Natalie woke up a little before 8 on Saturday morning and waited until the appropriate, not-too-eager time—10:46—to return James' call. To her surprise, James answered on the first ring. Natalie didn't even need to identify herself. "Omigod, hey, sweetie!" came the raspy voice on the other end of the line. "Apologies for phone-stalking you last night. Why don't you ever answer?"
"I'm so sorry, I didn't know who—" Natalie began, but James cut her off.
"I was just so excited, that's all! When the casting agents told me the spectac news, I insisted on contacting you myself. And then I just got obsessed with tracking you down." James laughed. "You could say I have a relentless streak."
"The—spectac news?" Natalie repeated, heart pounding in her ears. Across the room, the six Dark Shadows books and the Circle of Seven series a younger Fiona had written under the pseudonym Loretta St. Marks appeared to be swaying. She had to shut her eyes to keep the dizziness at bay.
"I'd say so," James said. "As well as further proof that my industry predictions are neverfar off. The casting agents loved you, and when Fiona saw your headshot, she freaked like nobody's business."
"Um, no," Natalie had to hold back from saying, "I'm the one who's freaking like nobody's business." Her mouth was now completely emptied of all moisture. "Fiona St. Claire saw my photo?" She might as well have been scraping her tongue off the roof of her mouth. "And liked it?"
"Liked it? She loved it!" James exclaimed. "She thought you were born to be Glorianna."
"Wow," Natalie said. "Just—wow." She squeezed her fist and glanced at herself in the small mirror above her dresser, thinking about Nicolai's half-demon second cousin, who'd only made minor appearances thus far into the series. Still, the character had made a lasting impression on Natalie, who'd seen some of her own bleeding disorder in Glorianna's status as a Chosen Bloodletter.
Her blow-dried dark hair—nothing like Glorianna's "swirling locks of fiery crimson"—was already curling slightly in the damp almost-summer air, and her hazel eyes looked wide and scared and almost soulful. Was it possible that Natalie was, actually, a tiny bit pretty—that the photographer's single hasty picture had captured some special quality she herself couldn't see?
"So listen," James said, "the callback isn't for a few weeks, and the other contenders won't even get the call for another week or so. But I felt like I owed it to you to give you a heads-up myself, you know?"
"Yeah, that's great," Natalie said, but she was a little confused. What on earth did this girl owe her? They'd barely exchanged 10 words. "Thanks so much."
James went on, "I even thought I could give you some tips in how to rock the audition, because I would seriously love to have a cool girl on future shoots with me. Totally entre nous, Raquel—that's the Imogen model—is a big fat losero. Or really, her mom is, but same diff. She shows up three hours early to every shoot and spends the whole time bossing hair and makeup around. Seriously insaniac."
"Weird," came Natalie's still-dazed reply. She couldn't imagine how her mother would behave on a shoot because, well, she couldn't imagine her mother on a shoot, period.
"Any chance you could come into the city for coffee sometime this weekend?" James asked. "Like say later tonight?"
However stunned senseless she was by this invitation, Natalie did collect her wits enough to remember that a) she was meeting Josh at the Landaus' that night and b) her parents would never in a million years permit her to travel to Manhattan on her own after dark on a weekend.
"I'm actually supposed to see my boyfriend later, and with no chaperone for a change," Natalie said, "so tonight's not so hot for me. I mean, it is hot, but …" She broke off with a nervous giggle.
"Mmm, saucy!" James said approvingly. "And yeah, tonight would probs be rough for me, anyway. I spent last night in a race with the greyhounds, and I lost big time."
"Sounds totally fun!" Natalie blurted out, picturing James at the racetrack, cheering on emaciated dogs while all the old men in the bleachers ogled her perfect backside. Her long-dead father had been a fan of the Belmont Stakes, and Natalie kept meaning to go one of these days. But, like many things related to Izzy, she never quite got around to it.
"Fun?" James scoffed. "More like idiotic. I'm, like, epically hungover."
That awful little chuckle escaped Natalie's mouth again and she smacked her hand over her mouth.
"I seriously hate myself right now," James groaned. "Swear to God I'm never touching vodka again for the rest of my days on earth. So what about tomorrow? We can get brunch or something. Just no bloody Marys."
Relief coursed through Natalie. And, in direct violation of Jenna's anti-brunch policy, she exclaimed, "I love brunch" and arranged to meet James at a place called Bar Six the following afternoon.
