Natalie sighed despairingly. Nearly half an hour had passed since she'd spelled out the directions to her house, and James hadn't even texted a reply. Then again, if Natalie had to pick the person in her life who was most likely to vanish—
For the thousandth time, Natalie's eyes slid across the living room and over to the window. A chill went up her neck when she glimpsed the figure outside. It was James, she quickly realized, standing out there on the curb and studying the Pollock-Pendleton house with her head cocked slightly to the left. She was frozen, motionless, her eyes squinted in total concentration.
"I think my friend's here!" Natalie rocketed up from the couch and opened the door. "Looking for something?" she called outside.
"Just you!" James looked up quickly and flashed a smile. "I wasn't sure this was the right place."
Natalie just stood there, her eyes hanging on her visitor. She couldn't believe James was standing right there, on Maple Crest Lane, outside her home. She felt even more self-conscious of the cluttered interior than she had the first time Josh had come over.
James rushed up the path to meet Natalie. "No comments about my hideous valley getup. This is my work uniform."
She was wearing a skintight European soccer shirt with the No. 17 on it and a plaid tartan skirt that covered no more than three inches of her skinny but not remotely muscular thighs. Her hair was spilling from a ponytail that started at the crown of her head.
"As long as you don't make any comments about my home uniform," Natalie said, as if she hadn't changed into her favorite washed cotton tank top in anticipation of her visitor.
James grinned. "Yeah, right—you're looking completely adorbs as usual. So, what do I have to do for you to invite me inside?"
"Oh, God, sorry! Come in!" Natalie cried as James swept into the living room to reveal a vertical ladder of safety pins stretching up the back of her shirt. She stopped when she saw Nick and Elena sitting at the table, working on their slices of plum tart.
"I'm usually a little more presentable," James said, misreading the expression of astonishment on their faces. "This is what happens when a moron from merchandising gets hired as the stylist and your clothes get trucked back to the city before the end of the shoot."
Elena and Nick remained speechless as they took in the force of nature that had materialized in their living room. In preparation for her friend's arrival, Natalie had supplied only the bare minimum of information about James, and Elena and Nick clearly didn't know what to make of her.
"So, um, where did you guys meet?" Elena managed at last.
James saw Natalie's panicked expression and immediately came to the rescue: "We met a few weeks ago at that adorable cafe right down the street from you guys," she said. "What's it called again—Cafe Quixotic? Love that place."
"Um, yeah, totally," Natalie filled in quickly "I was just hanging out there waiting for Josh to finish up a set, and James … let me borrow her newspaper."
"Cafe Quixotic is my new favorite spot—such a great vibe there," James added, glancing conspiratorially at Natalie. "So relaxing, seriously, and a much-needed discovery, since so many of my shoots are in Jersey these days."
"James is a model," Natalie explained proudly. "She was doing a YA book cover shoot in Edgemont tonight."
"Montclair," James corrected her. "I got a ride from the lighting guy afterward. He has the easiest job on earth—the light was perfect today. We did everything au naturel, i.e., on the cheap."
"A model," Elena said the word as if it tasted metallic. "That's—exciting."
"Don't worry, I'm not a model-model," James said, making air quotes. "Think of me more as an intelligent, well-rounded, teenaged person who also happens to model."
Natalie's brother was staring at her guest with a dropped jaw. Since when did girls like this hang out at Cafe Quixotic? And since when was Natalie the household pick-up artist?
"Oh, and for the record, I'm totally sorry to barge in on you guys like this," James said, lowering her head with becoming awkwardness. "Natalie neglected to tell me you were in medias dinner." Her eyes slid over to Natalie, whose stomach was bursting with happy nervousness.
"We were just finishing," Natalie said quickly. "You can have my dad's seat. He isn't home yet."
"Have you, um—eaten yet?" Elena, who became shy in moments of uncertainty, asked warily. She was still a pretty mom, with her chestnut hair and trim frame, but standing so close to James, Elena looked older, more drawn, than usual.
As at Bar Six, James was an enthusiastic customer, eating her catch-up meal of vichyssoise and cassoulet with relish. "I mean, is this soup kidding?" she cried. "It's pure poetry! And God, after a day of nothing but candy and edamame, I was seriously overdue for some deliciousness."
Elena chuckled, clearly gratified. "They don't serve real food on photo shoots?"
"I'm sure they do on legitimate shoots," James said, "but not on ghetto ones where the goal is to get a neck-down silhouette of a werewolf guy and a hockey player embracing on the hockey field."
"Werewolves make excellent hookups," Nick said. "There's such a je ne sais quoi to that velvety fur."
Natalie winced at her stepbrother's boorishness, which played much better with suburban girls. He was no Royal Charmer, that was for sure.
James, however, just laughed. "I had no idea how crazy field hockey was before today. There was a practice going on just before the shoot. I was expecting preppy Princeton types high-fiving each other, but these girls were fierce. One of them squatted and peed right there on the green. Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" James' eyes snapped over to Elena.
"I've heard worse, believe me," Elena said with a laugh.
"Speaking of which," James said, "Any chance I could use your facilities?"
