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Upper East Side #9

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UPPER EAST SIDE 9

Copyright © 2016 by Ashley Valentine

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof

may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever

without the express written permission of the publisher

except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Based on the Gossip Girl series by Cecil von Ziegesar.

  • Table of Contents *

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24

1

“Good morning, madam!” trilled a female voice in a super-perky British accent.

Porsha Sinclaire sighed and turned over onto her side. She’d been in London three days but still wasn’t over her jet lag. She didn’t mind, though: it was a small price to pay to see her movie-star-handsome, real-life-English-blueblood boyfriend, Lord Marcus.

Wendy, one of the three maids whose round-the-clock services came with Porsha’s penthouse suite at Claridge’s, clacked across the hardwood floors and deposited a heavy mahogany tray onto the king-size bed, which was so big Porsha had divided it up into four sections: one for sleeping, one for eating, one for watching TV, and one for sex. So far, that section had remained unused.

Wendy drew the thick maroon curtains on the massive wall of windows, flooding the enormous room with light. It reflected off the opulent gold ceiling and bounced off the gilded mirrors that lined the attached dressing room.

“Ouch!” Porsha cried, pulling one of the six lavish pillows over her head to shield her eyes from the sun.

“Breakfast as requested, Miss Sinclaire,” announced Wendy, lifting the silver cover off the tray to reveal a barfy-looking mush of watery scrambled eggs, massive greasy sausages, and a pool of stewed tomatoes.

Classic English cuisine.Yum.

Porsha smoothed her thick tousled hair and straightened the straps of the soft pink cami she’d worn to bed. The food looked disgusting but smelled delicious. Oh well, she deserved a little treat, didn’t she? She’d worked up an appetite the day before, walking around West London sightseeing.

If you call Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Whistles—London’s most famous luxury department stores—sights.

“And your paper,” added Wendy setting the International Herald Tribune on the tray with a flourish. Porsha had requested the daily paper when she checked in—a Yale woman had to keep up on world events, after all. So what if she hadn’t exactly gotten around to the reading part?

“Will that be all?” Wendy asked primly.

Porsha nodded and the maid disappeared into the sitting room. Porsha speared one of the huge sausages with her fork and picked up the paper, skimming the front page. But the tiny typeface and matter-of-fact photographs were so boring she couldn’t concentrate. The only paper she ever read was the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, if only to scan the charity event pictures for familiar faces. Why would a worldly woman like herself need to read world news, anyway? She was world news.

Porsha had always been impulsive, but her presence in London had actually been Marcus’s idea. His graduation present to her—other than the ridiculously extravagant Gucci earrings—had been a plane ticket to London. Porsha had envisioned rainy weeks locked in his enormous stone castle having chain-sex—the equivalent of chain-smoking—stopping only to gnaw on a cold leg of lamb or whatever medieval snack was stored in the castle’s primitive but well-stocked kitchen. But Marcus had been so busy working for his dad all he ever had time for was lunch and a brief kiss.

Dropping the unopened paper onto the floor, she scanned her bedside table for British Vogue—she’d stocked up on all the English magazines so she’d know what to buy and where to buy it—when her new rose gold iPhone chimed prettily. There was only one person who had her new London telephone number.

“Hello?” she answered as sexily as she could with a mouth full of scrambled egg.

“Darling,” Lord Marcus Beaton-Rhodes greeted her in his charming British accent. “I’m coming round. Just wanted to make sure you were up, love.”

“I’m up, I’m up!” Porsha was unable to control her excitement. She’d spent the last two nights alone, and her horniness was bubbling over into near-frenzy. How they’d made it this far without actually having sex, she wasn’t sure. Was this their chance for a morning romp?

“Right,” he continued in his charmingly straightforward way. “I’ll be by shortly. And I’ve got a surprise.”

A surprise! thought Porsha giddily as she shut her phone. That was just the kind of wake-up call she needed to get her out of bed. She scurried to the bathroom, discarding clothes as she went. Could it be roses and caviar? Chilled champagne and oysters? It was kind of early in the morning for that, but judging from the last present he’d given her—the Gucci pearl earrings, with their dangling gold Ps—it was bound to be good. Some equally exquisite symbol of his undying love? Everyone back in New York was so insanely jealous of her perfect English boyfriend that they’d spread rumors Marcus was already engaged. There was only one way to put that rumor to rest forever: return to New York wearing his ring. Preferably a flawless, four-carat, emerald-cut diamond, although an old family heirloom would do.

How humble of her.

Lord Marcus had initially invited her to spend the summer at his father’s Knightsbridge mansion, but when he’d picked her up from the airport in his chauffeur-driven cream-colored Bentley he’d taken her straight to Claridge’s. “We simply haven’t got the room, sweetheart,” Marcus whispered directly into her ear, his hot breath sending shivers down her spine as the desk attendant handed her the room key. “Plus, when I come over, we’ll have complete privacy.”

Well, that’s hard to argue with.

Porsha wasn’t sure what Marcus’s dad did for a living, but it had something do with bonds, and whatever it was sounded very boring. Marcus was interning at his dad’s office for the summer, and late nights and early mornings meant he had hardly any energy for…sex. Porsha had only done it a few times with Kaliq Braxton, and she was beyond eager to try it with someone older and more experienced, like Marcus—not that sex with Kaliq had been so bad.

Her minty toothpaste masking the stink of scrambled egg and tomato, she hurried back to the bedroom and hopped into bed, wearing only a light sheen of lavender-scented bath water, Chanel No. 5 perfume, and the Gucci earrings she hadn’t taken off once since her graduation party at the Yale Club a little over two weeks ago.

After ditching Yasmine Richards’ small apartment in dingy and weird Williamsburg, with no intention of moving back to the crazy world she used to call home, Porsha had decided to live at the Yale club. She and Lord Marcus had met in the elevator, and his sexy accent and neatly ironed jeans had gotten to her right away. Fate had it that their rooms were side by side, and she could imagine the feel of his sexy English breath on her neck even before they’d kissed—which had happened that very night. After pouring her heart out to him over six or seven cosmos, Porsha was so sure she’d found the love of her life, she practically threw herself at him. She was too tipsy—and he was too much of a gentleman—to do more than kiss. But all that was about to change.

Porsha draped the sheets over her body and lit a cigarette, striking a pose that said, I’m on my honeymoon and worn out from having sex, but what the hell, let’s do it again. She grabbed the newspaper off of the floor and propped up the front page so it looked like she was reading it. There. Perfect. An intellectual sexpot. A worldly woman who read all about international crises—and preferred to discuss said crises in bed. If only she had a pair of vintage fifties reading glasses to perch on the tip of her nose.

All the better to see you naked with!

As if on cue, Lord Marcus flung the bedroom door open and Porsha turned her head slowly, as if she could barely stand to break away from the current poultry deficit in Asia. He was wearing a perfectly tailored charcoal summer suit with an olive T-shirt underneath that made his striking hazel-green eyes look serious and deep and oh-so-promising.

“What’s this?” he asked, furrowing his eyebrows. “Remember I said I had a surprise?”

“I’ve got a surprise for you too,” Porsha cooed sexily. “Come look under the sheets.”

“Right,” he continued a little impatiently. “Well, put on your clothes, love.”

“I don’t want to,” Porsha complained, pouting.

He hurried across the room and kissed her quickly on the nose. “Later,” he promised. “Now throw on some clothes and meet me downstairs in the lobby.” Then he turned and left the room, leaving her perfumed, well-moisturized, and depilated body naked and alone.

This better be a good surprise.

Porsha emerged from the wood-paneled elevator in a hastily chosen ensemble: a chocolate brown tunic (thank you, Harrods), a favorite pair of old True Religion jeans, and clunky gold Marc by Marc Jacobs sandals. She looked like a jet-setter on holiday. Just right for a weekend rendezvous to Tunis in Lord Marcus’s private jet. Could that be the surprise?

The grand, chandelier-lit marble hotel lobby was abuzz with activity, but Porsha noticed a hush fall over the crowd as she crossed the tiled floor, her sandals clopping noisily, to the overstuffed black velvet chaise where Marcus sat waiting for her. He was so goddamn handsome Porsha couldn’t help admiring him, like he was a painting or some rare piece of sculpture, and it was hard to resist plunging her fingers into the thick waves of his shiny hair. She was so busy mentally drooling over her gorgeous English lover that she barely noticed he was holding hands with someone who was definitely not her.

Ding, ding. Hello?

Forgetting the romantic getaway to Africa, Porsha’s eyes narrowed at the horsey-looking girl holding her boyfriend’s hand. What the fuck?

“Porsha, at last,” Lord Marcus greeted her smoothly, standing but not letting go of his companion’s hand. “This, my dear, is my darling cousin Camilla, the one I told you about. My soul mate. She’s in town for a couple of weeks. We were practically twins growing up! Isn’t that the most marvelous surprise?”

“Marvelous,” echoed Porsha, throwing herself onto a nearby armchair. She didn’t remember hearing anything about any cousin Camilla.

But then, listening had never been her strong suit.

“I’m so delighted to meet you,” said Camilla, staring down her long prominent nose—the kind of nose even the best plastic surgeon couldn’t fix. Her light complexion was layered with comical amounts of beige powder and primary-red blush. Her legs were clownishly long and skinny, like she’d been stretched on one of those old-fashioned lengthening machines Porsha had tried to find on eBay.

“Mimi just turned up yesterday morning, unannounced,” Lord Marcus explained. “Imagine, like a lost waif, with bags in hand.” He chuckled.

“Yes, well, thankfully I can count on my dear Marmar to open up his home to me,” Camilla gushed, casually running her free hand through her long black hair. Hair that could easily be cut off in the middle of the night.

Wait—his home?

“You’re staying at his place?” demanded Porsha rudely, already hating the crooked-toothed Camilla and her ugly yellow silk sundress, which probably cost thousands but looked like a tablecloth. “But I thought there wasn’t room.”

“There’s always room for family,” Lord Marcus answered, squeezing Camilla’s talon-like hand before turning back to Porsha. “Not to worry, sweetheart. We’ll all have a grand time together.”

Sure they will.

2

“Braxton!” Coach Michaels yelled up at the roof. “I want to hear your lazy ass banging those shingles. Now!”

“Yes, sir,” Kaliq Braxton muttered as he watched Coach climb into his blue minivan and back out of the short driveway, honking a cheerful beep beep beep as he sped off down the suburban Hampton Bays street. Kaliq could picture him popping Viagra and jacking off to the pornos he probably kept in the glove compartment.

Douche bag, Kaliq added silently. Sweat stinging his eyes, he ran a hand across his forehead and frowned down at the black-shingled roof. Idiot, he told himself for the hundredth time that morning. It was only nine o’clock, but the brutal sun was pounding down, the scratchy shingles were tearing up his knees, and his back throbbed. Kaliq straightened up to full height and pulled off his drenched T-shirt. Then he dropped his hammer and sat down, even though the roof was so hot he could feel it burning his ass through his shorts.

He dug around in his pockets for the lovingly hand-rolled joint he’d been smart enough to stash there the night before. Kaliq pulled out the yellow plastic lighter he kept tucked into his sock and lit the joint, inhaling deeply.

Wake and bake. The breakfast of champions.

His fuckup was costing him, that was for sure, but Kaliq was determined not to let one mistake ruin his whole summer. His days belonged to Coach Michaels, but his nights were still his, and he had his parents’ place on Georgica Pond all to himself, since his folks preferred the splendid isolation of their compound up in Mt. Desert Island, Maine.

Kaliq took out his cell and scrolled through his contact list until he got to the first person he knew with a house in the Hamptons. There was no sense letting the perfect party house go to waste.

Waste not, want not.

“Hey, it’s Charlie,” said the voicemail recording. “I’m out of the country for a couple of weeks, but leave me a message and I’ll check you when I get back. Later.”

Damn. Kaliq hung up without leaving a message. He scrolled some more until he came to the number for Jeremy Scott, another friend from school. Kaliq half remembered hearing something about how Jeremy was spending the summer out in LA, taking acting classes or something lame like that. The only guy Kaliq knew for sure was in the Hamptons was Anthony Avuldsen, so Kaliq tried him too, but he didn’t answer his phone either. He was probably still sleeping. No one with any sense would be awake this early in the morning.

Frowning, Kaliq took another deep drag on his joint. He could just imagine the endless march of hot sweaty days and lonely quiet nights before he would finally pack up and head off to Yale in the fall.

Poor baby.

From his perch on the roof, Kaliq could see the coach’s wide backyard, the very yard he’d be in charge of mowing and landscaping for the next few weeks. He’d been so preoccupied, he hadn’t noticed the best part of the view: the coach’s wife, lying poolside, sunning herself in the bright morning rays, topless. She was a mom and she wasn’t young, but she wasn’t that old, either. At least her boobs had aged well. He’d seen How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and he’d never been with an older woman. Shit could happen. Maybe working for the coach without pay wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Or maybe the sun is getting to him.

3

Teetering ever so slightly on her black peep-toe platform sandals—okay, so they were technically Porsha’s, but she knew her onetime roommate would never come back to Williamsburg to collect any of the stuff she’d left behind—Yasmine thwacked over the cobblestones of the Meatpacking District toward the unmarked rusty door of Ken Mogul’s massive live/work loft.

Despite her classmate Chanel Crenshaw’s drunken promises to put a good word in with him at Porsha’s wild graduation party a couple of weeks before, Yasmine Richards had never seriously expected to hear from Ken Mogul again. Earlier that year, he’d taken an interest in her career when some nearly-X-rated film footage she’d shot of Bree Hargrove and Kaliq Braxton hooking up in Central Park surfaced online and tried to take her under his wing as a protégé. But Yasmine didn’t like the idea of being under anyone’s wing, and working on a major Hollywood production out in LA wasn’t exactly her thing. She was more a dead-pigeons-and-used-condom film auteur than maker of big teen blockbusters, but Breakfast at Fred’s was going to be shot right on her doorstep at Barneys uptown. It was tempting to write it off as a learning experience. Still, something about it made her uneasy.

She rang the buzzer marked only with the director’s initials and waited, fiddling nervously with her clothes. Nearly her entire outfit had been garnered from the hand-me-downs Porsha had left behind. She’d paired a black sleeveless top with her own tattered black jeans, Porsha’s clunky sandals, and the leather messenger bag Porsha used to carry her laptop in. The look was sophisticated and artsy: she looked like someone who didn’t care about things like looking sophisticated.

Like she ever cared?

Suddenly the door flew open to reveal an incredibly tall girl sporting super-short cutoffs and a pink tank top. Her skin was dark brown and flawless; her hair was long, jet black, and perfectly straight; and her eyes were huge, brown, and sparkling. She smiled, showing off a mouthful of absolutely perfect white teeth.

All the better to eat you with…

“Yeah?” the Blasian model-goddess demanded with a hostile grimace. She looked almost like an evil character in a video game, and Yasmine could imagine being decapitated with a flick of her long lean fighting-machine wrist.

“Um, yeah, I’m here to see Ken.”

“Come on up,” Jade Empire muttered, turning around. The heavy steel door slammed shut as Yasmine followed her up a narrow cement staircase and into a huge, bright, open room. A forest of rusting steel columns supported the vaulted ceiling, and a bank of windows showcased an incredible view of the Hudson River. The vast space was divided by a long open bookcase and was overflowing with heavy art books, vinyl records, framed photographs, and dusty vases. The latest Frank Ocean album blasted from tiny speakers mounted to the top of the bookcase, and the music echoed all around.

“He’s in here somewhere,” Jade Empire explained, clearly disinterested. “You’ve got an appointment, right?”

“I think so.”

“Well, just hang out. He’ll show up sooner or later. Good luck with whatever it is.” She shrugged and kicked off her beaded yellow Chinese slippers and shuffled away into the depths of the loft, disappearing behind the bookcase.

Yasmine turned to the wall behind her, which was covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of all different sizes. She recognized some of them—they were Ken Mogul’s own work. Before meeting him, Yasmine had worshipped the filmmaker, and she knew everything he’d ever done. His favorite place in the world was Capri, in Italy, and before turning to filmmaking, Ken had been a renowned photographer. Mixed in with his art photos of half-nude models lolling around on litter-strewn subway platforms were snapshots of Ken crammed into nightclub booths beside famous faces like Madonna, Angelina and Brad, and Samuel L. Jackson.

“Like what you see?” came a gravelly voice from behind her.

Yasmine turned to see the dark, stubbly face of Ken Mogul himself. He had the unnerving habit of seeming not to blink and he fixed his bloodshot eyes on her with a crazed smile. He wore a plaid flannel vest and old Levi’s chopped off at the knees.

“Here’s the deal,” he went on without waiting for her response. He wheeled around and Yasmine had no choice but to follow him past the massive bookshelf and into an enormous office with a garage-door-size window. “Here. Sit.” He poured Yasmine a tall glass of what looked like chilled mint tea from a glass pitcher and pointed to a red leather chair across from a paper-strewn table. He poured a glass for himself and sank down into a desk chair, swiveling it aimlessly before tilting back and resting his feet on the desk. “It’s a money job, is all, but just between us, Breakfast at Fred’s is going to fucking rock. Don’t tell the producers, but this is not your average urban flick. I’m thinking Spike Lee. Something human, humorous, and freaking dark.”

“Uh-huh,” murmured Yasmine, sipping her tea. Not only was she distracted by the director’s office artwork—over his desk hung a bigger-than-life-size picture of the director himself, completely naked, splashing in the waves with the bitchy Jade Empire skank—but she hated this kind of pretentious art talk.

Better get used to it, Miss NYU Film School.

“So, what do you say?” asked Ken, openly picking his nose and flicking the findings onto the floor. “I know it’s a major studio, I know it’s big budget, I know it’s romantic comedy. But those are all the reasons I need you. I need your vision to help me deliver something that’s going to make the movie-going public sit up and take notice. ”

As if they hadn’t already.

Yasmine stared out the window at some elevated train tracks that had been abandoned decades before and were now sprouting trees and grass, and a big building under construction on the next block. It was everything she was against: a major studio’s romantic comedy. But Ken Mogul needed her; how many incoming NYU freshmen could say the same thing? Plus, it sounded like a shitload of fun, and she had fuck-all to do that summer. That was why she’d come there today in the first place: sheer boredom.

She turned back to Ken. “I’ll have to think about it.”

Ken took his feet off the desk and fiddled with his papers, finally unearthing a beaten pack of cigarettes. He stuck one in his mouth but didn’t light it. “The female lead was supposed to be my wife,” Ken continued, “but, as you already know, I’ve decided to go in another direction.”

