"Mom, I already told you I'm full." Natalie covered her plate with both hands before Elena could dish out any more pesto new potatoes.
"And what about the spinach?" Elena prodded. Natalie's mom was attractive and compact, with a carefully groomed brown bob, dark heavy-lidded eyes, and just a bit of loose skin around the neck.
"I'll have it for breakfast. Promise."
Elena sighed. "Then when will you eat the rhubarb muffins I made—for lunch? And you didn't touch your steak."
"I so did!" Natalie protested. "I had, like, half a cow."
Dinner was never a last-minute, slapdash affair at the rambling ranch-style house at 65 Maple Crest Lane: For as long as Natalie could remember, Elena had insisted upon a nightly family sit-down, no gadgets or sulking allowed. Her family members had never begrudged Elena this ritual, since they all knew cooking was the chief passion of her life—and they certainly didn't object to the food.
A former publicist at Gourmet magazine, Elena was now a professional-level cook. She'd converted one of their pantries into a walk-in cookbook library, and for several years after moving to Edgemont, she'd run Olivique, a "private chef" business that catered the very occasional bar mitzvah and 25th-anniversary party. It was at one of these local events that the recently widowed Elena had first met Teddy Pendleton, whose own wife had succumbed to breast cancer a few months earlier.
Though Elena's catering company was now reduced to a shoddy Web site and a few leftover boxes of fancy stationery, she still kept busy commuting to New York City for exotic culinary classes with names like "The Sauces of Sicily" and "Cross-Continental Flatbreads." Sometimes, her family members suffered for her excessive enthusiasms, but mostly they enjoyed the elaborate nightly menus. In recent years, to prove that she was still a "productive member of society," Elena had started studying up on food history and writing articles on, among other hot topics, the uses of turmeric in Ayurvedic medicine for random "gastro journals" with miniscule readerships.
"Red meat contributes to global warming," Natalie's stepbrother Nicolas declared, dragging his chair from the table. "I'm outie."
"Outie?" Elena repeated. "And where exactly is that?"
"I'll be back by midnight. Peace."
Natalie could guess what her stepbrother was up to, or rather, who he was up to. It was Friday night, which meant he was probably headed off to see a girl in Natalie's class or older, who fulfilled Nick's three basic requirements of a hookup: hot, popular, and snobby.
Though Nick was a class year below Natalie, he was tall and self-confident and—after having scanned several of his step-aunt Maya's Zen meditation books in the bathroom one day—somehow passed himself off as a sensitive philosopher when conversing with attractive members of the opposite sex.
Nick slammed out the back door just as his father, Teddy—the man most responsible for keeping his hormone-crazed son in check—shambled into the kitchen. His face was drained of all color, and he was trembling as he made his way to the table.
Elena noticed right away. "Honey, what's wrong?" she cried, immediately distraught.
But Teddy just shook his head. "It's nothing," he said quietly as, with a determined air, he picked up his fork and gripped it hard. Then he paused, the fork still midair, and let out a long sigh. "It's just that—something bizarre happened at work today. I can't … I can't stop thinking about it." The fork fell back to the table.
Elena drew in her breath, and even Natalie stopped chewing and looked at her stepfather with interest. Teddy hadn't been quite himself lately: Problems at work, Elena would always say with a case-closed nod.
"Well, when I got back from lunch this afternoon," Teddy began, then broke off again. "I really don't think this is an appropriate topic for the dinner table," he said, unsubtly indicating Natalie with his chin.
"Oh, come on," Natalie protested. "You know the rule—you started it. Now you have to finish."
"You're right," Teddy said, nodding resignedly. "And anyway, I'm sure it was no big deal. It's just this—this. … When I came back from lunch, there was this strange-looking package on my desk. It didn't have any return address on it, no postmark or anything, which means someone must've hand-delivered it. I didn't notice that, of course, until after I'd opened it and found …" Teddy glanced doubtfully at his stepdaughter again.
"Oh, come on," Natalie prodded.
"The box was filled with newspapers," Teddy said finally. "Lots and lots of newspapers ripped into tiny shreds."
"That's it?" Natalie was completely disappointed. All that buildup for a bunch of newspapers? Teddy definitely needed to get out more.
"Unfortunately, no," Teddy said. His mouth was quivering as his hand closed again around the fork. "The scary thing was that the newspapers—they were drenched in—in—blood."
"Blood!" Elena shrieked. "My God, Teddy!"
"No, no, sweetie," Teddy said, trying, and failing, to force a smile. "I'm sorry if I got carried away there. It wasn't real blood—security checked it out and said it was just some prankster with a batch of paint. Still, I'd be lying if I said it didn't scare the living crap out of me."
"That sounds just awful, honey," Elena said. She glanced at her husband, who'd yet to touch the thinly sliced flank steak she'd prepared just as he liked it: rare and pink on the inside. "But if the guys downstairs said not to worry, then I'm sure …"
"Right," Teddy said, his tone even less convincing than his wife's. "That's why I feel silly making such a big production out of it. It just gave me a fright, that's all, and I don't exactly need more stress in my life at the moment."
Natalie frowned. Teddy had been noticeably anxious over the past couple of weeks: easily distracted, moody, and brooding. In normal life, Teddy reminded people of, well, a teddy bear, with his curly brown hair and soft paunchy stomach and rumbling low laugh. He was the goofy guy in the funny tortoiseshell glasses and bright polo shirts who could hold forth for hours on every conceivable subject—Civil War battlefields or minor league baseball or the all-time best biography of Emile Zola.