"I'll show you." As Natalie got up to show her guest to the bathroom she shared with Nick, she stole a glance at her mother, who was smiling as she poured herself a second glass of white wine. She suspected Elena liked her new friend's fearlessness around grown-ups. Jenna, who'd sat through approximately 7,000 Pollock-Pendleton dinners over the past five years, still whispered to Natalie at the table, as if guarding some great secret. It also helped that James was scarfing down Elena's food with all the gusto of a half-starved refugee.
When James got back to the table, Elena continued to monopolize the conversation. She wanted to know where James went to school. (She'd graduated a year ago, and was taking time off to "write that not-so-great American novel.")
James, in turn, wanted to know when Elena was going to restart her catering business ("You're sweet, and are welcome to dinner anytime"). James' interest seemed sincere, but honestly—had she really hitched a ride with the lighting guy to talk to someone's mother all night? Natalie thought not, so when they finally rose from the table, she tried to guide James upstairs for some real conversation.
But James had only made it five steps into the living room when her eyes landed on a faux-ancient pencil drawing that Teddy had bought on a long-ago trip to Athens, where Elena had spent her early childhood. "That painting—it's a Laura Owens, isn't it?" James asked.
Natalie giggled, for though she had no idea who Laura Owens was, she was pretty sure the sloppy rendering of random toga-clad gods holding goblets of wine could not reasonably be mistaken for the work of a legitimate artist.
James glided over to the mantel, where Elena had displayed framed class photos (groan), wedding portraits, and a picture of a house in Rochester Izzy had built. "What's this?" James asked. "I love it!"
Natalie froze. On the rare occasions that her mom talked about Izzy—for that was how Natalie thought of her long-departed father, distantly, like a historical figure or a character from fiction—she always felt uncomfortable, as if her mother were cheating on Teddy somehow.
"What's what?" Elena asked, squeezing Natalie's shoulders as she walked over to their guest.
James was holding up out a Sponge Bob figurine. Oh, great—that.
"That was Natalie's first present to me," Elena supplied with a laugh. "She was 6 and thought it was a masterpiece."
"Damn right it is," James said soberly.
"She's just being polite, Mom," Natalie hissed.
"So false," James said. "I love family memorabilia." She held up a souvenir teaspoon from Elena and Teddy's honeymoon in Jamaica. "My mom doesn't keep anything—or nothing of mine at least."
"Oh, well, I'm a bit of a hoarder, I suppose," Elena admitted. "Over the last year, I've been trying to organize all the kids' pictures into albums."
"Ah, I'll bet Natty Pie was the cutest baby ever!" James cried.
"Mom, please—" Natalie pleaded when she saw her mother happily gliding over to the shelf where she stored all her albums.
Over the next few minutes, Natalie's mortification intensified as Elena subjected James to a barrage of embarrassing pictures. Poor James was doing an amazing job of disguising her boredom—but still, she'd probably never visit Natalie again, and who could blame her?
While James pretended to crack up over a picture of Izzy riding his bike with no hands down a path in East Hampton, Natalie glanced over at Nick, who made a dirty gesture and used his head to indicate the two on the couch.
"I love this one!" James cried. "He looks so cute and messy."
Elena laughed fondly. "You can see why everyone used to call him 'Frizzy Izzy.' "
James flipped the page, then motioned for Natalie to come over. "Look at you!" she said when Natalie had squeezed in next to her. "I didn't know they made babies with that much hair."
Smiling, James reached over to run her fingers through Natalie's now blow-dried hair. Her serenity seemed to directly flow from her fingertips into Natalie's skull. The sensation was a million times better than any post-shampoo head massage at Sissy's Salon. "You were such a cutie pie," James said fondly.
"Hello?" Teddy's voice boomed down the hallway. "You folks home?"
He walked three paces into the living room before spotting his family—plus one remarkable-looking addition—huddled on the couch. Unlike his son and wife, though, Teddy glanced at the girl who was playing with Natalie's hair without a flicker of interest. He stood so still that his body, usually loose-limbed and soft, looked tense and creaky.
"Teddy!" Elena said, snapping the book shut with a guilty expression. "Natalie's new friend joined us for dinner! James, this is my husband, Teddy." James moved to get up, but Teddy motioned not to.
"Good to meet you, Jane," he said distractedly. "Leni, you got a second?"
"I'm so sorry," James whispered after the grown-ups had filed into the kitchen. "Does your stepdad always get jealous like that?"
"Jealous?" Natalie said. She shook her head disconsolately, remembering what Nick had said earlier about trouble at the paper.
"Let's not talk about this tonight," Teddy's voice sailed out of the study. "I'll figure it out tomorrow."
Crap. Natalie looked down at her hands and saw they were trembling.
"Damn it!" Teddy's voice sliced through the air like a machete. "I said I don't want to talk about it right now!"
"I think I hear my proverbial cab honking outside." James planted a kiss on Natalie's cheek and made her exit, just in time to miss the sound of a hard object hurled against the wall.
Like the My Darklyng Facebook pageto see Natalie's life unravel in real time. Coming up next week: Drowning in betrayals and other bits of baloney, Natalie runs into a warm (and pale!) pair of arms ...