“Wife?” Yasmine could hardly believe that anyone would dream of marrying a googly-eyed, neurotic, conceited freak like Ken Mogul.

“Jade. I think she showed you in.”

Miss Congeniality was Mrs. Mogul?

“Oh, right.” Yasmine couldn’t resist taking another peek at the nudie photo behind the desk. It looked like a scene from a pirate porn movie.

Freaks of the Caribbean?

“Well, now she’s not speaking to me because I’ve decided to go with Chanel. Chanel’s going to be huge. And so are you.”

“I’m honored,” Yasmine replied. “I really am. But you’ll have to let me think about it, okay?”

Better think fast, honey. Hollywood waits for no one!

4

“I’m going to 169 East 71st Street,” Chanel Crenshaw said to the cabbie as she slid into the taxi’s backseat. She rolled down the window and let the warm late morning air blow across her face. Aah, summer. All her life summer had meant parties at her family’s estate in Ridgefield, Connecticut, or long sunny afternoons in the park, reading old magazines and slurping Stoli-and-cranberry popsicles with Porsha. Now, for the first time ever, Chanel had a job. She turned a thick manila envelope over in her hands and removed the letter she’d already read several times:

Holly: You must suffer for your art. You must BE your part. Pack your bags. The keys in this envelope are the keys to your new life— the original life of Holly. See you soon. Kenneth.

It was an odd letter, sure, but what else did she expect from a world-famous eccentric like Kenneth Mogul? He was her director, so she figured she better do as directed.

She patted the two old Kate Spade tote bags beside her. They still smelled deliciously like the ocean and suntan lotion and contained a stash of underwear, one of her brother Cairo’s old Brown T-shirts that she’d swiped the last time he’d been home, a flimsy sundress, her most comfortable Michael Kors flip-flops, her trusty Levi jeans, a second pair of flip-flops, just in case, and a white embroidered top. Only the essentials.

She stared out the window at the grand steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the lush trees of Central Park, the grand apartment buildings on 72nd Street, the panoramic vista of Park Avenue, and then at the unfamiliar ugly modern towers on Third Avenue. Ew.

“We’re here, miss,” the cabdriver announced, grinning at her in the rearview mirror with a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. One tooth even had the initial Z stenciled into it.

Maybe for Zorro? Chanel wondered.

“Oh.” She pulled out her Louis Vuitton wallet and thumbed through the cash. Then she climbed out of the taxi, balancing her packed-to-the-brim tote bags, and scanned the townhouses for the right number.

There was number 171, and there was number 167, but there were some unmarked buildings in between the two, and she couldn’t figure out which was hers. She lugged her bags to the nearest stoop and sat down. Judging from some of the boxy, low buildings on the street, the place she was moving into wouldn’t be quite on par with what she was accustomed to. She dug out a cigarette and lit it, stepping aside as a stream of foul-smelling gray smoke billowed out of a grate in the gutter.

Wake up, Dorothy: you’re not in Kasas anymore.

It was funny how everything could change so quickly—she’d gone from being Chanel Crenshaw, senior at Emma Willard and sometimes-model, to being Chanel the working actress. It didn’t seem so long ago that her biggest worries had been remembering where the Maison Margiela sample sale would be this month, or bickering with Porsha in the VIP room at the 40/40 Club, or hooking up with Kaliq wherever he wanted—which, for a short while, had been everywhere and all the time.

It’s a hard knock life.

“You lost?”

Chanel looked up…and up, and up. Standing above her was a gorgeously tall guy with broad shoulders, neatly cut hair, and smooth mahogany skin. He was wearing a plain gray suit and stiff navy tie, but his smile was so charming she was willing to overlook his dorky office ensemble.

But would she be willing to overlook the dorky plaid boxers he was probably wearing underneath?

“I’m just looking for this address,” Chanel sighed, handing the stranger her keys with the number 169 painted on them in red.

Some girls really know how to work the damsel-in-distress thing.

“Well,” he grinned, “I think I know exactly where this building is. Because I actually kind of live there.” He extended a hand to help Chanel to her feet. “Hey, I’m Jason Bridges.”

“Chanel Crenshaw,” she replied, smoothing her skirt and smiling the sort of sly, wide-eyed-ingenue smile that Audrey Hepburn was famous for.

No wonder she got the part. Just like Holly Golightly, Chanel was a master of the she-can’t-possibly-be-that-beautiful-and-that-innocent-allure that made guys flock to her.

“Well, Chanel.” Jason bent down to pick up her two overstuffed totes. “Let’s head on home.” He unlocked the door to number 169, a white townhouse with black trim and ivy climbing up the side of it. He shoved the heavy old black door open to allow Chanel to step inside first.

A true gentleman!

“So,” he began as the door slammed behind him. “You visiting Therese?”

“No.” Chanel frowned as she inspected the vestibule’s creaky wooden staircase, lit only by a pretty but dim wrought-iron chandelier. The whole place reeked of dead old lady, as though it hadn’t been touched since its original owner died thirty years ago. Yet it was still charming and semi-grand, in its own way. “I’m moving in, I guess.”

“You guess?” Jason laughed as he started to climb the wooden steps, which groaned and squeaked noisily. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“Well,” Chanel began, “I’m in this movie, and this morning I got a note from my director telling me to pack my bags and come here, and now here I am. I think it’s to help me get into character or something.”

“Movie star, huh?” Jason asked.

“Something like that,” Chanel answered, mildly embarrassed.

“Wow.” He turned to shoot her a slow, shy smile. “This is a nice building, but I’d think most movie stars would just want to stay somewhere a bit more glamorous, like the Hilton or something.”

“We’re doing an urban retelling of Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” she explained, choosing the exact words Ken Mogul had used to describe his big-budget debut, Breakfast at Fred’s. “This is where Holly Golightly lived in the original movie, but I guess you probably knew that already. It’s supposed to make me feel just like she does. It’s my first movie.”

“Oh yeah?” Jason asked as they reached the landing, where the black-and-white mosaic-tile floor was missing a few tiles. “What’s it about?”

“It’s about a wild city girl—that’s my part—who meets this innocent guy from the country who’s trying to make it as an actor.” She conveniently left out that the guy would be played by super-hot actor Thaddeus Smith. “Then, this uptight Upper East Side girl wows him with her money…and things like lunch at Fred’s, the restaurant at Barneys?” Chanel hoped what she was saying made some sense. She had a tendency to ramble and lose track of the plot.

As if any guy she’d ever talked to even cared.

They turned up another staircase and Chanel went on, starting to feel a little winded as she spoke. “The other girl ruins his innocence, which is, like, the one quality that would make him a success as an actor—and turns him into a jaded New Yorker. Then it’s up to my character to save him.”

“So does that means we’ll be neighbors all summer?” Jason asked, sounding adorably hopeful.

“Actually, just for a couple of weeks,” she admitted. Breakfast at Fred’s was a big-budget picture, but Ken Mogul had only twelve days scheduled for the actual filming.

They reached one landing and walked down a narrow hall. Then he turned and led her up another flight of steps. “How far up are we going?” Chanel wondered out loud. She was slightly out of breath.

Better lay off those hardcore French cigarettes.

They reached another landing, walked down another hallway, and started up another flight. Was it possible that he was just leading her up to some dark, hidden, date-rape lair? Should she be scared? She patted her skirt pocket, checking for her cell phone, just in case.

“I’m at my first job, too,” he explained. “I’m a summer associate at Lowell, Bonderoff, Foster and Wallace. The law firm? I was there until four last night, so that’s why I’m going to work now. I don’t usually have to work so late, though.”

At last they reached the top floor, where the ceiling was low and the hallway was dark. Chanel could see the sweat on Jason’s forehead. She wasn’t sure if it was from all those damn stairs or because of her.

“Here we are,” he announced.

She unlocked the door and pushed it open. Jason followed her inside and dropped her bags on the ground with a thud that echoed off the walls of the empty apartment. Two bare bulbs protruded from the urine-colored ceiling, which was marred with water stains.

“It’s nice,” he observed gamely.

It is?

Chanel strolled around the apartment’s main room, almost losing her balance on the sloping, creaky wood floor. Three windows faced the street, with tattered screens and a view of the solid brick old people’s home across the street. Out of the back window off the tiny kitchen, Chanel recognized the fire escape from the original Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Holly Golightly had strummed her mandolin and sung “Moon River.” Porsha got teary every time they watched that scene. Chanel pushed a window open. The apartment had a stale, claustrophobic, gag-inducing smell, like sweaty feet and sardines.

“But where’s the furniture?” she asked, her voice dangerously close to a whine.

“And who’s this?” Jason added. A black cat wandered into the living room from the bedroom at the back of the apartment.

Well, that explains the smell.

Chanel pulled out her pack of cigarettes and poked her head out that famous kitchen window, hoping to feel inspired, but all she felt was nervous and a little lost. Why was she there again?

Because she was about to star in a major motion picture—hello?

“He’s cute.” In the kitchen, Jason crouched down to stroke the cat behind its ears.

Chanel turned, lighting her cigarette as she watched her handsome neighbor playing with the cat, who apparently lived in their building too.

See? The views aren’t all bad.

5

“Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where I can find the romance novels?”

Mekhi Hargrove was crouched on the floor, making sure the biographies were alphabetized by subject, not author. When working at the Strand, New York’s best—and biggest—bookstore, it was important to pay attention to details like the proper arrangement of the biographies.

Whatever turns him on.

“We might have a few on the shelves by the stairs, but we don’t have a romance section,” Mekhi explained, unable to hide his displeasure.

“Thanks,” the woman replied cheerfully as she strolled away to browse the dusty books and whatever romance novels were still left on the shelves.

The Strand was legendary not just for its incredible selection but also for its highly educated, highly snotty staff, and Mekhi was thrilled to have gotten the job. He’d seen the Help Wanted poster after dropping his sister, Bree, off at Kennedy on her impromptu trip to visit their mom in Prague and take some art classes, and he’d been feeling a little down about what he was supposed to do with his own summer. When he saw the poster in the store window, it really felt like a sign.

Now here he was, shelving books at the best store in town. But compared to other bookstores, the Strand had zero atmosphere. There was no music, no coffee. Just rows and rows of mismatched bookshelves crammed with books.

Pushing a creaky cart overloaded with dusty volumes, Mekhi made his way down the narrow aisle of the biography section. His job involved spending lots of time on his own and ignoring customers, which gave him plenty of time to think: about literature, about his poetry, about what Evergreen College in Washington state was going to be like, and mostly about what his last summer in New York—and his last summer with Yasmine—was going to be like. He’d made a big scene at his graduation when he’d declared he wouldn’t be enrolling in college at all so he could stay by her side, but as it turned out, he was looking forward to driving out west in the metallic blue ’77 Buick his dad had given him as a graduation present. It was the perfect car for a road trip. He’d be just like Jack Kerouac in On the Road, tearing up the highways and making love to the land and sky with the words that crept into his head as he drove along. He’d leave poems for all the women he met—the mysterious lover they’d never quite have. Until then, he’d have one last perfect summer in the city with Yasmine, his first love.

Mekhi grabbed a copy of Malcom X’s autobiography off the top of his cart and crouched on the dusty wood floor of the store trying to find the spot where it belonged. His mind began to wander as the words came to him:

Hot hands steer the wheel

You’re my gears, my pedals

Stir up the dust. Lust. Lust. Make it last

Sure, it was a little cheesy, but God, that was how he felt right now. He started making a mental list of classic romantic New York dates: Seeing Shakespeare in Central Park, riding the Staten Island Ferry just for the hell of it, watching the sun rise over the 59th Street bridge. Maybe a drive out to Jones Beach in the Buick, the salty wind blowing through the open windows, Yasmine’s hair blowing behind them…Okay, well, not her hair—she basically had no hair—but maybe she could wear a long silk scarf or something. He could see it now. It was going to be the most romantic summer.

It’s going to be something, that’s for sure.

“Excuse me, do you have the Cliffs Notes for Ulysses?” a high-pitched male voice whispered barely audibly, interrupting Mekhi’s reverie.

Cliffs Notes for James Joyce? The horror!

Mekhi scowled at the nerdy-looking goth kid who’d asked for his help. He was holding a Batman lunch box, and Mekhi realized he wasn’t nerdy or goth so much as hopeless.

“Why don’t you try reading the real thing?” he responded disparagingly.

Hopeless, who was actually probably older than Mekhi—an NYU student, maybe, or some poor asshole toughing it out in summer school so he could finally graduate at twenty-three—shrugged. “Boring.”

Mekhi wanted to punch him in his skinny stomach, but he suddenly realized it was his job—no, his duty—to make this asshole read. He stood up. “Follow me.”

He led the mindless goth kid into a small back room full of leather-bound classics and found a beautiful copy of Joyce’s masterpiece. Mekhi began to read aloud from a random page: “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.” Mekhi paused and looked up. “Come on, you know you want to,” he urged.

The kid looked terrified, probably suspecting Mekhi was some sort of lurking literary pervert. He dropped his Batman lunch box and bolted.

Mekhi sat down on the floor to finish the page. He had to admit that James Joyce did always sort of turn him on.

Yes, it’s going to be an interesting summer indeed.

6

Kaliq stood up on the pedals of his vintage bicycle, pushing them up and down with his feet, and then eased himself back onto the uncomfortable, unpadded leather seat. He liked to bike this way—pedaling as hard as he could and then sitting down to feel the warm summer breeze on his face. To the right, the waves rippled off the beach. On his left was a vineyard full of Chardonnay grapes. The air smelled like salt and gas-grilled steak. He listened to the satisfying crunch of the gravelly road under his wheels and grinned lazily.

His morning joint had done just the trick, and by the end of the day, he’d been kind of grooving on what was supposed to be his summer punishment. There was something soothing about physical labor. He’d spent the summer after tenth grade helping his dad build their sailboat, the Charlotte, up at his family’s compound in Mt. Desert Isle, Maine, and the afternoon working on Coach Michaels’s place kind of reminded him of that summer, although the setting—rows of houses and overpopulated beaches—wasn’t quite as serene. Still, there was nothing like tough manual work, bright sunshine, and the reward of a cold beer when the day was done; and no distractions.

There were no classes to worry about: school was over at last, and Yale seemed impossibly far away. Porsha, the girl he was pretty sure was the love of his life but who he could never seem to get it together for, was in England with her new aristocrat boyfriend, probably shopping, eating scones, and drinking way too much tea. Chanel was back in the city becoming a movie star, and Bree, the incredibly well-endowed freshman he’d somehow gotten involved with last winter, had been shipped off to Europe. He was better off far away from those three.

He grinned, realizing that this was how the whole summer would go: days of hard labor, bike rides back home, then a shower, a joint, and maybe some time by himself was just what he needed. Coach’s house was in Hampton Bays, several miles from his own house in East Hampton, but it was like a different world, with its suburban houses and minivans and malls. It was just the kind of place that would help him refocus this summer, which was his plan. He didn’t have his eye on any particular girl, and anyway, they tended to lead him into nothing but trouble. Maybe he was better off as a solo act.

As if he were ever alone for more than thirty seconds.

Kaliq had to climb off and push the squeaky bike up a particularly bad hill, wheezing from the effort.

Sucking down three joints a day will do that to you.

Out of breath and sweating, he climbed back on the bike at the hill’s summit and drifted down, letting gravity do the work. He looked down and poked at his forearm to see if it burned when he touched it. It was something Porsha used to do to him when they went to the beach together. After declaring him sunburnt, she’d gently slather him with her fancy sunscreen. He pushed at his forearm again. Definitely a little cooked.

Then he looked up and realized he was speeding straight for the road’s shoulder. He pulled on the handlebars, swerving across the road, but he was going so fast that he wiped out. Hard.

There was a polite round of applause, like at a golf match. Kaliq looked up, realizing he was splayed out in the dirt parking lot in front the Oyster Shack, a gray clapboard seafood joint about halfway between Coach’s house and his family’s hundred-year-old estate near Georgica Pond in East Hampton. A group of highschool-aged kids was sitting at a picnic table, strewn with sweating beer bottles and baskets of fried food, and they were all staring at him.

“Shit,” Kaliq muttered. Tiny pebbles were embedded in the palms of his hands, and he’d torn the faded shirt he’d been working in all day. He brushed the dirt from his hands and looked down at his cutoff khakis—no damage there.

Leave it to Kaliq Braxton to look even better covered with sweat, blood, and grime.

He crouched to examine the bike’s front wheel. It was bent.

“Tough break.”

Kaliq looked up. The voice belonged to a curvy multiracial girl who wore her wavy blonde hair pulled back tight and tucked under a red bandanna. Her pink tube top was riding dangerously low and her denim shorts promisingly high. A lipstick-smeared straw poked out of the Coke she gripped in her left hand. She extended her right hand to Kaliq, her long perfectly-painted nails exactly the same shade of red as the can.

“Just ignore my friends,” she told him apologetically.

Her skin was an orangey-brown tawny color and there was a smattering of freckles covering her nose, cheeks, shoulders, arms, and chest. Kaliq had learned from Porsha that girls were usually more complicated than they first appeared, and this girl’s prominent freckles seemed to suggest that she was more than just a typical Long Island babe. She even kind of looked like that model he followed on Instagram, Cocaine Lorraine or something.

Kaliq grinned as he took her hand and let her pull him to his feet. “Yeah, no problem,” he answered sheepishly.

“You’re going to need to get that looked at,” Freckles advised, nodding at the bike.

“Yeah,” muttered Kaliq. He wasn’t that worried about the bike. The only thing that seemed worth looking at was right in front of him.

“I’m Tawny. I know a place where you can get your bike taken care of. But maybe I’ll buy you an ice cream cone first.”

Tawny? But isn’t that the color of her skin?!

“Sure.” He’d smoked the roach from his morning joint before leaving Coach’s place—hence the accident, maybe?—and ice cream sounded very appetizing indeed.

“So what’s your story? I’ve never seen you around,” Tawny asked as she skipped across the street to a tiny, faded blue house that was so small it looked like it was out of a cartoon. A couple of little kids were perched on the steps licking strawberry ice cream cones. “Two vanilla cones,” Tawny purred to the pimply guy behind the counter. She had the faintest hint of an accent, but Kaliq couldn’t quite place it.

“No story.” Kaliq idly kicked the side of the cartoon house with the toes of his battered sneakers. He wanted to run his hands up and down her warm freckled arms.

