stood there like a queen, imperiously waving Owen away.
"Dismissed?" Owen looked crestfallen and in spite of herself Natalie felt a stab of jealousy. What she wouldn't give to have Owen look at her like that.
"Yes, don't you have other engagements?" James said.
"But … you're sure you guys are going to be OK?" Owen's reluctance to leave was getting embarrassing.
"No, we're going to wither and die without your divine self around." James rolled her eyes.
Natalie glanced at her friend, and that was when she noticed that James' eyes were darker than usual, great gaping pools of black. Could she be on those pills they'd taken the night of the speakeasy—Natalie shook her head quickly. Why on earth would James be partying on her own in the middle of nowhere, and before noon, too?
"OK, well, bye, then," Owen said finally. "Be careful."
"Christ on crutches," James said in a reassuringly normal voice when at last Owen turned the car back on. "I swear, that dude is such a saddo." She threw her arm over Natalie's shoulders. "I mean, what was that all about? You'd think I was going to try to kill you or something."
"Totally," Natalie said, shifting from one foot to the other. James was funny. So funny she forgot to laugh.