Natalie floated through the rest of her Saturday in a haze. The muffins her mother had left out on the kitchen counter tasted like sugary foam, and even after a 45-minute jog, she was no more or less energized than she'd been before her starting stretches. Her body was in Edgemont, N.J., but her brain was far, far away. It was like that part in Dark Ages, right before the Infinite Battle flares up, when the Regals replicate Terra's soul and hide it in the Faraway Place.
The only even semi-memorable moment all day occurred late in the afternoon, when Natalie received a Facebook friend request from somebody named "Risa Baynar." Risa's profile picture was an old movie poster of a beautiful, and definitely familiar, woman in a glamorous ball gown. Even when she squinted hard, Natalie couldn't read the words underneath the image.
Risa's profile page was bare in the extreme; the only information she provided was that she was a stylist who lived in New York. Natalie went on Google to dig up more details on this woman and came up empty there, too. Still, Natalie's heart pulsed with excitement. Risa just had to be a part of the Dark Shadows family.
DO YOU ACCEPT RISA BAYNAR'S FRIEND REQUEST?
While it occurred to Natalie that by clicking "yes," she was potentially inviting parental nosiness—her stepfather, who had edited a number of harrowing stories on cyber-bullying, had forbidden both her and Nick from ever communicating with strangers online—she just couldn't resist.
Natalie's euphoria soon gave way to confusion when she returned to her Facebook homepage and saw that Risa had posted a photograph of a forest with a slant of light slicing diagonally through the trees. The image was peaceful, but definitely random.
Well, that was probably just what New York fashion people did—decorated one another's Facebook pages with cool-looking images. And so, with no better ideas, Natalie clicked the "like" button underneath the picture.
"Whoa," Josh said when she showed up at the Landau residence later that night. He was standing in the doorway, wearing an old V-neck and jeans. He smelled like laundry detergent. Or maybe it was deodorant. Nice, anyway. "You look great."
"So do you," Natalie said, blushing as she followed Josh into the house. She no longer felt so stupid for having spent half an hour experimenting with smoky eye make-up in the bathroom.
Even from far down the hallway, she could see Josh had set the scene perfectly: the pasta water boiling on the stove, the lights turned to dim, the DVDs stacked neatly on the coffee table. It was romantic, but not intimidatingly so.
Natalie sat across the kitchen island from Josh while he finished cooking. Radiohead was playing softly on the stereo as he prepared a cheese plate with thinly sliced radishes, feta, and brie. He'd even remembered the ultra-salty shriveled-up black olives that Natalie loved so much. Sweet, sweet Josh.
"I tried to get your favorite cheese straws, too, but this crazy woman shopping at the Blue Apron wouldn't shut up about how they're edible heart attacks, and maybe I could eat them now, but nobody's young forever, yadda yadda yadda," Josh trailed off.
"I don't need cheese straws—this is all so great." Natalie popped an olive in her mouth, barely able to meet his eye. She kicked off her shoes and stretched out her freshly shaven calves. Times like this, she took pride in her long runner's legs.
"The weird thing," Josh said, "is that I'm pretty sure it was Jenna's mom. She has a red Beemer, right?"
"Yes, among, like, 10 other cars." Natalie laughed as she spread a hunk of brie on a raisin-pecan thin.
"I just hope she doesn't realize it was me," Josh said, handing Natalie a microbrew from the Landaus' fridge. His gaze lingered on her collarbone. "She was acting, um, kind of weird."
"What do you mean?" Natalie asked mildly, interested but not exactly blown away. With every million her husband added to his stock portfolio, Candace Stecklow seemed to get a little more off-kilter. She laughed too loudly and wore low-cut T-shirts that displayed her magically inflating cleavage and was constantly embarking on "art-buying missions" with her 22-year-old assistant.
"I don't know, like … lonely or something?" Josh paused to let Natalie absorb his meaning. "I'm not sure she realized I was the same age as her daughter."
"Wait, you mean she hit on you?" Natalie shrieked. Her parents had told her that at midyear parent-teacher conferences, they'd overheard Mrs. Stecklow half-jokingly request a "private tutorial" with Mr. Salzman, Jenna's semi-hot 28-year-old geometry teacher. But Josh?
"No, no," Josh said, waving out his arms. "Not like that. She just seemed to be bored in the middle of a Saturday. She wanted to get coffee, and when I told her I had to run, she hugged me goodbye."