Tawny knelt down and smiled and laid a five-dollar bill on the counter, reaching inside the window to retrieve two pointy sugar cones piled high with thick white scoops of ice cream. She handed one to Kaliq.

“Thanks.” The ice cream started to melt immediately in the late afternoon sun, trickling down his hand. He licked it delicately.

Tawny touched his skinned knee gently. There was something about the way she did it—a possessiveness? A certainty? A particular quality—that reminded Kaliq of Porsha. But this girl was nothing like Porsha: Porsha would never wear a pink tube top, or let an ice cream cone melt all over her hands, or…pay for food on a first date.

Date? That was fast.

“Are you okay?” Tawny asked, rising to her feet. She licked her pink swollen-looking lips. “You look so serious.”

The truth was, Kaliq was wondering what Tawny looked like without her tube top on. Was her chest freckled too? His hands itched just thinking about it.

“I’m just really glad I met you,” Kaliq told her a little goofily. He dabbed his chin with a napkin. “We should hang out this summer.”

A world record: Kaliq Braxton managed to swear off girls for three whole minutes.

7

Yasmine slammed the rusty cab door and stared up at the weather-beaten brick façade of her Williamsburg apartment building, still mulling over Ken’s job offer. She wished there was someone she could ask for advice, but she knew better than to call her self-absorbed, Vermont-living hippie parents. They’d just lecture her about art and commerce and “creative responsibility.” She wished her sister Ruby was around—she was the only one Yasmine really trusted to talk to about these things.

A white Ford station wagon with a broken windshield was parked in front of the building where it had been for weeks. One of the back doors was missing, and the seats were piled with garbage bags and old blankets. Someone must have been living in it, which would explain the stench of urine that surrounded the car.

Nice.

Yasmine unlocked the building’s complicated array of dead bolts and latches and clomped up the stairs, hesitating halfway up. There were voices coming from inside her apartment. Had she left the TV on? She tiptoed to the door and listened, not breathing. Yes, it was definitely voices, they were definitely coming from inside, and there was something very familiar about one of the voices.

Yasmine’s older sister Ruby had been on a whirlwind tour of Europe with her band, SugarDaddy, for eight weeks. An occasional postcard from Madrid or Oslo had appeared in the mailbox, and they’d spoken on the phone once, but the touring-rock-girl lifestyle wasn’t all that conducive to staying in touch.

Yasmine threw the door open excitedly. “Ruby!” Yasmine cried, taking in her sister in her purple leather pants and her new matching shade of hair. It looked almost luminous. “I can’t believe you’re back!”

“Hey,” Ruby greeted her casually from the couch. She was straddling a skinny stubbly-faced European guy wearing black leather pants just like Ruby’s purple ones. Ruby touched the tip of her cigarette to the tip of his to light it. She didn’t get up to hug her sister, and her tone of voice was completely nonchalant, like Yasmine had just been at the grocery store to buy milk or something.

“Um, hi?” Yasmine was slightly taken aback. She closed the apartment door behind her.

“What’s going on, sis?” asked Ruby, puffing on her cigarette as she surveyed the apartment’s Porshaified decor. “I see you did some redecorating.”

Yasmine didn’t want to make small talk about Porsha’s renovations. Ruby was back just when she needed her most! “Hello, you’re back! That’s what’s going on. How was the tour?”

Her older sister shrugged. “Berlin, London, Paris, Budapest. We rocked. It was incredible.”

“All hail the conquering rock star. I’m Yasmine.” She clomped over to the guy Ruby was straddling. He hadn’t looked at her once.

“This is Piotr,” Ruby explained, wiggling her purple-leather-clad ass as she said his name, as if just saying it was a real turn on. “We met after our show in Prague.”

“Hallo,” Piotr replied in a stiff accent, exhaling a long plume of smoke as he spoke.

Charming.

“The apartment looks cool.” Ruby sounded skeptical. She glanced around the room. “But how could you afford all this? The furniture, the drapes?”

“It’s a long story,” Yasmine answered, leaning against the lavender-painted wall and trying to look anywhere but at the suede couch where the filthy scrawny Eastern European stranger was stretched out underneath her sister.

“Like the story of where you got those shoes?” Ruby asked, throwing her purple hair back. It was the same color as Willy Wonka’s hat. “And that top? Jesus, look at you. You’re a real fashion plate.”

“I had a meeting.” Yasmine felt hurt. Why was Ruby being such a bitch? If only the slimebag between her legs would get lost so they could order some sushi and have one of their sisterly heart-to-hearts.

“A word?” Ruby climbed down off of Piotr’s lap. She nodded toward the kitchen.

Yasmine followed, wondering how long Ruby was going to be home. They leaned against the countertop. “You two look pretty…serious,” Yasmine observed.

“It’s love,” Ruby murmured wistfully, sounding surprisingly un–rocker chick. She did a little half-pirouette then stopped, pseudo-embarrassed, and leaned against the counter again.

“That’s cool,” Yasmine responded, irritated. It didn’t look like they were going to be doing any sisterly bonding after all. She fiddled with the ceramic Statue of Liberty salt-and-pepper shakers Mekhi had given her in a fit of romantic corniness.

“Well, the apartment does look good, even if it’s not what I expected to come home to,” Ruby commented. “But I hate to think that you went to all this trouble when…”

“When what?” Yasmine asked suspiciously.

“Not to be the bearer of bad news, but…Piotr is going to be here for a while. Some local galleries are interested in him—he’s a painter, did I mention? He does monolithic nudes with their canines. He’s huge in the underground Prague scene, and he’s hoping to break into Williamsburg.”

Yasmine wasn’t exactly sure what “monolithic nudes and their canines” meant, but she could imagine Ruby borrowing somebody’s pit bull and posing for him butt naked, teeth bared. “Good for him.”

“Well, I kind of thought he’d stay here, with me,” Ruby mumbled.

“That’s kind of a tight fit,” Yasmine muttered back. “But that’s cool. We’ll work it out.”

“That’s the thing,” Ruby corrected her. “Piotr needs a studio. And since he can’t afford to rent one, we were thinking…we’d turn the other room, your room, into his studio.”

Ex-squeeze me?

“So, what, you’re kicking me out?” Yasmine stopped fiddling and turned to face her sister. She’d been living with Ruby since she was fifteen. It was her home too.

“Well, this was always just a temporary solution. You know, like, while you were in high school. But now that you’ve graduated, it’s time to strike out on your own, like I did when I was eighteen.”

“Fine,” Yasmine snapped. “That’s cool. I get it, I’m all grown up and on my own now. I get it.”

“Don’t be like that,” Ruby pleaded guiltily. “Come back and sit, let’s talk things over a little more.”

“No, it’s cool, really. Let me just grab my stuff and I’ll be out of Pita Bread or whatever-the-hell-his-name-is’s hair immediately.” Shaking a little, Yasmine stormed out of the kitchen and into the living room, where Pizza Face sat smoking some rotten-smelling Czech cigarettes. Yasmine snatched her still photograph of a dead pigeon off the wall above his head and tucked it under her arm. It was her favorite, and she wasn’t about to leave it behind so he could copy it in one of his paintings. She could see it now: he’d become known as the “dead pigeon” artist, when all along it had been her dead pigeon and her freaking apartment.

A few minutes later, Yasmine crashed down the stairs, lugging her camera equipment and one giant black duffel bag. She burst out into the late afternoon sun and stumbled down Bedford Avenue, dodging funkily dressed passersby and piles of dog shit and wondering where, exactly, she was going to go.

She dropped her duffel on the ground and sat, using the fully stuffed bag as a perch. Digging her new cell phone from her pocket, she hit speed dial. There were two rings and then the familiar sound of Mekhi’s voice.

“What’s up?”

“My sister kicked me out.” Her voice cracked. She tried desperately not to cry. “And I don’t have any money, and I don’t have anywhere to go, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Guess she’ll be taking that job.

8

“Hey,” Mekhi whispered into his cell as he ducked behind an aging metal bookshelf at the Strand. It was the kind of place only a guy who had read Hamlet five times could love. “I was just thinking about you.”

He couldn’t quite make out Yasmine’s response. She sounded out of breath and near tears.

“Wait, wait,” he soothed. He stacked up a pile of Ronald Reagan biographies and sat down on them. “Slow down. I didn’t catch any of that.”

“I said I’ve been kicked out of my apartment,” Yasmine shouted. “Ruby’s back from Europe and she has this new asshole Czech painter bullshit boyfriend and she told me to get lost.”

“Shit,” Mekhi muttered, looking around. He wasn’t really supposed to be on his cell phone on the job.

“What am I going to do? Where am I supposed to go?”

“What about my place?” Mekhi asked, before he even had a chance to think about what he was saying. He fingered an old dusty hardcover about Walt Whitman and considered taking it home.

“Your place?” Yasmine repeated, pitifully. Mekhi wasn’t sure he’d ever heard her sound so weak, and even though he kind of knew it was wrong, he sort of liked how it made him feel. Like he was some macho stud and she was frail and helpless. He made a mental note to use the feeling for a poem.

Rice paper girl, I’m the quill, the ink, the well…

“It’ll be fine,” he assured her. “Take your stuff, get on the subway, go to my place. The door’s unlocked—you know my dad always leaves it open. I’ll be home in a couple of hours.”

“Really?” Yasmine asked tentatively. She’d always been so fiercely independent. Mekhi knew she hated asking for any favors. “Are you sure it’s okay with your dad?”

“It’ll be fine.” He rubbed some dust off the top shelf and it sprinkled in his eye. “You’ll see. I’ll be there soon. Don’t worry.” He rubbed his eyes, listening to Yasmine breathe on the other end of the phone.

“On the plus side, Ken Mogul offered me a job today.” Yasmine laughed bitterly. “It looks like I’m going to have to take it.”

“That’s great!” he cheered, though he couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. He was working, and now Yasmine was going to work too. That would definitely put a damper on his romantic plans. When would they have time to ride the tram to Roosevelt Island and drink sake in the park?

“Shit, that’s my call waiting,” she mumbled. Mekhi heard her take the phone from her ear. “It’s Ken. I better get it. I’ll see you at home, then? Your home, I mean.”

“No,” he corrected her. “Yours too.”

Aw.

Mekhi pressed the end button on his cell and slipped back into the narrow aisle of the biography section. He smiled. Maybe Yasmine getting kicked out was actually the best thing that could happen to them. Living together would make their last summer before leaving for college so intimate that it would be even more memorable.

He grabbed a few of the Reagan biographies and crouched, trying to find a place for all of them on a shelf.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for a copy of Siddhartha and I just can’t seem to find one. Can you help me?”

Mekhi rose from his crouching position, his knees cracking from bending over, ready with a clever comeback about where to find enlightenment. But once he saw the customer, he swallowed his words.

She was about four inches taller than he was, with long black hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail. She wore a faded gym tee and white denim cutoffs and had matching green-and-white wristbands on both of her arms. She furrowed her brow a little, but even worried, her brown eyes twinkled. She looked like Zoe Saldana, only sexier and dirtier looking, like Zoe Saldana on her way home from her aerobic striptease class.

“Um, yeah,” Mekhi finally replied, flustered. “Yeah, we should have a copy of Siddhartha. I’m sure we have one.”

“Oh, good,” Dirty Zoe cried, reaching out and squeezing his bony upper arm. “I really want to read it.”

“Yeah,” he muttered, leading her away from the presidential biographies and toward paperback fiction. “It’s actually one of my favorite books.”

It is?

“Oh, gosh, really?”

Mekhi had never encountered a girl who managed to say “gosh” and not sound like a complete moron.

“It comes so highly recommended by my yogi.”

“Here it is,” he announced, standing on his tiptoes and tugging on the book’s thin brown spine. He handed it to her.

“Cool.” She turned the book over to examine the back cover. “This looks really great. Thanks so much for your help. So you really liked it?” She gazed at him, her round eyes matching the amber brown of the book’s faded cover.

“Well…” Mekhi paused. Books were his area of expertise—why couldn’t he think of anything to say?

Maybe because he never read it?

“It was, um…inspiring.”

“Great. I’m really looking forward to it.” She cradled the book against her chest and leaned into Mekhi a bit more closely. “Maybe I’ll come back when I’ve finished it and you can recommend another book for me?”

“I’m always happy to recommend books to our customers,” he replied smoothly.

“Awesome!” she cried with cheerleaderish enthusiasm. “I’m Nicole.”

“Mekhi.”

“Cool, Mekhi. This book isn’t long, so I’ll be back in a couple of days. Thanks again for your help!” She turned and strolled away, an actual bounce in her step. Mekhi watched her small round butt, which closely resembled two scoops of salted caramel ice cream, disappear behind the News and Current Events section, before remembering that he’d just asked Yasmine to move in with him.

How, um…enlightened.

9

“Bravo!” cried Lord Marcus. “Darling, you’re simply a natural at this!”

Camilla chuckled, tucking her long black mane behind her ears as her red croquet ball rolled through the wicket and came to rest on a patch of perfectly manicured emerald green lawn in the back garden of the Beaton-Rhodes manor. It was the third match they’d played that day, and Camilla had won. Again.

“I learned from the master,” she giggled excitedly.

“When is it going to be my turn?” Porsha whined. She’d been waiting for ages to get her chance to swing the mallet. She was definitely in the mood to hit something.

Behind them the ivy-covered gray stone West London mansion rose up like a fortress. Porsha hadn’t been invited inside yet, nor had she met Marcus’s parents.

“Mother has one of her headaches,” he’d explained, causing Camilla to erupt into a fit of honking laughter. Porsha wondered if Lady Rhodes had a tendency to bring a bottle of gin to bed with her, but she didn’t ask, preferring to glare menacingly at Camilla instead. There was something so “I’m in and you’re out” about her, Porsha just wanted to rip her head off like some kind of ugly royal-cousin-Barbie that would still be on the shelves long after Christmas.

“I believe that ends our game,” Lord Marcus called apologetically. “Shall we have another go?”

“Whatever,” muttered Porsha, sipping her fourth Bombay martini of the afternoon. The sprawling ancient stone mansion was framed by hundreds of perfectly cone-shaped bushes. Even the massive trees had been trimmed into unnatural shapes. Porsha was beginning to feel like Alice at the Queen of Hearts’ palace in Wonderland. She lit a cigarette and puffed on it greedily. “Can we get some more refreshments?” she asked of no one in particular.

When in doubt, have another.

“I’m knackered,” sighed Camilla as she collapsed into the wrought-iron chair next to Porsha’s. “Having fun?” she asked, putting her hand on Porsha’s, which was curled up into an angry little fist.

Weren’t she and Marcus supposed to be in love? Why wasn’t he undressing her in his elegant bedroom? Why did he want to pal around with his nag of a cousin? Why wasn’t he at least playing footsie with her beneath the table?

She squinted at Marcus, looking for a sign, some hint of his true feelings. A wide grin spread across his clean-shaven face and his hazel eyes sparkled with merriment. He seemed completely oblivious. Just having the time of his life in the warm summer sun. Porsha sighed. Maybe she was being nasty and judgmental. She glanced at Camilla. Maybe she’d disappear soon, and she and Marcus could have sex beneath a weird shaped tree.

“The time of my life,” Porsha snapped.

“I daresay I’m starved,” Lord Marcus exclaimed, rolling up the sleeves on his white linen button-down before taking a seat at the glass-topped table. He reached for a tiny silver platter that was laden with delicate cucumber sandwiches and popped one in his mouth.

“You’re always hungry when I’m around,” Camilla giggled. She poked him in the belly and sipped her martini delicately. “Remember that time I came to visit you at Yale and we went to that gorgeous little town in Vermont for a weekend ski?” Camilla turned to Porsha. “We were on the slopes all day and all I wanted was a nice soak in the tub. When I got out, Marcus had ordered everything—everything!—off the room service menu so we could eat by the fire.”

Porsha was overcome with the urge to grab her mallet and smack Camilla over the head. She looked at Marcus, who was blushing. Maybe he and Camilla were the kind of cousins who liked to play doctor. Even after they were too old to play. Didn’t Horseface realize she was Marcus’s girlfriend?

“Oh, Cam, I’m sure Porsha doesn’t want to hear about our ski weekend.” Marcus stood up, waving the empty sandwich plate at the butler.

Porsha stood up, too. “Anyone up for another game, set—whatever it’s fucking called? Maybe I can take a turn this time.”

“Oh, I think I’m all worn out. I ought to have warned you,” Marcus apologized. “Camilla is an absolute whiz at games.”

Well, fine then.

“Speaking of whiz,” Porsha muttered under her breath. “I need the loo.” She’d picked up quite a few Britishisms in the last couple of days.

“Oh my.” Camilla blushed.“There’s that Yank wit.”

And there’s that Brit bitchiness.

“Just inside,” Lord Marcus instructed. “Through the library and on your left.”

“I’ll find it,” huffed Porsha, stumbling a little as she started toward the house. The gin had gone straight to her head. “Don’t get up.”

She clopped along the flagstone path, smoothing the wrinkles in the white shirtdress she’d changed into especially for their afternoon of lawn games. The house was surprisingly cluttered and smelled of rotting flowers. Of course the furniture was beautiful and the rugs especially so—apparently Lady Rhodes sent a buyer to Marrakech every other year to add to her collection. But a stained-glass window in the library made the house feel oddly churchlike, and Porsha felt strange wandering around alone, knowing Lady Rhodes was upstairs somewhere nursing a hangover.

Alone in the powder room, she lit another Silk Cut, her new favorite English cigarette, and studied her reflection in the gilt-framed mirror as she exhaled. She narrowed her eyes and tucked in her chin, practicing the sexy look she’d fix on her boyfriend. One more drink and she’d suggest heading back to Claridge’s for a late afternoon romp. Lawn games were all well and good, but she was in the mood for some real exercise. She smoked the entire cigarette and pocketed a piece of the French-milled, shell-shaped soap just because.

Old habits never die.

Outside, a new batch of martinis had been mixed, and Lord Marcus offered a fresh glass to Porsha as she took her seat.

“She’ll want an ashtray,” Camilla quipped, nervously eyeing the inch of ash at the tip of Porsha’s cigarette.

“I’ll use the lawn, thanks,” Porsha replied flatly, taking a swig from her glass, spilling only a little on the table in the process.

“Darling, wait,” Lord Marcus jovially reprimanded her. “We’re having a toast. We were waiting for you.”

“What’s the occasion?” asked Porsha, holding in a burp.

“While you were inside, Camilla gave me the most wonderful news.”

