Natalie spotted Josh in the far corner of the Regal Palace lobby, and the contents of her stomach shifted. She sniffed her fingers to make sure she'd scrubbed off the chemical smell from photo lab, her Friday elective.
"Your boyfriend's cute, I'll give him that," Jenna said, picking up on Natalie's sightline. "How come more guys around here don't rock the plaid-shirt look?"
"I don't know, maybe because founding members of the chess team do?" Natalie instantly regretted her stupid remark. After all, if anyone was the nerd in the couple, well, it wasn't Josh. She was the one who'd gotten an A-minus on the social studies paper she'd written while IMing Heather Grodstein.
"Harsh," Jenna said with a grin. "Does Josh talk about your love affair with Dork Shadows in such glowing terms?"
"Don't you dare," Natalie hissed as she met Josh's wave with an "I'll be right over" gesture. Josh and Simon Rostron were by the video games, leaning against a Claw Warriors machine and shooting the breeze about God knows what.
Natalie didn't pretend to understand why Josh still hung out with Simon, who took a daily cocktail of several different ADD medications, none of which did anything to stopper his out-of-control obnoxiousness. Simon's most annoying characteristic (among many) was his hobby of assigning some secret dirty meaning to a completely harmless word. Cloth was his recent favorite, a la: "I wanna cloth you up" and "C'mere and get cozy with el cloth."
Just as she and Jenna reached the front of the ticket line, Natalie was startled by a little shove from behind. She spun around to see Josh's green eyes burning into hers.
"I didn't mean to scare you," Josh said. "I just wanted to say hi."
"Hi!" Natalie let off a nervous laugh.
"Hi," Josh said back. This could go on forever. Even though they'd been going out almost two months now, Natalie and Josh were still shy around each other, except of course when mid-hookup.
"You two just stay there and be a perfect poster for young love," Jenna said sarcastically. "I'll get the tickets."
Natalie felt a buzzing in her bag—who could be texting her when basically everyone she knew was already at the theater? Maybe it was Amy Yablonski, who'd gone to visit her demented grandfather in Michigan that weekend.
On the screen was a text from a 917 number Natalie didn't recognize.
Hope that didn't freak u out.
Her brow wrinkled in confusion. Hope what didn't freak her out?
Before she could open the preceding message, Josh roped his hand around her waist and pulled her into him. "You smell nice," he murmured.
Natalie trembled with pleasure. "You do, too," she said. She could feel his excitement through his jeans. Oh, God.
"My cloth saw that," Simon said loudly when Jenna reappeared with two tickets to Get Him to the Greek. Josh and Natalie jumped apart a little guiltily. "It was fairly adequate. By cloth standards."
"Dude!" Josh cried. "Will you shut up?"
Jenna rolled her eyes and said loudly to Natalie, "Sorry, but your cloth-in-law is a serious liability. C'mon."
Natalie shot Josh an apologetic glance as she let Jenna lead her toward the center of the lobby, which was packed with Edgemont 10th-graders. Natalie didn't see anyone she particularly wanted to chat with and was about to say as much to Jenna, but suddenly Jenna was no longer beside her.
Natalie turned and with dismay saw that her friend had been sucked into the black hole of 10th -grade bitchery that was Thisbe Grant, whose greatest skills were being evil and arranging her hair into artfully disheveled buns. Thisbe was forever accompanied by a tribe of fawning admirers, all of whom were under strict orders to sport similarly faux-boho up-dos.
Natalie and Thisbe had been polite acquaintances since kindergarten, but Thisbe's indifference had turned to hatred in ninth grade, when Natalie was offered a spot on the varsity track team and Thisbe—who had reportedly hired celebrity trainers all winter long—barely made JV.
That was when Thisbe stopped speaking to Natalie. Completely. She wasn't content with being the most popular girl in the class; she also, bizarrely, had to be the best runner.
Thisbe's psycho competitiveness Natalie could handle; her sudden courtship of Jenna was another thing entirely. Natalie suspected that Thisbe's sudden interest in Jenna had to do with the full-page photo of Brice Stecklow in the recent "Pharma Giants" feature in Forbes.
