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Being Nikki, Page 3

Meg Cabot

Chapter 3

  THE BEST THING ABOUT TRAVELING ON private jets is that you don’t have to do the getting-to-the-airport-two-hours-before-your-flight-is-scheduled-to-leave thing. You show up five minutes before your flight is supposed to take off, and you don’t even have to go through security. They open a special gate and let your limo drive straight up to the plane, so you can just hop out with your bag (and dog, which you can let roam free, because it’s your plane…or your boss’s plane, but whatever) and go right up the stairs to your seat. No one checks your ticket, or your ID, or anything. They just go, “Good morning, Miss Howard,” and offer you a glass of champagne (or, if you’re underage, orange juice). Then, five minutes later, you take off. No safety demonstrations. No screaming babies. No waiting in line to use the cramped Port-O-Let-style bathroom. Nothing like that. Instead, you’ve got luxurious leather seats, shiny mahogany tables, Wi-Fi (oh, yes: that thing about how you can’t use Wi-Fi or cell phones in the air? Total bull. You completely can, when you fly Stark Air), fresh-cut flowers, your own window, your own personal Stark brand DVD player if you want one, with a vast library of newly released movies to choose from. A girl could get used to this kind of lifestyle. And have difficulty going back to commercial travel. Am I a huge hypocrite hating Stark Enterprises for what they did to me (and thousands of small-business owners, not to mention the environment), yet choosing to fly on Robert Stark’s private jet instead of flying commercially? Yeah. But if it was going to get me home to Christopher—and my new, happy life, when the two of us started dating—eight hours earlier than if I took a commercial flight, I didn’t care. Sooner than I would have thought possible, the Manhattan skyline came into view, shrouded in dreary gray rain clouds beneath us. But somehow the sight of this island, sticking out of the brackish black water of the Hudson and East rivers like a middle finger, thrilled me much more than the white-beached tropical islands we’d just left. I was straining my neck to see if I could catch a glimpse of Washington Square Park and my family’s apartment building, when I got the first text on my non-Stark brand cell phone. SOS, Frida wrote. Call ASAP. I was dialing her cell number before I even considered that it was my sister, Frida, to whom an emergency is Sephora running out of eyeliner. All I could think was, Dad. Heart attack. He was, after all, a middle-aged white male who worked too hard, living in New Haven most of the week so he could teach at Yale. We only saw him on weekends. I knew perfectly well what he ate most of the time. Dunkin’ Donut Munchkins and day-old coffee. I’d never once seen him exercise. Or consume a piece of fruit. “Frida?” I said as soon as she picked up. I noticed Brandon, across the aisle, open an irritated eye at the frantic tone of my voice. He’d slept the whole way. Or pretended to sleep. He’d been treating me a little distantly all morning. I don’t think he’d quite gotten over what happened between us the night before—my turning down his offer to become boyfriend/girlfriend again, I mean. He closed the single bloodshot eye he’d opened, as soon as he realized I was just on the phone and not speaking to him. “What is it?” I asked Frida urgently, keeping my voice low, so as not to disturb my boss’s hungover son. “Is it Dad? Is everything all right?” “What? No, it’s not Dad. ” Frida, on the other end of the phone, sounded upset. “And no, everything’s not all right. It’s Mom. ” “What about Mom?” Mom? Mom was the epitome of good health. She swam laps every morning at the student gym. She ate nothing but salads, and chicken with the skin pulled off. It was almost disgusting how healthy she was. “Is she all right?” “She’s fine,” Frida said. “Physically. Mentally is questionable. She found out about cheerleading, and now she’s trying to get me kicked off the squad. ” I slumped back in my leather seat. My relief was so great, I couldn’t even speak. Also, I wanted to kill Frida for scaring me like that. “Em,” Frida was saying. “You have to come over right away and try to reason with her. She says I can’t go to cheerleading camp. ” “I’m on a plane right now,” I said, looking out the window at the Hudson River coldly winking back at me. “I was just in the Virgin Islands, remember? So coming over isn’t really an option. ” Plus, I had something a little more important I needed to be doing than refereeing fights between my mother and sister. True, the likelihood of Christopher stopping by again wasn’t great—although it was Sunday, so it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. I knew all Christopher ever did on Sunday was play Journeyquest, or maybe hang around the video game stores, to see if they’d got in anything new on Saturday. Still, I intended to sit home all day, just in case. “And isn’t it a little precipitate to be worrying about cheerleading camp now?” I asked her. “It’s December. You have months until summer to wear her down. ” And possibly lose interest in cheerleading and develop an interest in something more cerebrally challenging, such as rocket science, I thought but didn’t add aloud. “This is a week-long cheer camp to perfect our routine over winter break,” Frida explained. “In Florida. Everybody on the team goes. Only Mom’s saying over her dead body will she let her daughter go to something called cheer camp. ” “Aren’t we going to Grandma’s for winter break?” I asked, as Cosabella, who loved riding in planes almost as much as she