She’s going to Switzerland to get her enormous nose fixed? She’s finally coming out of the closet as a big fat dyke? She’s decided to become a nun?

“She’s extending her stay. She’ll be with us all summer long. Isn’t that glorious?” Lord Marcus clinked his glass against hers.

Camilla took a dainty sip of her drink and put her hand protectively over Porsha’s. “We’ll be such good friends, we’ll be almost like sisters,” she promised, this time sounding more like the evil witchy stepmother who wants to eat Hansel and Gretel.

Porsha smiled tightly and drained her glass quickly before turning back to Camilla. “I always wanted an older sister.”

Marcus wrapped his toned arms around the two of them and squeezed them into a group hug. “I knew you two would get along.” He kissed them each on the cheek, and Porsha closed her eyes, trying to pretend Camilla wasn’t there.

Thank goodness she’s always had a vivid imagination.

10

Chanel’s rubber flip-flops thwacked noisily against the black-and-white-checked marble floor of the Chelsea Hotel hallway as she made her way to room 609, where Ken Mogul was putting up her costar, Thaddeus Smith. The Chelsea was probably the most famous hotel in New York City. Home to iconic artists and celebrities, it had once suffered a terrible fire and all its famous residents had been forced out. Now it was mostly a tourist trap, but it still had a historic sixties allure, and its basement housed a dark trendy bar, aptly named Chanel.

Chanel couldn’t understand why Thaddeus got to stay in a hotel and she had to live in a shabby apartment with no A/C. She’d been sitting alone, too hot to move, since Jason left, when Ken had called and told her to come down for an impromptu rehearsal with Thad. Chanel took a deep breath, fiddled nervously with the zippers on her gray Balenciaga bag, and knocked on the chipped door to room 609.

“Hi, you!” she squealed happily when Yasmine Richards opened the door. It had only been a little over two weeks since graduation, but it felt like this was their twentieth reunion or something. Yasmine was wearing a black silk dress and the coolest silver flat sandals Chanel had ever seen. “You look amazing!”

Yasmine opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted by Ken. “Chanel,” he called slowly. He was perched on the windowsill inside the large main room of the hotel suite, smoking an unfiltered cigarette. “Welcome to our universe!”

“Nice to see you again.” Chanel giggled as she stepped through the door and crossed the room, which was flooded with light from 23rd Street. The walls were painted a mint green that reminded her of the dorm bathrooms at Hanover Academy, the New Hampshire boarding school where she’d spent her junior year. There was an over-stuffed brown couch with cracks and splits in the leather along the armrests, and dozens of little potted cactuses lined the windowsill. Chanel could see an unmade king-size bed through the French doors.

“You can kind of picture all the people who’ve had sex here, can’t you?” Yasmine whispered.

Chanel wrinkled her nose. Now she could.

“You know Yasmine, of course.” Ken tossed his cigarette out of the open window behind him. “I’ve asked her to come aboard as our director of photography.”

Not like she had any choice.

“Great, cool.” Chanel winked at Yasmine, who was now busying herself with some serious-looking equipment.

“And I’m Thaddeus,” a sexy voice announced as the star strolled in from the adjacent bedroom.

Thaddeus Smith was taller than Chanel had expected, and his hair was cut in a neat fade. He was wearing an unremarkable outfit of dark jeans and a faded black polo, the collar standing up with a sort of dorky deliberateness. Chanel had the impression that she already knew him, and in a way she did: she’d watched him romance a sweet-faced Southern starlet in the two romantic comedies they’d done together, she’d seen him flee a homicidal maniac (who turned out to be his long-lost twin brother, also played by him in a challenging dual role). She’d even seen him in a skintight white bodysuit, playing a mute otherworldly creature awakened by the sun’s alignment with an ancient Mayan ruin. She’d heard that familiar baritone before, as he flirted and bantered on the talk shows, and of course she’d scoped out his signature abs in countless Les Best underwear advertisements. In person, he more than lived up to the hype: he was gorgeous, from the stubble on the sharp planes of his face to his brown and perfect feet.

Thaddeus took Chanel’s hand in his and shook it firmly. “It’s so great to meet you at last.” His eyes locked with hers, or was she just imagining it?

“You too,” she breathed.

“I’m glad we’re all here now,” Ken began, lighting another cigarette. He hugged his knees to his chest, perching on the windowsill in his slippery-looking royal blue bicycle shorts. “Scripts out. And Thaddeus, from now on she’s Holly, not Chanel.”

Thaddeus plopped down on the cracked leather sofa, tossing the throw pillows carelessly onto the floor. “Have a seat, Holly.”

Chanel dug into her bag to retrieve her script, then sat on the couch, resisting the urge to immediately snuggle closer to her costar.

Because that just wouldn’t be professional.

Ken closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, his nostrils flaring. He spread his fingers out in front of him like insect feelers, hopped off the windowsill, and staggered toward the center of the room. His eyes popped open when he bumped into the chipped wooden coffee table and a mountain of script rewrites slid to the floor. Then he leapt onto the table and crouched on its edge, leaning in very close to the twosome. “We’re going to start with the big climax. This is the emotional heart of the movie and I want to nail this before we get to any of the other stuff. Everything builds to this moment.”

Ken was crouched so close Chanel could smell his cigarette breath. She held up her script as a barrier and started to page through it. She’d assumed they’d read from the beginning. She knew her lines in the first few scenes but was a little shaky on the second half of the movie.

“So we’ll read through once and then let’s get up, get moving, find our space in the room, and get this going, okay? Yasmine’s going to roll, just to shoot some test footage so you guys can study up on it later. Sound good?” Ken asked, still crouching like a gargoyle on the coffee table.

“Let’s go,” nodded Thaddeus, tossing his script aside.

“Almost ready,” interjected Yasmine, who was linking her handheld camera to one of the director’s laptops.

“And Holly?” asked Ken, resting his chin on his hand while his finger appeared to be up his nose.

“Ready when you are,” Chanel muttered. Shit, shit! She didn’t know a single line. She took a deep breath.

“Darling. You’re always rescuing me. How can I ever repay you?” she began, waving her right hand slowly, deliberately. It felt like a sexy mannerism. A little flair.

“You don’t have to repay me,” replied Thaddeus as Jeremy Stone, in his famously sexy baritone. They were standing by the window, and he leaned in close, the afternoon sun hitting his rugged profile as he took Chanel by the wrist. “It’s me who should repay you. I owe you everything, Holly. You showed me how to be…” He paused intently. “You showed me how to be me.”

Maybe it was because he was a talented actor, or maybe it was because he was just gorgeous, but somehow he made the dorky dialogue sound almost normal. He was standing so close to Chanel she could smell mint on his breath. Was he really just perfect?

Yup.

“I…I …” Chanel faltered. “I just don’t know what to say.”

Across the room, behind the camera, Yasmine cleared her throat.

“Don’t say anything,” Thaddeus-as-Jeremy cooed. “Just stand still and let me look at you.”

Chanel didn’t move. She couldn’t help but believe everything Thaddeus was saying.

“I’m going to stop you here,” announced Ken Mogul. “Holly, babes, remember: you’re not Chanel. You’re Holly.”

“Okay,” Chanel whispered. She didn’t feel like Holly Golightly. She felt like herself and like the perfect guy was right in front of her. She’d spent her whole life not acting fake around guys: it was kind of hard to act around one, especially one so…cute.

“And quit with that hand stuff,” Ken whined, sounding like a big baby. “Looks like you’re swatting away mosquitoes.”

“Sorry.” Through the open window Chanel could hear the sound of traffic whizzing by. She kind of wished she were out there instead, window shopping on Mercer Street in Soho with Thaddeus or maybe letting him feed her sushi on the roof of Sushi Samba, just a few blocks downtown. Thaddeus leaned out of the large window and inhaled deeply. Was he reading her mind?

“Just listen to Thad,” Ken continued with his finger still up his nose. “He’s not Thad, anymore—is he? No, he’s Jeremy. You hear that—his shyness? His nervousness? He’s terrified of you, you see. Terrified and enchanted. Make us all feel that, okay? Make us all fall in love with you.”

Like that was ever difficult before.

“Let’s go again.” Ken clapped his hands while simultaneously lighting another cigarette, even though his last one had burned to ash without his even touching it.

Thaddeus snapped back to attention, leaning in close to Chanel again.

“Darling. You’re always rescuing me. How can I ever repay you?” she asked, more assuredly this time.

“You don’t have to repay me.”

“You must come to my…” She couldn’t remember the rest of the line. She had to glance at her script.

“Party!” cried Ken. “Party! Haven’t you read the script, Holly?”

“Yeah,” muttered Chanel defensively, resisting the urge to kick the pile of script rewrites on the floor up and out the large, bright window.

“Okay, let’s skip ahead a little bit.” Ken rubbed his forehead. “Let’s do the big morning scene. There’s just a little dialogue there, so you should be able to manage that, right, Holly?”

“Sure.” She felt like she was doing everything wrong, even though she’d only said a few words. Wasn’t there any time to get warmed up?

“Okay, Thaddeus, you begin,” Ken directed, with his new cigarette torched in hand.

“Holly,” Thaddeus recited, from memory—his script was still lying on the couch. “I knew I’d find you here.”

“Will you always know where to find me?” Chanel could see Ken shaking his head out of the corner of her eye, so she dropped her script onto the floor. She could do this. She stood on tiptoe and leaned into Thaddeus’s broad chest.

“I will if you stand still,” he pronounced softly. “Never run away again.”

“I promise,” Chanel whispered. It was her last line in the film. She craned her neck, lifting her face to her costar’s, offering herself up to him. She could smell toothpaste and nicotine on Thaddeus’s warm breath, Kiehl’s lotion on his hands, and Tide on his clothes. She was barely touching him, just resting her hands against his firm chest, but she could feel his body against hers, from his strong broad back to his perfect abs, from his lean and muscled forearms to his flip-flopped feet. And she could feel something else: a flicker of electricity in the air, in the tiny pocket of space between their two bodies. Was this acting or was it real?

“Okay,” Thaddeus stammered. He took a step back and Chanel, who had been leaning all of her weight on him, stumbled a bit. He laughed nervously. “Ken, a smoke?”

Ken held out a pack of Newports and Thaddeus selected one and coolly lit it.

“What’d you think, Ken?” he asked, looping his thumb in his waistband.

“Good. Better. I felt more spark that last time. But Holly needs to pick up the slack. Holly, we can do some rewrites if you’re having trouble with your lines.”

“What do you mean?” Chanel sank into the worn couch. She hadn’t made too many mistakes, had she?

“If there are too many words, you know,” he explained, pronouncing the words loudly and slowly, like he was speaking to someone whose English wasn’t so good. “If you’re having trouble remembering all of them.”

Was he calling her stupid?

“No, it’s fine,” she sighed wearily.

“She’ll get the hang of it.” Thaddeus sat down beside her. He rested his soft hand on her bare knee, giving her leg a supportive squeeze.

You know I will, Chanel agreed silently. God, was she already in love? Sometimes she was almost too easy.

No comment.

“Of course, of course,” agreed Ken. “We just need some more rehearsal time, I think. What do you think, Yasmine?”

Yasmine hadn’t even caught everything on camera because they hadn’t given her enough time to set up her equipment. “It was great,” she lied enthusiastically. After all, it was only rehearsal.

And by the looks of things, they were going to need lots more of them.

11

“Honey, I’m hoooome!” Mekhi stuck his head into the doorway of his little sister Bree’s bedroom. “Yas?”

“Hey.” Yasmine stood up from behind Bree’s painting easel. The cozy room was still lined with Bree’s canvases—washed-out landscapes, architectural drawings of famous New York buildings like the Dakota on 72nd Street, some nude portraits. Yasmine saw Mekhi avert his eyes from just in case they were his sister’s self-portraits. She wrapped her arms around Mekhi’s skinny frame and squeezed. “Thank you so much for letting me stay here.”

“It’ll be great,” he assured her, plopping down on the bed. “We’ll make it our Big New York Summer. I’ve been thinking all about it. All the things we’ll do together—pedaling those stupid boats in Central Park, bagels from H&H Bagels on our days off—”

“Um, that sounds great, but I’m going to be really busy with work, you know? It’s going to take a lot of work to get this movie right.” She nodded toward the computer screen where Chanel Crenshaw’s beautiful face was paused, her eyes half closed. She was reviewing the rehearsal footage from this afternoon, and if it was any indication of what the finished film would look like—well, it wasn’t pretty.

“Right.” Mekhi pouted a little. “Of course.”

On the up side, the longer Chanel fumbled through her rehearsals, the more time Yasmine had to experiment with her camera work. She was going to give him something better. She was determined to do something truly avant-garde and unusual, something that would really wow Ken Mogul and his producers. He’d mentioned Godard. But she was the master of mixing humor with tragedy. She would show the used condom stuck to Holly’s shoe, the tarnished side of the party princess!

“Where’s your dad?” she asked, changing the subject. It was only a matter of time before she ran into Mekhi’s poet dad, Rufus, wearing his usual stained Mets T-shirt and too-snug cargo shorts. She was hoping to see him before they had a middle-of-the-night run in. Who knew what he’d be wearing then?

He shrugged. “You talk to Ruby?” He dug into his pockets and retrieved a battered old pack of cigarettes, lit one, and then lay back on Bree’s lumpy narrow bed. “I hope you guys made up. Life’s too short, you know?”

“Huh?” Yasmine asked lazily, lying down next to him. Ruby had sent a couple of apologetic text messages, but Yasmine was too mad to bother reading them all the way through. She could imagine Ruby squeezing Piotr’s back zits while they had sex in his paint-splattered studio—aka her old room. She snuggled her almost-bald head into Mekhi’s ropy neck and whispered, “I can’t really deal with it now, you know?”

“That’s too bad,” he observed solemnly. “I always admired your relationship.”

“Sure.” She couldn’t resist giggling a little. “Are you feeling okay?”

Mekhi turned toward her so their noses were almost touching. Yasmine kissed his smoky-tasting lips. Her touched her face. “You know, I never realized it before, but happiness is, like, right there in front of you, you know what I mean? It’s like us—like you’re all I need to be happy, and you’re right here, in my house. I mean, I know you’ll have to work a lot and everything, but it’s so great. It’s actually so much easier to achieve happiness than it is to embrace ugliness.”

Yasmine bit her lip. She loved Mekhi, but she really hoped he wasn’t about to pull another embarrassing proclamation of undying devotion like he had at his own graduation. Some things were better left unsaid.

You can say that again.

“Did you learn that on the job?” she teased. “I didn’t know they offered free, New Age self-help lectures at the Strand.”

“I’m not talking about work.” He sucked on his Newport hard and defensively. “I read Siddhartha during my break this afternoon. Life’s just so short…I mean, we can only hope to find some meaning in this life, you know?”

The only book Yasmine knew him to have spoken as passionately about was The Sorrows of Young Werther, a creepy book about a moody, depressive guy who kills himself in the end because his girlfriend marries someone else.

“All right, I’m officially confused. What the hell are you talking about?” she asked. Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked into his deep brown eyes.

“I’m talking about the meaning of life,” he replied simply.

Or was he talking about a certain perfectly-perky, round-butted Zoe Saldana lookalike?

12

Kaliq guided his trusty bicycle off the gravelly road and onto the dirt shoulder in front of the Oyster Shack, managing to avoid a replay of his humiliating wipeout yesterday. After their ice cream, Tawny had taken him to get his tire fixed at Bob’s Gas ‘n’ Dogs and it was as good as new. He breathed in the fresh air appreciatively. He’d only smoked a third of a joint that morning, so his head was clear.

That’s a first.

Even though it was only six o’clock, the Oyster Shack was crowded with kids in shorts and tank tops eating fries and drinking canned Bud. Leaning the bike on the kickstand, Kaliq ambled over to the red picnic bench where Tawny sat smoking a cigarette, a devilish little smile on her full pink lips.

Normally Kaliq would have felt kind of stupid meeting a girl on a bike, but he kind of enjoyed the workout, the breeze in his face and the wind in his hair. Of course, he could enjoy the wind in his hair behind the wheel of his dad’s vintage Aston Martin convertible parked in his garage only twenty minutes away. But the car was the Captain’s pride and joy, and Kaliq wasn’t allowed to drive it alone, much less into one of the Hamptons’ less desirable neighborhoods, like Hampton Bays.

After they’d shared an innocent ice cream cone and gotten Kaliq’s bike fixed yesterday, Tawny had suggested they meet up for dinner today. Kaliq hardly needed convincing; like a good ex-girlfriend, Fate always pulled through for him, right when he needed her. Just when his loneliness had started to get him down, he’d happened to meet confident, sexy Tawny.

“You made it,” she chirped, stubbing her cigarette out on the table and tossing the butt in the grass behind her. She was wearing a peach-colored bikini top and a white wrap-around skirt that showed off her tanned, round-but-firm thighs. Her wavy blonde hair was down, grazing her freckled shoulders, and her pink lips matched the bikini straps that were falling off her shoulders. “Without falling.”

“Yeah, no accidents this time.” Kaliq laughed, shaking his head. He flipped down the collar of the clean but faded light blue shirt he’d changed into after work and slipped onto the bench across from her. “So I’d say the day is going pretty well.”

“How was work?” Tawny asked as she smeared some goopy vanilla-scented stuff on her lips. Kaliq could smell it from where he sat.

“Just the usual: backbreaking manual labor.” He’d spent all of yesterday and today nailing new shingles onto Coach Michaels’s roof. His hands were riddled with calluses and his arms ached. “I’m working for my coach, so it’s not like I can slack off. He’s kind of an asshole. I guess it’s just like practice.”

Only without the stick. And the ball. And the rest of the team.

“You must really like him, though, to want to work for him all summer,” Tawny countered.

Kaliq shrugged, rubbing his hand over his stiff neck. “I guess.” No need to tell her about the stolen Viagra and the withheld diploma, right?

Best not.

“Poor boy,” she cooed. “Maybe you need a massage. I can practice on you. I’m going to be an LMT after I graduate.”

He had no idea what she was talking about. LMT?

Low-class mega-slut townie?

“A licensed massage therapist, silly! I can’t believe you didn’t know that. Anyway, I talked to these people at this spa in Sag Harbor and they might let me do an actual internship. You know, practicing on real people? I’m so psyched.” She leaned in across the table and began massaging Kaliq’s forearm, using both of her hands and applying a surprising amount of pressure, her long manicured fingertips scraping his skin like ice scrapers on a car windshield. “See?” she asked. “Doesn’t that feel good?”