Natalie chewed on her lip, debating whether to mention this incident to Jenna. As after the parent-teacher conferences, she decided against it. Mrs. Stecklow was a sensitive topic with super-puritanical Jenna, who never, ever wanted to discuss her mom's eccentric behavior. It was almost on par with Terra's brother Torqil's aversion to metal.
When the spaghetti was ready, Josh set up the coffee table so they could eat and watch the Zombieland DVD at the same time.
Natalie was unsure about the choice of movie—it didn't exactly scream "date"—until Josh started offering reassuring shoulder squeezes and ear nibbles every time Woody Harrelson shot down a flesh-eating freak. Josh leaned into kiss her, first lightly, then more and more urgently. With the hulking shadows of the maple trees dancing outside the windows and Bobby Fischer snuggled against her ankles, Natalie felt genuinely happy as she kissed Josh back even harder.
She also felt excited and barely frightened at all when Josh ran his warm hand—his hands were always so warm!—across her stomach and moved in confident circles over her skin, stopping only at the zipper of her miniskirt. Natalie froze, but only for a split second. With sweeping certainty she knew that this moment was exactly right, that she was completely and entirely ready for this long-awaited shedding of that burdensome V.
At that exact moment, Natalie's phone vibrated. Josh glanced at where the phone lay on the couch cushion and removed his lips from her neck to ask, "Where's 650?"
"What?" Natalie looked down at the number flashing on her phone. "I have no idea." Thinking maybe Nick had gotten into another romantic scrape, she pulled away from Josh and pressed the green button to answer. "Hello?"
But there was nobody on the other end, just white noise and a distant cackle. "Hello?" Natalie said again, while Josh looked on curiously.
"Who was that?" he asked as Natalie hung up.
"Wrong number, I think," she said as she scooted back into the crook of Josh's arm. They'd just settled back into making out when the phone vibrated between them again. "Just ignore it," Josh murmured into her ear, but Natalie couldn't. If Nick needed her, she'd never forgive herself.
She glanced back at the phone to see yet another unfamiliar area code, 314 this time. "Nick could be …"
But again, there was no distinct sound on the end of the line when Natalie said hello, just the far-off fizz of laughter. Now anger flared in her, though she refused to let it kill the mood.
"So creepy," she said as she hung up, this time resolving not to pick up the phone again. But before she could place the phone safely out of reach on the Landaus' coffee table, the text-message icon lighted up on the screen. "This will just take a second," Natalie said as she clicked the message—from yet another unknown area code—open.
I KNOW WHAT UR DOING, U LITTLE SLUT.
Natalie snapped her phone shut before Josh could read it. What the hell? Her heart was whizzing around in her chest, and she looked down at her skirt, which was half-hiked over her thighs, Josh's hand lightly cupping her knee. No way she'd let some psycho destroy her big chance.
"Now, where were we?" she asked in the best light-hearted tone she could manage. She was determined to recover the mood from a minute earlier and push the creepy text from her mind, so she wound her legs around Josh's waist and started stroking his hair. But he wasn't into it, either, and she could feel him shrink away from her.
She scooted even closer, angling forward to kiss his ear.
Josh cleared his throat. "Who sent you that?" She could tell by his tone that he'd read it.
"I have no idea," Natalie said nervously. "I'm being, like, phone-spammed or something."
"Is phone spam an actual thing?" Josh asked as Natalie pressed her face into his for a kiss. But Josh kept his lips tightly shut, and she ended up almost forcing her tongue inside his mouth.
"Are you mad at me or something?" she asked as he pulled away from her. He shook his head, but he wasn't smiling. "Then what is it?"
"Nothing," he said. "You just kind of tackled me there."
"Um, sorry," Natalie said. "So do you want to tackle me?"
"This is all giving me a weird sense of déjà-vu," Josh said, rising to his feet. "I need to get some water."
Natalie didn't speak as her eyes darted to his still-half-full cup on the coffee table. The surrender she'd experienced moments earlier was totally gone. All she felt now was an ugly sense of unease.
A full five minutes later, Josh re-entered the living room and leaned against the doorjamb.
"Let's just get out of here," she said, wanting to beat him to it.
Josh nodded and pulled his phone out of his jeans pocket. "Dad?" he said a moment later. "Hey, we're ready now. Yeah, just really tired. OK, cool."
He returned to the couch and sat back down to fiddle with the buttons of his shirt, which Natalie hadn't even realized she'd undone. "My dad said he'll be here in 10," he said.
"Are you sure you're OK?" Natalie asked.
But Josh didn't answer. He just stared straight in front of him, eyes fixed on the black screen of the TV.