Natalie glanced at the clock, startled to see that it was already 7:21, which meant she had exactly nine minutes to ditch her frumpy track suit and whip herself into semi-presentable shape before Jenna showed up. She got up from the table and walked over to the dining-room window, where she noticed the shadow of a woman's figure dart behind the scrim of her next-door neighbor's curtains. Normal enough, except no woman had lived next door since Bob and Lila Robards had split up three years ago.
Natalie shook her head—she was definitely letting Teddy's paranoia rub off on her—and rested her palm against the school-bus yellow window frame, which was cluttered with useless knickknacks like every other surface of the room. A few years earlier, Elena had decided to "spruce up" the house's timeless, earth-toned interior with some flourishes inspired by a magazine spread of a San Francisco loft. Though she'd never made it past the windows, Elena still occasionally threatened to paint the upstairs banister silver.
Natalie jogged upstairs to her bedroom, which was an oasis of white punctuated with a few cool statement pieces she'd found at yard sales—the cherry red bookshelves, the framed tiger needlepoint, the antique rocking chair with the pinstripe cushion by the window. But if she'd inherited her real father Izzy's design sense, she'd also inherited his notorious messiness: Her closet was like a bomb site, strewn with rumpled clothing and mismatched shoes.
Natalie was still rooting through the wreckage when an overlong honk sounded from outside. Jenna had arrived right on time—7:30 on the dot—to whisk Natalie off to the Edgemont Regal Palace, where all the ninth- through eleventh-graders had hung out since time immemorial. The twelfth-graders, at least the ones with cars, usually got as far away as possible from Edgemont—or "Edgeless," as generations of high-schoolers had called it.
"Crap," Natalie muttered. In record time she threw on dirty jeans, a wraparound gold T-shirt, and a push-up bra, then smeared on her standby Strawberry Fields lip gloss.
"Your chariot awaits," Elena said with an eyeroll as Natalie bounded back downstairs. Her mother just didn't get the whole Jenna thing. It wasn't so much the tiny bandage dresses and Ed Hardy cut-offs or even the sketchy source of the Stecklow family's wealth, but rather Jenna's insistence on always whispering in the company of adults, which Elena found "shifty."
Outside, the Stecklow town car was idling. Jenna had her father's company car—complete with uniformed driver—at her disposal to haul her around at night. Like any self-respecting Fortune 500 CEO, Brice Stecklow was up before dawn and in bed before Larry King. He let Jenna enjoy the privileges of his car when he didn't need it. The arrangement was old-fashioned to the point of absurdity—Jenna's dad liked "keeping tabs on my little girl"—but Natalie couldn't deny the convenience.
"Hey, hot stuff," Jenna greeted her.
"Hey, hot wheels," Natalie replied, their usual routine.
Siding next to Jenna in the town car, Natalie wondered what her life would have been like if her real dad had lived long enough to fulfill the promise of the "outsize talent" design magazines and cutting-edge clients had just started to single out in the months before his death. A chauffeur-driven Lincoln town car probably wouldn't factor into the equation, but maybe a special reading chair or avant-garde tree house?
Natalie peered into the dashboard mirror to see which of the Stecklows' three drivers had the good fortune to spend his Friday night ferrying the two teenagers around. It was her favorite, Hisham, whose dramatically craggy forehead made him resemble a cross between Harrison Ford and Nicolai's evil twin Malachai.
"Oh, my God," Jenna exclaimed suddenly, "guess who's cat-sitting for the Landaus this weekend, or did he already tell you?"
Natalie's stomach dropped before Jenna could answer her own question. Saul and Lisa Landau were the husband and wife team who ran Cafe Quixotic, the cool coffee shop on Marienden Avenue that was Josh's second home, where Natalie had all but stalked him earlier in the semester. Josh still spent most afternoons there, practicing on the cafe's piano and playing chess with Saul. Natalie knew that Josh looked after the Landaus' cat, Bobby Fischer, when his owners were out of town, but this hadn't yet happened in the almost two months since they'd started going out.
Every time Natalie saw Josh, she wanted to see more of him, and every time they hooked up she wanted to hook up more, a desire that both excited and unsettled her. So far they'd only had unsatisfying little snatches of time—outside Natalie's house right before her curfew or when they'd snuck off together at Zach's party.
"It looks like the cute couple is going to be able to spend some quality time together at long last," Jenna said, raising her eyebrows lasciviously.
Images of past electric moments began to burn through Natalie's head. Kissing until their lips went swollen, until her face was chafed from his starter stubble. Her mouth brushing against his ear, his finger tracing the line of her chin.
She convulsed forward in her seat, and Jenna cut her a sideways look. "So, are you ready?"
Natalie knew exactly what Jenna meant, and she couldn't answer.
She tried to imagine what it'd be like to have Josh all to herself for an entire night, to experience those stolen moments all strung together like Christmas lights. But the dots just wouldn't connect, or not yet. Natalie drew in a breath. If Josh was really cat-sitting, she could very well be living one of her last days as a virgin.
"Yeah, sure." Natalie hoped Jenna didn't see the shudder that passed over her. "Ready as can be."