It did feel good, sort of, but Kaliq was much more interested in the view. Tawny was leaning so far forward that her impressive pear-shaped boobs were totally visible.

“So, um, you’re still in high school, then?” Kaliq mumbled, remembering that it was his turn to say something. “I just graduated.” Saying that felt good. It made him feel manly.

Oh boy.

“I’m graduating next year,” she explained, moving her hands from his forearm to his chest, which was tight from hammering. “I can’t wait. I’m so sick of high school. I figure I’ll get my certification, you know, get a house in the Bays. If you’re good, you can make good cash from the summer crowd and you don’t have to work the rest of the year. That’s definitely my plan: make a good living mooching off summer people.” She laughed.

“Cool.” Kaliq was having trouble concentrating on what Tawny was saying because her boobs were practically in his lap. He’d tuned her out so completely she sounded kind of like the parents in a Peanuts cartoon. Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah. Her lips looked so full and pink and soft, and she smelled like vanilla.

He pitched his head forward and lightly kissed her, touching her cheeks gently. Her mouth tasted like Coke and some sort of artificial but totally delicious fruit.

After a few moments she giggled and pulled away. “We can do that all night, but I want to know about your plans too,” she went on, sitting back down and taking his hand. “You can tell me all about it over dinner.”

“Sure, yeah.” Kaliq stood and patted his pocket to make sure he’d remembered to bring his wallet. He wondered if the Oyster Shack accepted platinum American Express. He licked his lips, which tasted sort of slick and fruity now themselves and would probably make his beer taste like piña colada. “Let’s get something to eat and I’ll tell you my whole master plan.”

Kaliq Braxton has a master plan?

“Sounds impressive.” Tawny giggled again as she stood and gathered up her cigarettes, her lighter, and her gold pleather clutch with buckles all over it.

“Well, I’m starting Yale in a couple of months—”

Yale? Really? Damn, that’s a good school.” She linked her arm with Kaliq’s. “And expensive.”

Then again, education is like a Birkin bag—how can you put a price on such things?

13

Porsha crossed her legs and leaned back in the high-backed leather chair. Lifting the white porcelain teacup to her lips, she took a dainty sip of lukewarm tea and smiled at Jemima, the salesgirl who was hovering over her. “Miss Sinclaire,” Jemima tittered, handing Porsha a small navy blue leather portfolio. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Porsha opened the book. Inside were her black American Express card, a receipt, and a pen, which she grabbed, signing the dotted line without glancing at it.

“Lovely. Now, I’ve had your parcels packed up and they’ll be off to Claridge’s shortly. Can I do anything else for you? Fetch a taxi, perhaps?”

“No, thank you.” Porsha smiled gracefully. “I think I’ll walk.”

She had been sitting comfortably in a private back room in a new boutique called Kid in West London for an hour, keeping Jemima, a pretty brunette with terrible teeth, busy fetching every style of boot they stocked. As she tried on the twenty-plus pairs of boots, she’d had two cups of tea, glanced at the new issue of French Vogue, and made a telephone call to Lord Marcus. Voicemail. She wondered if he was working, or if he was off with Camilla somewhere, buying new croquet mallets, or…

Or what?

Porsha didn’t give up easily and she was determined not to let yesterday get her down. Maybe Marcus and Camilla needed to get their cousinly bonding thing out of the way. They’d undoubtedly soon tire of each other’s company. Besides, Marcus was likely to forget Camilla’s name when he caught a glimpse of Porsha in her new, knee-high black boots and her new black lace corset and matching boy shorts, which she planned on modeling for him that very night in between courses during the champagne-and-chocolate room service dinner she’d planned.

Tucking the still-warm credit card back into her new wallet, Porsha dropped it inside the limited-edition bag she’d picked up the day before and walked out of the store and onto the quiet stretch of Press Street. She’d been to London only once with her family, when she was twelve. They’d stayed at the Langham Hotel just off Regent Street, visited Old Ben and Buckingham Palace, seen the crown jewels, watched the changing of the guard, drunk tea, and eaten scones. As far as she could remember, she’d spent most of the trip listening to Beyonce on her iPod. But that was London as a tourist. Now that she lived here, things were totally different.

Everyone said London was gray, overcast, foggy, and depressing, but it had been clear and sunny all week. The trees were in full bloom, there were lush gardens on every block, and every building was ornate and beautiful. Everyone also said that the English were standoffish, with bad teeth and thick accents, and although their teeth and accents were distractions, so far every person Porsha had spoken to had been unfailingly polite.

Of course they had been—she’d only talked to salespeople who worked on commission.

Porsha checked her cell again: no messages. She tossed the phone back into her bag. She understood that a gentleman had to pay extra attention to his guest—family was very important to the English upper class—and Camilla was lovely, really. She really was. Even if she did look like a horse. And Porsha understood, really she did. But she was ready to spice things up a little, and the more Lord Marcus made her wait, the more fidgety and eager she got. Maybe the whole thing was just a ploy to turn her on as much as possible?

Um, maybe.

Strolling down the street in the general direction of her hotel, Porsha felt like a cross between Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman—the scene where she goes shopping in a giant black wide-brimmed hat and has all the Rodeo Drive salespeople waiting on her hand and foot—and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, the beautiful stray who rises from obscurity on the streets of London to become the toast of the town. Except Porsha was neither a prostitute nor a stray from the gutter.

Details, details.

She glanced up and down the street, but every store window, every awning, looked familiar. Had she really made it to all the stores in the neighborhood? Finding great clothes in London was easy, and the exchange rate made it even better. Porsha noticed it the minute she arrived: she had to get cash for a taxi and was surprised at how many bright, pretty, pastel-colored bills she got in exchange for her boring old U.S. dollars. The teller at the bank even gave her a handful of change—including an oversize penny that was worth two cents, not just one, a funny hexagon-shaped coin, and a bunch of thick heavy coins that were worth a whole pound each. If the English used coins for the same thing Americans used bills for, clearly this was a place to find great bargains.

Not that she needed to find bargains.

Porsha was standing outside of what at first looked like just another West London brick mansion: a tall, well-lit townhouse with big clean windows and blooming flower boxes underneath them. A lifetime of shopping had given Porsha a sixth sense; she just knew when something good was lurking nearby. Through the street-level windows she could see an ornate vase stuffed full of white flowers on a pretty gilded table. Porsha couldn’t see any clothes but she was absolutely convinced something incredible was inside.

After all, everyone has a special talent.

She rang the doorbell and the door buzzed back, so she pushed it open and stepped into the marble foyer of the elegant house. The open, airy parlor floor was filled with simple displays: an incredible green crocodile bag perched on top of a broken Corinthian column bathed in the soft glow of a spotlight, and a show-stopping pair of red velvet ballerina flats atop a satin pillow. They were so plush Porsha couldn’t resist stroking them. A tall Indian girl with long, thick hair smiled at her from behind the antique art nouveau desk. Porsha felt a little self-conscious in her jeans, her gold silk camisole and her skimpy sandals, but she wasn’t about to walk out.

“I’m Lyla,” the salesgirl chirped in a clipped English accent. “Do let me know if I can help you find anything.”

Porsha walked to the foot of the gracefully curving staircase. Sensing something in the distance, she ascended the marble steps grandly. The steps were exactly like the ones Eliza descends in My Fair Lady, in the scene where she has her society debut.

See, life really does imitate art.

The second floor was nearly empty, except for a floor-to-ceiling, three-way mirror against the far wall. Sun flooded in and Porsha paused, pretending it was her own private dressing room. In the middle of the space, suspended from a glass hanger, hung a long white dress. It was made of silk, cut along the bias, and seemed to breathe as if it had a life of its own. It was …beautiful. Whoever wore that dress would be the star of a never-ending love story with herself. Porsha reached out to touch the dress, transfixed. Could it be? It was.

It was a wedding dress.

It was her wedding dress.

“Would you like to try it on?”

Porsha whirled around to see Lyla from downstairs. She hadn’t heard her coming.

“Yes, definitely,” Porsha half whispered. “I think I’m going to need it.”

For what, exactly?

The shop only accommodated one customer at a time, so there was no need for dressing rooms. Lyla explained this, reaching up to remove the glass hanger from its tack on the wall, while Porsha all but leapt out of her clothes. She grabbed the gown and slid into it headfirst. The chiffon was as soft and light as fresh whipped cream, and she shivered as it fell down the length of her body.

Avoiding the mirror until everything was perfect, Porsha stood by the windows, looking down onto the lush private garden behind the store.

“Here, let’s put this on as well.” Lyla held up a delicate gold necklace and slipped it around Porsha’s neck. “I think you’re ready to have a look now,” she murmured, turning Porsha so that she faced the mirror.

Porsha crossed the room carefully, holding the dress up so she didn’t trip on the delicate hem. There was a small platform in front of the mirror and she stepped up onto it, avoiding her reflection until she was perfectly situated. She let go of the dress, shook her hair back from her face, and then gazed at her reflection.

“Oooh!” she gasped.

There it was: the future. Porsha had never seen a more perfect dress in her life. It was so amazing, its beauty rubbed off on her. She wasn’t even wearing proper makeup, but her milky chocolate face had never looked more flawless. She was wearing the wrong bra but her breasts had never looked so full. She felt like she’d stepped off the cover of Town & Country’s summer wedding issue. That old theory—that you just know, somehow, when you’ve found the right wedding dress—seemed to be true.

They’d be married on Fifth Avenue and they’d rent all the rooms in the St. Clair for the guests to stay in and for the reception. Her father would give her away with tears in his eyes, whispering, “I love you, Bear,” as he handed her off to Marcus. Marcus would hold her hand throughout the ceremony in that intimate way of his, reminding her that they weren’t just passionately in love, they were best friends.

“It’s really quite something, isn’t it?” Lyla crossed her arms in front of her. She was standing behind Porsha, smiling approvingly.

Porsha met her gaze in the mirror. “It’s just perfect,” she breathed, her eyes transfixed on the endless train of pure white silk.

“Have you set a date?”

Um, how about a proposal first? And what about, you know, college?

“I’ll take it,” Porsha declared.

“Of course,” Lyla agreed. “You won’t be sorry. He’s going to love it.”

Porsha nodded back hypnotically, still staring at her own reflection.

“And what about the necklace?” Lyla queried.

Why not? Porsha thought.

Oh, yes, why not?

14

The single complaint Mekhi had about his job at the Strand was that the bookstore lacked one essential modern amenity: air conditioning. This morning he was stationed in the completely airless basement, manning the information desk and keeping an eye on special orders, like the request for a skin diseases photo calendar. After a couple of torturous hours, he was definitely ready for some fresh air.

If that’s what you call a smoke.

As soon as his replacement—a scowling silent guy named Brent who’d worked at the store for about twenty years—arrived to take his place, Mekhi jogged up the narrow staircase and outside. A concrete ledge ran alongside the square beige building and he perched on it, enjoying the shade as he lit up.

The sidewalk was crowded with passersby browsing the Strand’s large outdoor carts, which were full of super-discounted books no one wanted, like Collectible Coins from Contemporary Canada and Tiger: The True Story of the Dog Who Loved a Cat. Mekhi closed his eyes and tuned out the chatter of the bargain hunters. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and thought about Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.

“Love stirred in the hearts of the young daughters of the Brahmins when Siddhartha passed through the city streets, with his radiant brow, with his imperial glance, with his slender hips.”

Mekhi couldn’t help wanting to be Siddhartha, or at least be more like him. He wished he had someone he could discuss it with, especially since his attempt to chat about it with Yasmine had ended so badly.

A tap on his shoulder interrupted his reverie. He opened his eyes.

“Mekhi?” Nicole stood before him, admiring him in all his Siddharthaness.

Who says wishes don’t come true?

“Hi.” He stood quickly. Nicole was wearing a form-fitting green tank top and white spandex shorts. Her long hair was in two tidy pigtails and her skin had a bold, healthy glow.

“Are you smoking?” she demanded, aghast.

“Uh, no.” Mekhi dropped the lit cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out quickly. “I was holding it for this guy Steve. He had to run back inside.”

Nice play, Shakespeare.

“Whew,” she exhaled, fanning the air with her hands. “Smoking is just terrible for you.”

“Oh, I know,” Mekhi agreed earnestly, wiping his hands on his faded green cordurouys. “It’s really bad.”

“I’m so glad I ran into you!” Nicole hopped up onto the ledge and started swinging her legs like a kid who has to pee but doesn’t want to get off the swing. “I wanted to tell you how much I liked Siddhartha.”

“Yeah? That’s great. I was actually just rereading it myself.”

“Really? What a funny coincidence!”

Right. Coincidence.

“So you thought the book was interesting?” Mekhi asked, crossing his legs in a way he hoped looked quasi-intellectual and quasi-athletic. “What are you thinking of reading next?”

“Well, I’m going to read a book my yogi has been working on. It’s about improving the way the brain communicates with the other organs in the body by meditating and doing yoga and chanting. There are, like, fifty chapters and most of them are a hundred pages long. He’s been writing it for, like, eleven years, and he’s going to try and have it published this year and he asked me to look at it for him. Me! Imagine! It’s such an honor.”

An honor? Sounds more like a pain in her well-yogacized ass.

“Anyway, I have to confess,” she went on, looking Mekhi right in the eye. “I didn’t just come by to talk books.”

“You didn’t?”

She didn’t?

Mekhi blushed and looked down at the ground, kicking idly at the cigarette butt he’d claimed wasn’t his. He wished he had it back.

“No, I wanted to see if you’d be interested in getting together sometime. I know that might sound kind of forward, but you know, I’m a person who believes in taking chances. I believe that the universe rewards bold actions, don’t you?”

Mekhi nodded eagerly.

“Anyway, I’m kind of lonely this summer. I grew up here in Greenwich Village but I was in boarding school out west, so I don’t really know anyone in the city anymore. I’m going to UC Santa Cruz in the fall, but I don’t want to spend my last summer in the city all by myself.”

“No, definitely not,” Mekhi agreed. “I’d love to hang out.”

“Awesome!” Nicole cried, hopping down from the ledge. “What’s your schedule like?”

“Well, I work days. So anytime after six.”

“Cool. Do you think you’d be up for Bikram?”

“Sure,” Mekhi nodded, even though he’d never heard of it. He didn’t go out to clubs very often.

“Awesome!” she squealed again. “Give me your number and I’ll call and confirm, but let’s say Saturday?”

Mekhi recited his number and she typed it into her phone. He had officially taken a much longer break than he was entitled to, but after Nicole strolled away he had to light another Camel to calm his nerves. He wasn’t quite sure what Bikram was—a trendy new nightclub? Some new Indian restaurant? Maybe it was a new underground independent film? But it didn’t matter. Yasmine was busy filming, and he’d scored a hot date with a sweet, gorgeous girl who loved to read.

Oh, it’s sure to be a hot date indeed.

15

“Cut!” barked Ken Mogul. “Fuck!” He threw his fluorescent green clipboard onto the floor and leapt out of the metal swivel chair he’d been slumped in. “Let’s take ten, please. I need a fucking smoke.”

Chanel’s hands trembled as she held the tip of her Gauloise cigarette to the flame from Thaddeus’s silver Zippo. She inhaled deeply but the nicotine did little to calm her nerves. Memorizing her lines and reciting them properly had turned out to be harder than she thought. On top of everything, it was majorly scary to have Ken, freak show director extraordinaire, yelling at her every five seconds.

“Don’t worry about him,” Thaddeus assured her, running his hands through his hair and smiling at her with his adorable brown eyes. He put his arm around Chanel’s shoulders and squeezed. “I know it’s rough, and personally, I think you’ve done great for your first film. We’re just on a tight schedule, you know, and he’s nervous about pleasing the producers. Believe me, it has nothing to do with you.”

It doesn’t?

“Do you really think so?” Chanel wondered, burrowing into Thaddeus’s protective embrace. Normally she wouldn’t have been quite so touchy-feely with a guy she’d only known for a couple of days, but Thaddeus wasn’t your average guy. It was more than the simple fact that he was a movie star: they were pretending to be in love. They’d already kissed eight times for the stupid climax scene. Cuddling on the couch like old friends seemed natural.

“Listen up!” boomed the director, striding back into the room, tucking his pack of Marlboros into the chest pocket of his rumpled denim shirt, which, oddly enough, had the sleeves cut out, so it was really more of a vest than a shirt.

Chanel shivered at the sound of his voice and Thaddeus put his hand protectively over hers.

“I lost it back there,” Ken apologized. “Let’s call it a day, shall we? Yasmine and I have to go over our shot list anyway, but I want you two to keep working. Go to dinner—it’s on me.”

“Thanks, Ken.” Thaddeus stood and stretched, yawning noisily and giving off the heavenly odors of sweat and cologne. “It really has been a long day. I could definitely use a drink.”

“And this will give you a chance to work on your chemistry, right, Holly? Get to know your leading man. Talk to him, listen to him, learn from him. I really want to see you meld, okay?”

Chanel nodded and stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray perched precariously on the arm of the brown leather couch. She could meld, especially with Thaddeus, but maybe not while Ken was watching.

“Good,” grunted the disgruntled director. “So go, have a bite. That’s your homework.”

Dinner with a major Hollywood hottie? Is there extra credit?

After gorging themselves on the city’s best steak—mixed with two delicate quail eggs and served with a healthy portion of sea-salt-encrusted French fries—Chanel and Thaddeus emerged from As Such on Clinton Street, currently the coolest, most crowded spot for the summer. They’d shared a bottle of champagne and a molten chocolate cake with fresh huckleberries for dessert, and Chanel had tipsily blurted out the story of how she’d wound up not getting asked back to Hanover Academy last fall.

She’d spent the summer in Europe, partying with her older brother, Cairo, and flirting with Frenchmen. Cairo had left for Brown in August, but Chanel had stayed and stayed. School just seemed so boring and unnecessary when the beaches in St. Tropez were so inviting, even in September. Thankfully Emma Willard, the New York City all-girls private school she’d attended since kindergarten, had been kind enough to take her back.

“I’d sort of thought I was bound for community college and living with my parents for the rest of my life,” she admitted. “Now here I am acting in this movie, living on my own, and going to Yale in the fall.” She grinned drunkenly and a little seductively at Thaddeus. “I guess you just never know what’s going to happen.” Secretly, it was an invitation to kiss her. But they were in a crowded restaurant full of starers and gossips—it was probably best that he didn’t.

“Should we go?” Thaddeus asked, as if he couldn’t wait to take her somewhere more private.