Thisbe's dad, Randall Grant, was the co-founder of the telecommunications giant OpCast and as such the only man in Edgemont with a salary comparable to Mr. Stecklow's. Maybe Thisbe just needed a friend who could keep pace with her at the mall. Or maybe she just wanted Natalie, whose shopping was limited to American Apparel and the sale rack at Anthropologie, to feel left out.
Natalie shrugged and made her way past the ticket collector. She found a spot outside the double doors to Screen 7 to wait for Jenna. She'd know where to find her.
The instant she was alone again, Natalie scrambled to retrieve her phone. She opened her messages folder and scrolled down to the first message, which was from the same unknown number as the one she'd already opened.
Hey N, get ready. Ur in!!
Natalie's knees buckled. This was definitely no wrong number. This had to be about her secret trip to the city the week before, she thought as she read both texts over and over. Should she call the person back or wait until the blood pumping in her ears quieted down a little?
Natalie's head was still swimming when Josh and Simon appeared en route to Robin Hood, and she hurriedly pushed her phone back into her bag. Josh still didn't know about her love of Dark Shadows, let alone her field trip to the audition, and Natalie preferred to keep it that way.
"Why don't you go save us some seats?" Josh said to the usually dense Simon. "There's something I need to ask Natalie."
"Sure thing," Simon said. "And Natalie, whatever it is, the answer is 'cloth.' "
After Simon skipped—yes, skipped!—off, Josh lightly looped his arm around Natalie's waist and got right down to it. "So the Landaus are at this, like, coffee-roasting conference in Providence all weekend? And, like, tomorrow night I was going to make dinner and hang out with my man Bobby Fischer and so, you know, I was wondering …"
Natalie's insides fluttered: There was nothing she'd rather do than get semi- to totally naked with Josh and the four-legged, pot-bellied Bobby Fischer. "I'd love to," she said before Josh could finish.
"There you are!" Jenna shouted a second later. She was speeding toward them down the hallway—on her own, thank God. "I've been looking everywhere for you!" Jenna cried in the overemphatic tone she used when she was lying.
Natalie saw no point in calling Jenna out on it. She was too preoccupied, both with the mysterious texts and with the prospect of a long unsupervised night on the couch with Josh. She shivered, remembering how he'd pressed against her outside Screen 12. In DarksDay, when Nicolai and Terra finally kiss after the Unstoppable Divide, he'd "used his tongue to mingle his soul with Terra's." Natalie thought of that line every time she and Josh made out.
"You're sure you don't want to come to Tick Tock, not even for a little bit?" Jenna asked after the movie. The Tick-Tock Diner was a few storefronts down in the strip mall and was another popular hangout destination for unlicensed Edgemonters. "I'm so craving a plate of cheese fries," Jenna said, a statement Natalie decoded to mean, "I'm so craving a chance to sit at Thisbe's table."
But Natalie shook her head. "I'm tired," she said. "I pushed myself too hard at practice today. I did six miles." Well, six minus four. Jenna wasn't the only one who could lie in this friendship. Natalie just had to get home so she could think straight.
"Fine, then," Jenna said, annoyed but unwilling to admit it. She sighed long-sufferingly, then: "I'll head out, too, I guess."
Neither of the girls said much on the ride home down Edgemont's eerily quiet streets. When at last the car stopped outside 65 Maple Crest Lane, Natalie offered Jenna an apologetic smile. "I'll call you in the morning."
The town car sped off before Natalie had reached the sidewalk, and she paused for a moment to absorb the dead silence of her street. It was dark, too, with not a single porch light on to relieve the blackness.
Natalie was about halfway to her front doorstep when a sound behind her made her jump. There was a hissing behind her—was it her name?—and she spun around just in time to see a silver SUV gliding down the too-empty street. Weird. She hadn't even heard its approach.
Natalie entered her house quickly and turned on only the small reading lamp by the door. She went over to the fridge and pulled out the orange juice, but before she could start chugging, she saw the note under the clip magnet.
N-James (Jane?) called. 917 555 3262. Call her ASAP. Love, M
An electric shock went through Natalie. It was the same number as the texts she'd read and reread so many times over the last few hours. Was it possible? Really?
James. The Dark Shadows model was the one who had texted her. Natalie fell against the fridge, a rocket ship of crazy happiness darting upward from her heart to the great beautiful beyond.