As the pair stepped outside onto the crowded steaming street corner, they were startled by a sudden insistent cry.

“Thad! Thad!” A bulky, bearded figure emerged from the shadows wielding a camera. He snapped pictures as he hurried toward them, the bright flash illuminating the otherwise dark stretch of street.

Thaddeus put his arm protectively around Chanel’s waist, a phony but still charming smile plastered to his handsome face.

Chanel smiled, too. She was used to having her photo taken for newspaper society columns. She’d even modeled a few times, but it felt a little scary to be hounded like this.

“Let’s go,” sighed Thaddeus. He waved at the photographer. “Okay, man, that’s cool, that’s enough. We’re going.”

But the guy trailed them, weaving and bobbing like a boxer, snapping and clicking the camera’s shutter so quickly it sounded like machine gun fire. He finished a roll, deftly reloaded the camera in a matter of seconds, and kept shooting.

“That’s enough,” Thaddeus ordered, more firmly this time. He tugged on Chanel’s arm, pulling her across the street, “Come on. Let’s go.”

Chanel continued to smile but her eyes darted around, searching for a cab.

“Who is she, Thad?” the photographer demanded from behind them. “What are you wearing tonight, Thad?” he continued in an almost mocking tone. “You’re gorgeous, sweetheart. What about you? What are you wearing?”

Actually, she was wearing her favorite black Les Best sundress and black Chloe ballet slippers, but she was too freaked out to open her mouth.

“That’s enough, man!” Thaddeus yelled angrily. He stepped into the oncoming traffic on Clinton Street, waving his arms frantically like a survivor marooned on a desert island flagging down a plane. A taxi pulled over, and he shoved Chanel into the backseat. Then he jumped in behind her and slammed the door. The photographer pressed his camera close to the window and Chanel buried her face in Thaddeus’s broad shoulder, feeling a little like Princess Di must have just before she died.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” Thad barked at the driver.

As they sped away, the photographer called after them. “That’ll be the cover of the People tomorrow!”

When they reached 71st and Third, Thaddeus paid the driver and hopped out so he could open her door. Their footfalls echoed into the night, and the distant traffic on 2nd Avenue sounded vaguely like the ocean. Chanel climbed the bottom step of her stoop and then turned. Standing there, she was at eye level with Thaddeus.

“Would you like to come up for a drink?” she asked, determined that the ugly incident with the paparazzi wouldn’t put a damper on the evening. After all, this was the first time she’d had Thaddeus all to herself. There was no angry director, no fussy cinematographer, no script to follow. She wasn’t going to let this moment pass.

He shrugged. “Maybe we should just sit here for a while.” He sank down onto the stoop. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she breathed, delicately pulling at her dress before sitting down next to him.

“That fucking photographer,” he growled sulkily.

Chanel put a protective hand on his leg. “He was just an asshole.” She smiled cheerfully at him. “Don’t worry about it. Come up and I’ll make you a nice cold mojito.”

“Sometimes I just get tired of it—the way they talk to you like they know you. The way he called me Thad, you know?” Thaddeus went on, ignoring her invitation. Chanel blinked at the sliver of moon hovering over a 72nd Street highrise.

“It must be hard for you. I mean, people probably think they know you. They see your movies, they see you in magazines.”

But they don’t get to enjoy intimate dinners with him, poor babies.

“I mean, my name’s not even Thaddeus, for Christ’s sake.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, confused.

“It’s Tim. My agent thought it should be something catchier.”

“I guess it worked.” Chanel nodded, wondering suddenly if she shouldn’t change her name. It might be good for her career.

Yeah, Chanel Crenshaw isn’t catchy at all.

He dug into his pocket and pulled out a soft pack of cigarettes. “At least it’s quiet here,” he said, lighting up.

That’s right. You’re safe, right here, with me. “No photographers here,” Chanel giggled. “Just the two of us.”

“Working on our chemistry,” Thaddeus laughed. “Our homework. Chemistry homework, get it?”

Better stick to the script, dude.

It was easily the best homework assignment Chanel had ever been given, and she was sure she was acing it. The question was how to nuzzle up to him but make it clear she wasn’t rehearsing. She wanted to make sure he saw her as Chanel and not Holly, and that he could distinguish the fake kisses from the real thing.

“Hello, again,” came a voice from above them. It was Jason, her downstairs neighbor, wearing a navy pinstripe suit. His blue-and-yellow-striped tie was loose around his neck and the collar of his white oxford shirt was unbuttoned. She hadn’t seen him since he’d come to her rescue her first day in the apartment, and she’d actually sort of forgotten about him.

“Hi, Jason.” Chanel wanted to be polite but she honestly hoped he’d just disappear. He was friendly and cute but she and Thaddeus had homework to do.

“What’s up?” Thaddeus put on that same, friendly, flirty tone he used on the talk show circuit. He extended a hand to Jason but remained perched on the stoop. “I’m Thaddeus.”

Jason came down the steps. “I was just getting my mail. Hey, I’m Jason.” He gave Thaddeus’s hand a firm shake. “Nice to meet you.”

“Pull up a step,” Thaddeus joked, scooting over a little. “There’s plenty of room.”

“Or we could go upstairs to my place and get a drink,” Chanel suggested hopefully.

“Why don’t I just grab some beers?” Jason offered. “I’ve got some inside. Then we don’t have to bother with all those stairs.”

“Excellent. I kind of like it right here. Nice breeze. Good company.” Thaddeus grinned at Chanel.

“Me too.” She smiled back, even though she’d much rather have been upstairs and alone with him. If he wanted a breeze, she could always open a window.

Jason lived on the parlor floor, so it only took him a minute to dash inside and fetch three cold bottles of Heineken.

“Thanks.” Thaddeus sighed as he cracked the top and tossed the cap onto the next step.

“Long day?” asked Jason.

“Seriously,” Thaddeus agreed. “What do you do?”

“I’m a summer associate at Lowell, Bonderoff, Foster and Wallace,” Jason explained before taking a long swig. A car honked loudly in the street. Chanel looked at her watch. This conversation was really quite riveting, but frankly, she’d rather be soaking in a salt-and-sage bubble bath.

“They’re my lawyers!” Thaddeus exclaimed excitedly, like Jason was the most interesting guy he’d ever met. “You don’t know Sam, do you?”

“I know of him,” Jason replied. “He’s a partner over in the LA office, right?”

“Yeah, he’s a real pit bull. God, I remember one time I was having this contract dispute with a studio and—”

“It’s a small world.” Chanel yawned and pointed her ballet-slippered toes.

“Here’s to a small world.” Thaddeus lifted his bottle and clinked it against Jason’s and then Chanel’s.

She chugged the entire contents of her beer and inched a little closer to Thaddeus. Even if their conversation was deathly boring, she knew she was in the presence of two sweet young gentlemen who would probably carry her up four flights of stairs to her apartment if she happened to drink too much and couldn’t walk.

After all, she’s always depended on the kindness of strangers.

16

Porsha burst into the lobby of Claridge’s like a woman on a mission, which was exactly what she was. She had to get back to her suite and sift through the packages she’d had delivered. She was particularly interested in revisiting the show-stopping wedding gown that had been her week’s biggest quarry: at ten thousand pounds it was a splurge, even for her, but it was so perfect that it was worth every penny, and Porsha knew her mother would agree. And if she didn’t, Porsha knew her father, Harold J. Sinclaire, would: he was a fabulous gay man living the high life in the south of France. If anyone understood the thrill of finding the perfect wedding dress, he would.

She’d been meaning to schedule a weekend rendezvous with her dear old dad in Paris—surely it was time for Marcus to meet her parents? It was only a couple of hours away by the Chunnel, and it would be so fun to take a romantic train ride with her boyfriend and leave cousin Camilla behind. As she marched through the lobby, she spied the concierge standing behind her neat little desk. Perfect, Porsha thought. She could have her make the arrangements! Porsha stormed across the marble tiles to where the woman stood, scribbling notes in some sort of leather-bound ledger.

“I need some assistance,” Porsha ordered. “Tickets to Paris.”

“Madam! Ms. er, Beaton-Rhodes?” asked the concierge, a short, prim Asian woman sporting circular John Lennon-type glasses and a no-nonsense bob.

“It’s Miss Sinclaire, actually,” Porsha corrected her.

Not Mrs.

Yet.

“Yes, of course,” the concierge apologized. “Madam, I’m just confirming your reservation for another week. Is that accurate?”

“Sure, sure.” Porsha waved her hand. She had business to attend to. “Like I was saying, I want to go to Paris. Like, immediately.”

“That’s fine, then. I’ll just need a credit card. For the room charge.”

“Can you just bill Lord Marcus?” Porsha asked, irritated. “He’s handling the whole thing.”

“I see,” nodded the concierge, making a note in her little leather notebook. “And will his Lordship be visiting soon? We’ll need him to sign.”

“I’m not sure,” admitted Porsha. She was on her way to set up the perfect romantic evening—lingerie, champagne, the whole thing—but technically she hadn’t spoken to him all day, so he didn’t even know that they had a date.

“Well, I’m afraid we’re going to need to schedule a time for his Lordship to drop by and sign the papers,” the concierge replied firmly.

“Fine,” snapped Porsha. “I’ll figure out a time.”

A group of Italian tourists meandered by, randomly snapping pictures of Porsha while she fumed.

“Well, Miss…”

“Sinclaire,” she repeated.

“Miss Sinclaire, we’ll need to have that signature on the bill by tomorrow, or I’m afraid we’re going to have to release the suite. We do have an interested party.”

“Fine,” Porsha replied icily. “I’ll call him right now.” Porsha dug out her telephone and selected the only number in her speed dial. Lord Marcus’s phone rang and, as she could have predicted, there was no answer. She opted not to leave a message. She’d already left three that day. She didn’t want him to think she was insane.

Like buying a wedding dress is sane?

“He’s not answering,” Porsha informed the concierge. “He’s very busy at work right now, but I’m sure I’ll hear from him tonight. I’ll arrange for him to come by and settle the whole matter, okay?”

It had only been a few days, but Porsha had already lapsed into a Madonna-like English accent, clipping certain consonants and using phrases like “the whole matter.”

“That’s fine.” The concierge nodded. “Just do remember that he’ll have to sign the bill by tomorrow or we’ll be obliged to release the room. I do hope he’ll find a moment to get away from his wife and come by.”

“Excuse me?” Porsha demanded.

“I’m sorry?” the concierge replied snottily.

“What. Did. You. Say?” Porsha could feel the tips of her ears glowing hot with fury. For a moment she forgot about the dress waiting for her upstairs in her luxurious suite. She forgot about the maid, who would happily mix Porsha whatever drink she requested as soon as she walked in. She forgot about the in-room massage she’d been itching for. She forgot about Paris.

“I believe I said, I hope he’ll find a moment to get away from his life and come by,” the concierge answered sweetly.

“You did not,” Porsha whispered tightly, leaning across the counter, her voice very quiet. “You said wife.”

“I’m sure you misunderstood,” the concierge replied.

“Well, I’m sure you misunderstood!” Porsha shouted. She had never been shy. “I heard what you said.”

“Yes, ma’am. Of course. I’ll just need to have his Lordship pop by to sign the papers and the matter will be settled.”

“He’s not married. She’s his cousin,” Porsha went on. “And I’m his girlfriend.” She was practically shouting. On the other side of the lobby the Italians turned to look.

The concierge blushed deeply. “If we can just keep our voices down.”

“Fuck that.” Porsha had had it with England, with everyone’s polite prattle, with the British insistence on quiet dignity. Porsha wasn’t interested in quiet or in dignity. Fuck this bitch, fuck Britain, fuck Lord Marcus and fuck his horsey cousin Camilla. She suddenly wanted nothing more than to be home. “You know what? I don’t want the room. I want you to call British fucking Airways and book me a ticket immediately. One way, first class. To New York.” Porsha dug into her bag and found her black American Express card, which she tossed onto the desk angrily.

“One way to New York, first class,” repeated the concierge. “Virgin has flights at eleven daily. I’ll see if we can get you a seat.”

Virgin. How appropriate. Not.

17

“Kaliq Braxton. I can’t believe my eyes.”

“Hey, Jaylen,” muttered Kaliq. On his way home that afternoon, he’d noticed his front tire was a little low on air, so he’d pulled into the BP station on Springs Road. It had been an incredibly hot day, the kind of day with no ocean breeze to break up the haze, so Kaliq’s hours of backbreaking labor had left him sweaty, sunburned, and exhausted. Judging from the horrified look on Jaylen Harrison’s smooth, naturally tanned face, Kaliq figured he must look pretty terrible.

That’s a first.

“What happened to you?” gasped Jaylen. He pulled his vintage Ray Ban aviators down the length of his nose and handed the gas station attendant a fifty-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

“Nothing happened, man,” Kaliq responded, annoyed. He removed the hose from his tire and bounced the bike up and down to check the pressure.

Despite the thick heat, Jaylen was wearing madras board shorts and a gray cashmere hoodie. He looked as perfectly primped as usual, his thick eyebrows arched tidily above his piercing brown eyes, his aftershave-commercial square chin shaved smooth. He extended a hand to help Kaliq to his feet.

“Given up on cars?” Jaylen asked, nodding at Kaliq’s bike. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone green on us.”

“Yeah.” Kaliq looked hopefully toward the tastefully gray-shingled BP gas station for someone to save him from Jaylen.

“Let me give you a ride.” Jaylen rattled the ice in the plastic cup of chilled mocha latte that he’d drained. “It’s a hundred degrees out and you look like you’ve been through hell. I don’t want to imagine how you’ll look after riding all the way back to Georgica Pond on that bike.”

Kaliq weighed his options: half an hour sweating versus ten minutes alone with Jaylen Harrison?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

“Let’s go.” Kaliq sighed. The thought of Jaylen’s air-conditioned dove gray Jag was too hard to resist.

Jaylen unlocked the car’s trunk and Kaliq stuffed the bike into it—he wasn’t sure it would fit, but the trunk was surprisingly big and they were able to rig it so only the tip of the tire poked through. Kaliq slid onto the white leather seat and slammed the heavy door, fastening his seat belt and gearing up for the ride.

Jaylen turned on the ignition and the car immediately flooded with cold air and Drake’s newest CD.

“I’ve been lying on the beach in Sag Harbor all day, feeling retro,” Jaylen explained, turning the volume down. “So…let’s catch up.”

“Catch up,” echoed Kaliq blankly. He could tell from Jaylen’s tone of voice that he was going to launch into a barrage of questions. Talking with Jaylen was like having a job interview.

“I assume you heard about Porsha.” Jaylen fiddled with the air conditioner, even though it was already freezing. He pulled out onto the road connecting Hampton Bays to East Hampton, which Kaliq had practically memorized by now. Wine-grape fields alternated with tasteful Colonial-style, gray-shingled houses, and occasionally he caught a glimpse of the dark blue ocean behind someone’s backyard.

“Porsha?” Kaliq asked as they passed the Oyster Shack on the left. He’d been so preoccupied with Tawny, even saying Porsha’s name aloud felt weird. She was off in England for the summer with her new British boyfriend as far as he knew. She seemed far away when he thought about her, even though their paths would soon cross again. She might be madly in love with that new English dude, but there was no way Porsha Sinclaire was going to abandon her lifelong dream of going to Yale in the fall. A September reunion on campus was inevitable.

“She’s ba-a-a-a-a-ck.” Jaylen drew it out like a creepy little girl. He rattled the ice in his cup and slurped up the coffee-flavored water that had gathered at the bottom. “Just got off the plane this morning.”

“Oh yeah?” Kaliq fiddled with the shoulder strap on his seat belt. Porsha was back from London? That was news.

“Yeah.” Jaylen nodded casually, turning the stereo down further. “I wonder if she and Chanel have kissed and made up. Again. If you know what I mean.”

“Porsha and Chanel never could stay mad at each other for long,” Kaliq muttered, drumming his thumb against the door handle in time to the music. He would know—he usually caused the rifts between them.

“It’s good news for Chanel, though,” Jaylen added coyly. “She could really use a friend right about now.”

Kaliq didn’t respond. Everything Jaylen said made him feel a little uneasy, like the world was moving on without him. He’d only been in the Hamptons for a week, and already he didn’t know what the fuck was happening.

“Word is she’s having a little trouble with the whole acting thing,” Jaylen observed. “But I’m sure she’ll come out on top. She always does.”

“Acting, right,” Kaliq repeated. He’d forgotten about Chanel’s movie. It seemed totally alien from his life as a day laborer. Kaliq was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire for a smoke. He shoved in the car’s electric lighter. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Jaylen shrugged. “No matter how much trouble Chanel might be having, it’s nothing compared to the mess Porsha’s got herself into.” He drove fast, veered right at a fork, and caused the tires to squeal. The houses were getting grander and the lawns bigger the farther they drove.

“What trouble?” Kaliq demanded, igniting the half-smoked joint he’d wisely saved for just such a moment.

“Porsha just came back from London in a hurry. With some ..parcels.”

“What parcels?” Kaliq already felt extremely high. Was it him, or was Jaylen such a huge asshole he was almost not human, like an android or something.

“Well, when she was in London, Porsha bought a bunch of things she just couldn’t live without. Like a wedding dress. And one of those old-fashioned English baby carriages. Then she booked a ticket back to New York.”

“What are you trying to say?” Kaliq demanded. A big, white event-tent set up on a lawn caught his eye. A frou-frou bride and mangy-haired groom holding a guitar were posing for pictures by an old oak tree not far from it. Wannabe rock star types were always getting married in the Hamptons.

“Porsha’s back in a big hurry, packing a wedding dress and a baby carriage…I don’t know.” Jaylen sighed impatiently. “You do the math.”

That math wasn’t hard—even for a stoner.

It would definitely take a major event to convince Porsha Sinclaire to cut her trip short. Had she come home to plan her wedding? Kaliq wouldn’t put it past her, but he just couldn’t imagine Porsha putting on a wedding dress and marching down the aisle unless he was there, too, in a tuxedo, right by her side. Of course they weren’t even together anymore, but somehow it was impossible for Kaliq to imagine Porsha—his Porsha— marrying anyone but him.

Kaliq was beyond relieved when they pulled into the winding gravel driveway of the Braxton estate. He needed to be alone with this news and another, much larger joint.

“Thanks for the ride, man,” Kaliq muttered distractedly, fumbling with his roach as he climbed out of the car.

“If you want to talk some more, Kaliq,” Jaylen called through the passenger window, “I can come in. We could order sushi.”

Ignoring Jaylen’s pathetic, lonely offer, Kaliq retrieved his bike from the trunk and trudged up the driveway. He needed to clear his head.

He also needs to learn not to believe everything he hears. (Not that we don’t all make that mistake from time to time.)

18

Chanel stepped out of a flaming yellow taxi onto a crowded stretch of Fifth Avenue, wearing a simple black shift and a pair of enormous sunglasses, courtesy of the designer Bailey Winter. She was in costume—even Chanel wouldn’t prance around the city in the middle of the day in a cocktail dress—rehearsing the opening scene of the movie. Holly had to peer into the display windows of the famous jewelry store Tiffany and Company while eating breakfast after a long night out, just like Audrey Hepburn did in the original movie.

Gripping a takeout cup of coffee and brown paper bag full of pastries provided by the prop department, Chanel strolled primly toward the elegant building, counting the steps to herself, slowly and deliberately. One, two, three, four.

“Watch it,” barked a suited businessman, brushing by her as he snarled into a cell phone.

“Sorry,” Chanel mumbled, feeling flustered. She walked back to the curb, turned around, and retraced her steps. She tried to keep her back perfectly straight, the way Ken had instructed her to, but she had to focus on making a direct path to the store, too, which was nearly impossible because there were so many people around. She finally made it, but the windows were completely blocked out by tourists, frantically snapping pictures of the window displays. That was definitely not in the script.

A chubby older woman in a tennis skirt held her camera out to Chanel, gesturing that she wanted Chanel to take her photograph. Chanel shrugged, dropped the paper bag onto the street, and took the camera. She focused and took a picture of the woman, smiling and pointing to the Tiffany logo.

“Thanks! And now may I take a picture of you? You work for the store, right?”

Chanel was flabbergasted. Of course she must look like some moronic walking window display, hired by Tiffany in hopes that the nod to the old film would sell more jewelry. She kept a smile plastered to her face while the woman snapped away, then picked up her paper bag and walked back to the curb. A bus roared past, sending a blast of hot exhaust up her dress.

Aaah, summer in the city.

Chanel looked up at the store, her whole body trembling with frustration. It was nearly a hundred degrees, she was sweating and overdressed, people were staring, and she just wanted to go home—to her parents’ penthouse, not her cat-piss-scented dump—and change into linen boxers, a wifebeater, and some comfy flip-flops, and spend the afternoon drinking Coronas and watching an Empire marathon. She’d always managed to excel at everything, from school to horseback riding to boys, all without even trying. She’d been sure acting would come as easily to her as everything else she’d tried in her life, but so far Ken Mogul was clearly unhappy with her performance.

She wondered if even Porsha Sinclaire, the world’s most die-hard Breakfast at Tiffany’s fan, would have been able to put up with Ken Mogul’s maniacal tirades.

She started her approach toward Tiffany’s once more.

“Look, sweetheart,” a stocky, loud-voiced Southern woman cried, pointing out Chanel to her balding, paunchy husband, who was sporting a winning ensemble of pleated khaki shorts and a knockoff Lacoste polo, topped off with black socks under his cheap leather mandals.

“Well, now I’ve seen everything,” the man exclaimed.

“It’s just like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, isn’t it?” the woman continued, approaching Chanel. “Yoohoo, dear, is this some kind of publicity stunt?”

Chanel pretended not to hear. Who knew Manhattan’s sidewalks were so treacherous? She retreated back to the curb and steeled herself, then made the walk again.

Now that’s dedication.

She might have looked like a funny tourist attraction to the people walking by, but inside she was a seething, frustrated actress on the verge of a major temper tantrum. The truth was, Chanel didn’t even want to act anymore; she wanted to give up and walk over to Barneys and see if anything new was on the racks. But of course she couldn’t do that: first, because it was closed due to filming, so she was partly responsible for her own worst nightmare, and second, because she had never really failed at anything before and was secretly every bit as competitive as her sometimes best friend, Porsha.

“Nice ass,” called a deep voice from behind her.

Chanel turned to see a guy leering at her from the backseat of a passing taxi. Gross. Audrey Hepburn never had to deal with this sort of crap.

No, but then again, Audrey Hepburn’s ass was kind of flat. But at least she could act.

19

Porsha couldn’t tell if the pounding was in her head—she’d put away quite a few whiskeys on the plane—or if it was real. She lifted her head: no, it was real, and it was coming from the door to the bedroom where she’d crashed last night, the room formerly occupied by her hippie stepbrother, Tahj Campbell.

“Porsha Cornelia Sinclaire!”

There was more pounding. It was her mother and her voice sounded…different. Was she sick? Did she have something in her mouth?

Eleanor Campbell pushed the door open and stomped into the dark bedroom, perching on the edge of the mattress. She was carrying a mug of coffee and was dressed in her summertime sleep outfit, a flouncy, way-too-short peachy slip and matching robe.

“Wake up!” she shrieked hoarsely.

Porsha pulled the covers over her head and moaned. Why was her mother carrying on like this so early in the morning?

“Porsha Sinclaire,” her mom hissed. “I’m serious, young lady. Come out from under there. We need to have a little chat.”

“I hope you know I barely slept,” Porsha snapped, sitting up and snatching the coffee from her mother’s hands. She took a long sip and tugged at the flimsy white camisole she’d chosen to sleep in.

“First,” Eleanor ranted, “what are you doing home?” Gripping her robe with one hand, she leaned in and studied her daughter’s face. “You’re supposed to be in London!”

For a fiftysomething-year-old who’d just had a baby, Eleanor looked pretty good in the morning. Porsha wondered if her mom had had something done to her face while she was away, or maybe it was some new eye cream Porsha would eventually steal.

“Something came up.” Porsha reached for the eyepads she kept in a drawer in her bedside table, placing one over each eye.

“Well, next time you might think to give me a call and let me know what you’re up to.” Eleanor snatched the eye pads away. “I had a call this morning from American Express. I don’t like it when my credit card company knows my daughter’s whereabouts before I do.”

“What?” Porsha demanded, sitting up a little straighter.

“American Express called because someone charged a $4,000 plane ticket to my account,” Eleanor scolded. “I was about to call the police. Then I noticed the new blue leather Hermès luggage set in the foyer.”

“I came in late,” Porsha explained. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

“That’s only part of the problem.” Eleanor stood and paced around the room. “Porsha, it’s about time you learned some responsibility. You’re not a child anymore. You’re going to have to learn how to manage your money.”

This from the woman who bought each of her children a private island in the South Pacific!

“Mom,” Porsha whined.

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me,” Eleanor ordered sharply. “You know I never say no to my children, you know that, don’t you? I’ve always given you whatever you wanted, haven’t I?”

Well, wasn’t that her job?

“Yes, I have.” Eleanor had never given a parental lecture before, and Porsha could see she was getting into it. “But this is too much. I talked it over with Cyrus and we agreed that something has to be done.”

Excuse me, why was her mother discussing her private business with Cyrus Campbell, her stupid, red-faced, tacky-assed stepfather? “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” Porsha yawned, draining the coffee cup. She wondered how long this particular chat was going to last. The whole thing was just so…boring. She needed more sleep, and a long bath, and a facial to get rid of all the London grime, and maybe a haircut and a few face-framing highlights to go with her cleansed and exfoliated face.

“What I’m talking about, Porsha, is this American Express bill.” Eleanor shook a wrinkled fax. “I had them send it over as soon as the woman on the phone told me about your…shopping exploits.”

Oops.

“Well, Mom,” Porsha admitted, “I might have gone a little overboard on the wedding dress, but once you see it, I know you’ll agree—”

“Wedding dress?” her mother gasped. “I guess that explains the eighteen-thousand-dollar charge. What is this about a wedding?” She sat down on the bed and fanned herself with her diamond-encrusted fingers. “I feel like I’m going to faint! You’re getting married? Oh, Porsha! I don’t know what to say!” She threw her arms around Porsha and burst into noisy tears. Then she abruptly sat up. “No, wait, I do: over my dead damn body you’re getting married! Have you lost your mind?!”

Porsha rolled her eyes. “No, Mom, I’m not getting married. At least, not right away. Anyway, that dress was only ten thousand, not eighteen.”

Oh, yes, that’s much better.

“No, my dear, innocent child.” Eleanor shook her head. “Didn’t you realize that the exchange rate is almost two to one?”

“Look,” Porsha declared hurriedly, “I’m sorry, okay? I only bought a few things, and they’re all for school.”

Yeah. We all wear wedding gowns to freshman orientation.

It didn’t look like she was going to escape any time soon. Porsha picked up the new issue of W she’d left on the night table. She’d bought the oversize magazine to keep her occupied on the long flight, but the complimentary bourbon had ended up being a much more interesting diversion.

“Porsha.” Eleanor sighed and squeezed Porsha’s knee through the hemp-blend bedspread. “I don’t mind you buying a few things—but a wedding dress?” She paused. “Still, I bet it’s quite a dress.”

“It is!” Porsha exclaimed. This was the mother she knew and sort of loved.

“Even so, I’ve talked it over with Cyrus, and I’m going to call your father this afternoon, but I think he’ll agree that, since you’re home now, presumably to stay—”

“I’m definitely not going back to London,” Porsha interjected, trying not to feel emotional about her dramatic departure from Marcus’s hometown. Had he even noticed she was gone?

“—this is the perfect opportunity for you to find some work for the summer. A job.”

A what? No comprende, señora.

The room was spinning. “What did you just say, Mom? A job?”

“Yes, dear. A job.”

Porsha fell back onto the pillows and threw her arm over her eyes. “But I’ll die if I have to work.”

“Don’t overreact,” Eleanor insisted. “It’ll be a terrific experience before starting school.”

“Have you ever worked?” Porsha demanded. She began to flip through the magazine angrily, almost tearing the pages as she turned them. She’d just fled a country, having been spurned by the love of her life. A lecture from her never-worked-a-day-in-her-life mother on the merits of employment and pulling herself up by her bootstraps was the absolute last thing she needed.

“That’s beside the point,” Eleanor replied evenly. “We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you helping to pay some of these exorbitant bills. If you’re going to spend this much, you’re going to have to earn something.”

Work for the summer? Porsha closed her eyes—no one she knew was working during this, their last summer vacation ever. No one! Well, except for Kaliq, but that was a punishment. There was Chanel, too, but that wasn’t really a job—it was a dream come true.

Porsha’s eyes suddenly came to rest on the page in front of her. Speak of the fucking devil. There, smack-dab in the middle of the latest reports on all the society gossip, was a photograph of Chanel Crenshaw arm in arm with the designer Bailey Winter. Porsha remembered when that photograph had been taken, at Winter’s runway presentation the previous season. She and Chanel had been seated in the front row—naturally—and when the designer had come out to take his final bow, he’d noticed Chanel in the audience and pulled her up onto the runway with him.

Tuning out her mother’s relentless drone, Porsha scanned the page to see whether there was some news about Chanel. And indeed there was: the gossip column was all about how Bailey Winter had signed on with Ken Mogul to provide the costumes for Mogul’s new film project, Breakfast at Fred’s. It wasn’t enough that Chanel got to star in a movie with Thaddeus Smith; she also got to wear custom designs by one of the best living American designers?

“I just think it’s a matter of responsibility, Porsha,” her mother declared. “You know, when you turn twenty-one you’ll get access to your trust fund, and your father and Cyrus and I need to know that you’ll handle the money responsibly. We feel very strongly that a job is the perfect way for you to learn to manage money and carry out other people’s wishes, not just your own.”

Porsha glared at the ugly eggplant-colored bedspread. Fine, she’d get a summer job. But she was not going to settle for anything less than the most glamorous summer job imaginable.

“You know,” she mused, “maybe you’re right. Maybe a job is just what I need to keep myself busy this summer.”

“Yes!” her mother cried happily. “I knew you’d come around!”

“And maybe you can help me get one?” Porsha asked sweetly.

“Of course!” Eleanor agreed. “I’m sure we can make some phone calls and find you something wonderful in no time at all!”

There was, of course, only one telephone call she needed her mother to make. Being the daughter of Eleanor Campbell, Bailey Winter’s most loyal couture client, would surely come in handy when it came to landing an assistantship on the set of Breakfast at Fred’s.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

20

Furtively cupping the butt in his palm, Mekhi took a long last drag on his cigarette and tossed it to the ground, stubbing it out quickly and exhaling smoke into the breeze. He was stationed on a bench at the corner of 6th Avenue and Houston and could see Nicole crossing the street. He didn’t want her to catch him smoking—again.

“Mekhi!” Nicole called out, dodging the battalion of cabs creeping up 6th Avenue, waving excitedly. She was wearing short, stretchy black pants that flared a little at her calves and a turquoise sports bra and was carrying a water bottle. She trotted through the traffic and up to the bench.

“Hi! It’s so good to see you.”

“You too,” Mekhi replied, oh-so-casually closing his book and grinning at her.

“Oh! You’re reading The Way of the Artist!” she exclaimed. “I love that book.”

“Really?” Mekhi had a feeling she might. “That’s a funny coincidence.”

Sure it is.

“Totally,” giggled Nicole. “First Siddhartha, now The Way of the Artist? You must be the Strand’s spiritual expert.”

“Oh, definitely,” Mekhi lied. “Everyone they hire has a different specialty.”

“Cool.” Nicole grabbed his hand and yanked him up off the bench. “Now come on! We’re going to be late.”

“Okay,” Mekhi agreed cheerfully. “I hate missing the previews.”

“Previews?” Nicole asked. “We’re not going to the movies. Remember? We’re going to Bikram.”

“Uh, yeah,” Mekhi replied nervously. Bikram, Bikram, Bikram. Not a movie. Maybe a restaurant? “Right. Um, good, I’m, uh, starving.”

Nicole laughed. “Yeah, I’m pretty hungry for some exercise myself. Let’s hurry so we don’t miss this class—the evening sessions are even more intense than the ones I usually take. And maybe afterwards I’ll buy you a Jamba Juice.”

Class? Jamba Juice? She might as well have been speaking Swahili. Mekhi had no idea where they were going but he followed Nicole down the street, making idle chitchat about books he hadn’t actually read and getting more and more worried. It didn’t seem likely that they were going to a restaurant. Then Mekhi looked up and saw it, looming in the distance: a hand-painted sign with a funny, Indian-style font that was supposed to look like Sanskrit that proudly proclaimed BIKRAM. It wasn’t a movie. It wasn’t a restaurant. Bikram was a kind of yoga. Nicole was taking him to a yoga class.

Namaste!

Nicole trotted up the stairs eagerly, like a kid on Christmas morning. She turned and glanced over her shoulder at Mekhi, who was lagging behind, trying to think of an excuse not to participate. He decided to feign an injury and was trying to choose a part of his body he could claim to have hurt. He had a cracked rib maybe, from lifting too many dictionaries. He’d been hit by a car on his way to work this morning and was pretty sure he was concussed. He had a rare neural disorder that caused him to black out in small crowded rooms full of sweaty people lying on colorful rubber mats.

“PS, Mekhi,” Nicole called down to him. “I’m glad you didn’t bother with a change of clothes. For the evening sessions,Yogi keeps the heat even higher than usual, so we usually just go naked.”

Now things were getting complicated. First, there was no way he was going to do yoga, and second, he’d be damned if he was going to do yoga naked. On the other hand, Nicole would be there too; he’d get to see her completely naked the very first time they hung out.

“Um, great!” he enthused, already out of breath from climbing the stairs. Mekhi had never exercised in his life, but the sight of Nicole’s round, yoga-firm butt a few steps above him was all the motivation he needed. Forget that he’d never done yoga, never mind that he was sure to be humiliated, and fuck the seemingly endless flight of stairs: he was going to get into all sorts of pretzel-like positions with Nicole, naked. What was there not to love?

That’s the spirit!

“Come on!” Nicole urged giddily.

Mekhi reached the top of the stairs and followed her into the Tranquility Yoga Studio, a wide-open space with gleaming wide-plank pine floors. The room was almost all windows and was flooded with the late afternoon sun—and the rays only intensified the heat. The temperature in the room must have been near a hundred and twenty degrees, and with the sunlight and all the naked bodies, it was also humid and very…fragrant.

On a platform in the front of the room was an emaciated-looking Indian man with gleaming, well-oiled skin, dressed only in a loosely cinched white cotton robe, seated with his spindly legs crossed in front of him. Below his thinly tweezed eyebrows his eyes were closed, and he was smiling profusely. In front of him was a fortyish woman doing her warm-up stretches, her paunchy tummy hanging loosely over her bare, veiny thighs.

A couple of guys warmed up by the windows—one with long, sinewy muscles who arched his back in a way that just didn’t look natural, and a silver-haired grandfather type touching his toes effortlessly. He really put Mekhi to shame. . .in every department.

“Better get undressed.” Nicole winked at Mekhi. “Master doesn’t like to start class even a minute late. Anyone who’s not undressed and ready to go is asked to leave.”

Mekhi had been on the verge of explaining to Nicole that he was epileptic and had forgotten to take his medication, but then she started to yank her turquoise sports bra over her head. Wow. What could he do?

Strip!

He pulled his dirty T-shirt over his head and let it fall to the ground. Then he unbuckled his belt, kicked off his shoes, and pulled down his jeans. He was the only guy in the room wearing boxers, but he stubbornly kept them on.

He balled his socks up and stuffed them into his shoes, then took a deep breath and followed Nicole out onto the floor, where she started to stretch. Her flawless skin was golden brown all over, which he knew for sure, since he could see everything. Her long black hair fell over one of her handful-sized breasts and Mekhi had to remind himself he couldn’t just go and grab them right now. She bent over and touched her palms to the floor. He tried to mimic her, but he could barely touch his knees. It was agonizing.

“Don’t bend,” Nicole whispered. “Stretch, stretch.”

It was impossible to see Nicole’s perfect naked body stretching and contorting without the fly of his boxers expanding to embarrassing proportions. Mekhi stared as she took her foot in her hand and extended it straight over her head. He closed his eyes and tried to think of unsexy things, like the way food always got stuck in his aunt Sophia’s dentures or how the sidewalk in front of his building always smelled like dog piss. The sweat was already pouring down his face and they hadn’t even done anything yet. He used his forearm to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“Mekhi, no!” whispered Nicole. “Don’t let master see you do that. The whole point is to sweat it out. You can’t wipe it off. It goes against his teachings.”

Why couldn’t Bikram have been a nice foreign film? They could be eating popcorn in a dark, air-conditioned theater making out instead of sweating in this stifling room and following the orders of some sadist. Suddenly the teacher rose from his seated position on the dais at the front of the room and let his robe drop to the floor.

“Namaste!” he called, in a joyful, booming voice, bowing slightly.

“Namaste!” the rest of the class replied, bowing back.

Well, most of the class.

“Let’s begin with partner poses.” He motioned for everyone to pair up. “Prepare for shoulder stand. Begin with downward-facing dog and tripod pose, if you wish.”

“Ready?” Nicole whispered. She had a thumbnail-sized birthmark near her belly button.

Nicole bent over and placed her palms on the floor in front of her and then waggled her butt as if in preparation for take-off. Mekhi looked around, alarmed, but everyone else was doing the same thing. Their partners were even gently holding their hips. Mekhi tentatively touched Nicole on the waist and she brought her right knee to her right elbow and then did the same with her left.

“Hold me steady,” she told him. Mekhi crouched next to Nicole, his hands circling her taut middle as she brought her long, toned legs straight up and smiled at him from upside-down. “I think I have it now.”

“Oh, okay,” Mekhi said, backing away. But as he went to stand up, he realized that his boxers were totally gaping in front and his “friend” was totally exposed…and totally excited. Oh, God. He stayed in a half-crouch, desperately trying to picture Aunt Sophia’s cruddy teeth again.

“Young man.” The scary naked yoga master pointed at Mekhi.

Me? Mekhi pointed at himself, still half-crouching. Everyone in the class turned to look at him.

“Yes, you. Come, my son,” the teacher said, beckoning to Mekhi with his long, skinny fingers.

“Go up there,” Nicole whispered from upside-down. “This is such an honor, I can’t believe it—on your first time, too.”

Mekhi walked across the wooden floor trying to look casual, desperately cupping his crotch with his hands. He reached the foot of the platform and the teacher smiled down at him placidly.

“Come, my son,” the teacher said. “You’ll work with me today. It’s your first time, right?”

Mekhi nodded nervously. His whole body trembled as he stepped onto the platform. The yogi reached down and placed his worn palms on the floor, giving Mekhi a terrible close up of his wrinkled ass. Everyone in class followed suit, and for a brief second Mekhi got a surreal glimpse of Nicole’s bare breasts upside down from between her wide-spread legs. His reverie was interrupted as the teacher grabbed him from behind, pressing his bare stomach into Mekhi’s skinny bare back, and gently guided his head down, so that all Mekhi could see were his own legs and the skinny legs of the naked guy straddling him. Mekhi had never been intimate with an older person before, let alone an old Indian yoga geezer.

But when a guy wants a girl, he has no shame.

21

“I know a great place where we can go after this,” Tawny announced. She licked her thumb and stuck it into the greasy basket of popcorn shrimp to pick up some fried crumbs.

Kaliq took a last swig from his limey Corona and nodded. “Fine by me.”

Crammed into a tiny table by the Oyster Shack’s greasy windows, they ate with their fingers, sipped beer, and talked—well, Tawny did most of the talking. About how she was learning to surf. About how her dad used to be a fire chief but had gotten hurt falling off a ladder and retired. About how she’d been to Disney World four times. About how her hair was naturally wavy, but people always thought she wore weave. About how excited she was to finally graduate next year.

Kaliq barely listened to what she said: she was sexy as hell, and he enjoyed simply looking at her. There weren’t many girls like Tawny on the Upper East Side: full, blond, wavy hair spilling over caramel, freckled shoulders, pink lips that tasted like cherry ChapStick, long-lashed bright brown eyes, and slender, tanned fingers covered with silver rings.

Porsha was always quizzing him on his favorite song, his first memory, what he wanted to do when he grew up. She said she just wanted to get to know him, but it always felt like a test he was failing. Tawny seemed happy just to let Kaliq be who he was.

A sexy, arrogant pothead?

When dinner was over, Tawny perched on the handlebars of his bike and shouted directions to Kaliq. She threw her head back and her long wavy hair tickled his nose.

“Slow down! No, speed up!” she shrieked.

“Where are you taking me?” Kaliq shouted as they bumped over tree roots and rocks.

Tawny glanced over her shoulder at him. “You’ll see…Hey, stop! Let me off.”

Kaliq skidded to a stop and Tawny hopped onto the ground. Her lavender-colored daisy dukes had ridden up, giving him a great view of her tan, surf-toned ass cheeks. Shit, was she sexy!

“That was fun,” she laughed, crashing through some low bushes toward the beach. “Ditch the bike. It’ll be safe there.”

Kaliq leaned his bike against a nearby tree. The late afternoon sunlight filtered through the boughs overhead, but it was cool and very still in the woods.

Following Tawny, Kaliq thought about how weird it was that he’d only been out of school for a couple of weeks and yet his entire life had completely changed. He was working construction and dating a hot Hamptons chick. Well, why not? If Porsha could change everything—she was getting married, for Christ’s sake—why couldn’t he? It was easier to be with Tawny than it was to be with any other girl he’d ever known; she wasn’t demanding and self-absorbed like Porsha, she wasn’t naïve and needy like Bree, she wasn’t unpredictable and inattentive like Chanel. She just…was.

Classic stoner logic.

“Come on,” Tawny urged, backtracking to grab his hand and pull him through the bushes.

She led him into a sun-dappled clearing where two massive trees had fallen on top of one another, creating natural benches that were obviously popular with the locals, since the forest floor was littered with old beer bottles and cigarette butts. Three guys hunkered on one of the felled logs, passing a joint between them. Behind them, through the trees, the blue-black water of the ocean glinted and swelled.

“Hey guys!” Tawny cried.

Three heads swiveled in their direction. With their baggy jeans and dirty sneakers, these were the kind of guys Kaliq and his friends would have scoffed at if they’d ever come across them in the city. They were the kind of guys who got into fights with bouncers and wore gallons of cheesy drug-store cologne. And they were also, apparently, Tawny’s friends.

“Kaliq, these are Greg, Tony, and Vince.”

“What’s up?” Kaliq asked, nodding uneasily in their direction.

Tawny clambered over the trunk and took a seat next to Greg, a dark-skinned guy cupping a joint in his palm and jutting his chest out into the air territorially in a way that reminded Kaliq of a bulldog.

“We’ve got some herb, bro,” announced Vince, who appeared to be Greg’s twin. “Have a seat.”

Kaliq’s ears pricked up at this offer. He hated being called “bro” by guys he didn’t even know, and he hated guys who pretended to be cool when they were really losers, but he had to admit a smoke—even with these dorks—sounded like his kind of dessert.

Tawny took a hit and handed over the slightly damp roach. Kaliq inhaled greedily.

“Good stuff, right?” the guy called Greg asked gruffly. “I got it off my regular guy. He’s always busiest in the summer, you know, but he saves the best shit for loyal year-round customers like me.”

It wasn’t great stuff—the Hawaiian stash Kaliq had stored back in his bedroom was much better—but he couldn’t complain.

“Fucking city kids,” growled Vince, taking the joint from Kaliq. “They always fuck everything up during the summer. Fucking traffic. Fucking clubs. Fucking pain in the ass.”

Eloquently put.

“Summer crowds, man,” mumbled Tony, who hadn’t yet spoken. He was glaring at Kaliq, studying him suspiciously from under the perfectly creased bill of his baseball cap.

Kaliq was zoning out as usual, the way he liked to when he was smoking herb, but he heard what the guys were saying. Loud and clear.

“Definitely.” Tawny yawned, lazily resting her blond, wavy-haired head on Kaliq’s shoulder.

Kaliq glanced down at his tattered work outfit. It was pretty clear Tawny disliked the wealthy crowd that flooded the Hamptons every summer, and Kaliq was definitely part of that crowd. With his working-man’s tan and ragged clothes, she’d probably taken him for the kind of guy who had to spend his summer earning his money, presumably to pay his way through Yale in the fall. He felt a stab of guilt. He hadn’t exactly been honest with her.

Old habits die hard.

“Same old story every year,” Tony continued. “Why don’t they find someplace else to go, like France or some shit?”

“They’re not so bad,” Kaliq ventured. “I mean, I’m kind of from the city—”

“You are?” Tawny demanded, lifting her head. She narrowed her normally wide brown eyes. “You never said anything.”

“You never asked,” Kaliq pointed out. There were murmurs from the other guys. Vince spat into the sand. Out on the water, a fishing boat flashed its lights.

“I knew it,” Tony said, spitting on the ground. “I could just smell it on you.”

“But I mean, it’s no big deal.” Kaliq shook his head. “I mean…I’m not like a lot of those kids.”

“Well, I guess…” Tawny sank back into him, rubbing the side of her face against his work-strong chest. “Maybe you’ll take me back to the city some time?”

“Sure, sure.” Kaliq wrapped his tanned arm around her waist. “That’d be fun.”

As long as he keeps her away from Porsha Not-so-good-with-jealousy Sinclaire.

22

The evening after their study session and another disheartening day of rehearsal, Chanel sat in the backseat of a taxi on her way back to the Chelsea Hotel. But this time, she had something to look forward to. She checked the text messages on her phone again, mostly because she wanted to reread the note from Thaddeus.

Come down and see me. I miss you. xx

Chanel had been starting to doubt herself after all the insults from Ken Mogul, but here it was: indisputable, digital proof that she, Chanel Crenshaw, still had it.

The taxi made a wide turn onto 23rd Street and Chanel felt her heart start to pound a little faster—in just a few minutes she’d be at the hotel. She’d been with handsome guys before, but she’d never fallen for anyone quite like Thaddeus. Of course he was gorgeous, but there was something else about him. Chanel felt like they could be more than costars, more than lovers—they could be best friends, too.

Not that she needed a new best friend. Or did she? She could never remember.

When they reached the Chelsea at last, she stuffed a twenty-dollar bill into the driver’s hand, burst from the backseat, and dashed into the lobby of the hotel. Even though filming had begun at Barneys, Ken had said she needed as much off-set practice as she could get. The familiar dark hallways lined with famous paintings gave Chanel a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, but she tried to forget about all the negative things that Ken had yelled at her in the building and focus on what was about to happen: she was about to get together with Thaddeus Smith.

She knocked softly on his door and he pulled it open almost immediately, a startled look on his face. His very baggy cargo shorts had slid down to reveal his simple gray boxers.

“Chanel,” he exclaimed. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” she breathed, brushing past him and into the room. She tossed her Marc Jacobs bag on the floor and plopped onto the couch.

Thaddeus closed the door and pulled his shorts up, blushing slightly. “So,” he said. “What’s happening? Were you just in the neighborhood?”

“Something like that.” Chanel laughed. It was cute to see the world-famous actor squirming. God, she loved flirting with him.

“So,” Thaddeus mumbled, picking up his discarded T-shirt from the floor and pulling it over his head. He sat in the arm-chair and placed his feet on the coffee table. “Have you been rehearsing on your own?”

“It’s such a drag,” Chanel sighed. “But Ken acts like I’m never going to get it right.”

“I always say it’s harder work than people think,” Thaddeus agreed. “People think it’s all glamour, all parties and premieres, but I fucking earn my paychecks. I guess I don’t need to tell you that.”

Making three million per movie must be hard.

“I wish someone had warned me.” Chanel picked her bag up off the floor and dug her hand inside. She’d gotten so worked up on her way over, she needed to relax. “Mind if I smoke?”

“No, of course not.” Thaddeus gestured lamely at the coffee table, which was already set with an ashtray and several lighters. “The thing is, Chanel, this isn’t a great time. My friend Serge is supposed to stop by.”

Chanel stayed where she was. Why was it so hard to get a minute alone with him?

“Well, your text message didn’t sound like you were that busy.” She smiled nervously. His coy act was a little confusing.

Only a little?

“Shit,” Thaddeus exclaimed. “You got my text message?”

“Uh-huh,” she murmured breathily.

“Well, I’m glad you did,” he stammered. “I thought that we could, um, well, I thought that maybe we should get some work done.”

Why was he so nervous? It was hard to believe that someone as gorgeous and successful as Thaddeus Smith could be so shy around girls! “Work.” She pouted. “I thought you might want to, you know, have a little fun?”

“Fun,” repeated Thaddeus. “Work can be—” His chirping cell phone interrupted him. He glanced at the display. “Chanel, I’ve got to grab this. I’m sorry. I’ll be just be a second.” He scurried into the bedroom, so all Chanel could hear was “Hello.”

She stubbed out her half-smoked cigarette. Thaddeus’s freaky behavior was starting to make her nervous. Was she coming on too strong? Not strong enough? He was the one who’d sent her a sexy text message. Why would he invite a friend over? Maybe Thaddeus was kinky? That wasn’t really her thing.

Oh, really?

“Sorry about that,” Thaddeus apologized, shuffling back into the room. He tossed his phone onto the coffee table, where it landed with a bang. “Anyway, as long as you’re here, let’s run some lines.”

“Lines?” asked Chanel.

“You can use my script,” Thaddeus said, sinking into the armchair with a sigh. “I’ve got my lines down.”

“Let’s start with scene seventeen,” she offered hopefully. “You know, the love scene?”

Rehearsing a love scene might be as close as she’s going to get.

23

“You okay?” Yasmine asked Mekhi. He was sprawled across his bed, wincing in pain. There were Newport butts all over the worn brown carpet, as if he couldn’t be bothered to get up and get one of the half-empty coffee mugs he usually used as an ashtray.

“Fuuuuu-uuuck,” he muttered. “I think I pulled something.”

Yasmine picked up the copy of the Bhagavad Gita from his unmade bed. She knew it was some sacred Indian text, but she’d never had any interest in finding out any more about it. Then she noticed Mekhi was working on a poem in his big black notebook. He rolled over onto his back.

“Whatcha writing?” she asked, reaching for the notebook. She read the first couple of lines:

Pure love. Pure lust. Trust trust.

Buddha was no Jesus. Neither am I.

I’m just a guy.

[
__]

News flash: Bikram yoga kills creative brain cells, causing poets who already write bad poetry to write really bad poetry.

“You can’t read that!” Mekhi snatched the notebook out of her hands. “It’s, um, private. Do you want some tea?” he asked, sitting up. “I just bought some Mint Meltdown. It’s supposed to empty the body of toxins and help your body really breathe.”

Yasmine snorted. “You’re joking, right?”

“Come on.” Mekhi yawned. He rose to his feet unsteadily, and Yasmine followed him out of the bedroom and down the dark hall, moving at a grandfather’s pace through the swinging door into the kitchen, which was filled with stacks of dirty dishes. There were breadcrumbs all over the counter and the toaster was lying on its side. Rufus had left a pot filled with cheese in the middle of the butcher-block island. Yasmine took a fork and poked at its thick skin while Mekhi microwaved two mugs full of water.

Mekhi dropped two bags of Mint Meltdown into the mugs and handed her one. Yasmine tried to catch his eye, but weirdly, he wouldn’t look at her. This was partly due to the fact that Yasmine looked pretty in her new black dress and partly because he was wracked with guilt for getting sweaty with Nicole and not even mentioning anything about it to his supposed girlfriend.

“So,” she began tentatively. “I feel like I’ve hardly seen you.”

“I’ve been working a lot,” he replied, burying his nose in his mug. “They really need me at the Strand. And I’ve made some new friends.”

Yasmine chuckled. “I guess the high-stakes world of used-book retail never quits.” Why was he acting so bizarre? She’d been able to tell he was disappointed a couple days ago about her working such long hours, but ever since she moved in they’d been like new roommates who didn’t even know each other.

“You don’t have to be rude,” Mekhi countered, tapping his spoon against the top of his BEAT POETS DO IT ON THE ROAD travel mug. “Judgment leads but to the path of negative energy.”

“Excuse me?” Yasmine whispered shrilly. “Could you run that by me again?”

“I don’t expect you to understand.” He sipped his tea even though it was still scalding hot. “It’s one of the elemental sign-posts of the yogi’s philosophy.”

“The only yogi I know is the bear who steals the picnic baskets. I don’t know where you picked up this New Age talk, but the Mekhi Hargrove I used to know and love and kind of had the hots for would think you are full of shit.”

“Well, the Yasmine Richards I used to know and love wouldn’t be caught dead slaving for a Hollywood sellout,” Mekhi retorted angrily. He left out the “kind of had the hots for” part since he kind of had the hots for someone else at the moment.

“Excuse me?”Yasmine set her cup down. Now that was just plain unfair. He knew Ruby had kicked her out and she needed the money. And wasn’t he proud of her working on a feature film at the age of only eighteen? “At least my job requires more skill than alphabetizing dusty old books by author name.”

He closed his eyes and breathed in noisily through his flared nostrils, something he’d learned yesterday in yoga. In with the good, out with the bad. “I thought living together would be so great, but I think you’ve changed.”

Yasmine sighed over her steaming cup of tea. It tasted like toothpaste and Pine-Sol. “You’re the one who’s changed,” she shot back. “Maybe I should just get out of your hair.” She blew into her mug.

“Please,” Mekhi retorted angrily. “You wanted me out of your hair, not the other way around. I was the one who cared about this summer together. You just wanted to work.”

“Well, I guess we’re both getting what we want.” Yasmine took another sip of Mint Meltdown tea before setting it down on the counter among the old newspapers and food-encrusted saucepans. Then she stomped out of the kitchen and out of the apartment to get a decent cup of coffee at the greasy deli up on Broadway.

Mekhi ran his hands through his messy twists. He was having a meltdown all right, but not the right kind of meltdown. He pulled a pack of Newports out of the pocket of his faded black cords and lit one using the front burner on the gas stove.

Surely Yogi would not approve.

END OF PREVIEW

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Upper East Side #9

Welcome to New York City's Upper East Side, where the girls are dazzling, the guys are gorgeous, and the summer heat is the perfect excuse to throw a fabulous roof-deck pool party. As if we need a reason! It's our last summer together before heading off to college, and things are sizzling—no, it's not just the weather. Despite that steamy kiss on graduation night, Porsha, Chanel, and Kaliq have gone their separate ways...though not for long. Porsha is off to London with her English Lord boyfriend, Chanel's about to become a movie star—as if she wasn't a star already!—and Kaliq's rolling up his well-worn khakis and heading to the Hamptons. Back in New York, Mekhi and Yasmine are rekindling their love. Fiery! Watch out, this summer is going to be hotter than ever.

  • ISBN: 9781311531148
  • Author: Ashley Valentine
  • Published: 2016-05-21 18:35:13
  • Words: 29128
Upper East Side #9 Upper East Side #9