loved riding in cars, decided the view from my lap wasn’t exciting enough and bounded across the aisle to see what was going on outside Brandon’s window, severely racking him and also waking him up again in a manner I would have to call not very pleasant. I mouthed Sorry to him, but he only gave me an aggrieved look. There was an uncomfortable silence over the phone. I thought we’d hit a patch of no-service until Frida said, “Well, yeah. We are. Cheer camp doesn’t start until after the holidays. But, Em—” “Problem solved, then,” I said. “Look, I’ll give Mom a call. She should be happy you’re making friends, staying physically fit, and doing something extracurricular that will look good on your college apps. I guess. And okay, soccer or lacrosse might have been preferable, but—” “Calling her isn’t good enough,” Frida interrupted. “You have to come over. She has to hear it from you in person. Otherwise she’s never going to let me go—” “Fine,” I said. “I’ll be over after I drop off all my stuff. I have presents for you guys, anyway. ” Holiday shopping had moved to a whole new level now that I actually had money to spend. Being able to buy my family the kind of gifts I knew they’d always longed for but were never able to afford was awesome. It truly was better to give than to receive. I couldn’t wait to see Frida’s face when she opened the tiny black velvet box I was giving her. Frida didn’t say anything, which was a bit weird for her, since she rarely kept her mouth shut. But it could have been that she was just so overwhelmed with gratitude that I was bearing gifts, she didn’t know what to say. Yeah. Right. I assumed from her unusual silence that we’d flown through some sort of cell phone dead zone, so I hung up and went to fish my dog from Nikki Howard’s ex-boyfriend’s lap. Brandon didn’t look very grateful. I couldn’t blame him. Cosabella really needed some obedience training. Although it was hard being cooped up in a plane, as Cosy illustrated when the first thing she did after we disembarked was pee all over the tarmac. She did the same thing when Karl the doorman opened the door of the town car that let me off from Teterboro, the airport where Robert Stark kept his jets. Cosy popped out and trotted over to the planters outside 240 Centre Street. It was embarrassing, but where else was she going to do it? “Welcome back, Miss Howard,” Karl said as I stepped out into the freezing drizzle that was coming down from the leaden sky overhead. It was a far cry from the balmy breezes of the Virgin Islands, and no one was exactly rushing over to give me a piña colada like they did at the hotel back in St. John. “I hope you had a nice time while you were away. ” “It was great,” I said automatically. I was freaking out, as always, about the dog. Karl must have been able to tell, because he said, “Oh, I’ll clean that up, Miss Howard. You just hurry on inside, where it’s warm. Oh, I think you should know…you have a visitor waiting in the lobby. I wasn’t sure if…well, you’ll see. ” My heart did that flip-floppy thing, e
ven though I told myself it couldn’t be him. I mean, Christopher was not the type to sit in the lobby of a girl’s apartment building and wait for her to come home. Still, when I walked into the lobby and saw a flash of short blond hair, I couldn’t help thinking, It’s him! Oh, God, it’s him! And then I practically started shaking, I was suddenly so nervous. Which was ridiculous. I mean, I’d been best friends with the guy since forever. I’d had burping contests with him, for God’s sake. And okay, that was in the seventh grade, but still. Why was I getting nervous now? I was the one in a new body, and he hadn’t even figured it out yet, despite my once leaving him a very obvious clue. He was still so busy missing the old me—the one he’d never even noticed until it was too late—that he hadn’t realized (until now, apparently) that reports of my death had been greatly exaggerated. So why was I the one turning to Jell-O? But I couldn’t even bring myself to look his way. Instead, because I couldn’t deal with the situation and was trying to play it cool like Lulu had once advised me to do, I pretended not to notice him, and stumbled my way to the elevator, trying to sashay like Nikki Howard but knowing I was more likely stumbling like Em Watts, Cosabella scampering at my heels, until I heard a masculine voice call out, “Nikki. ” I didn’t want to look too eager. Guys hate that (according to Lulu, my resident expert on all things guy). I had to let him take the lead. I had to let him think coming here was all his idea (which it was, actually). I had to— “Nikki. ” Wait a minute. That wasn’t him. That was not Christopher’s voice. I looked around. There was a tall blond guy standing in the lobby of my building, it was true. He was built, just like Lulu had said on the phone. And he was looking right at me. But he was dressed in navy fatigues. Christopher would never join the military, considering his father, the Commander, a political science professor at NYU, had drilled into his son a deep-rooted mistrust of all authority figures. And, seeing as how he was only in eleventh grade, like me, Christopher couldn’t join the navy even if he wanted to. On the blond guy’s face was an expression of extreme dislike. The dislike appeared to be for me. There was no one else around at whom it could be directed. Great. What had I ever done to Blondie? I’d never even seen him before. “Um,” I said, quickly stabbing the up button for the elevator. “I’m sorry. Are you speaking to me?” The expression of dislike on Blondie’s face deepened. He looked as if he was twenty, maybe a little older. There were a lot of insignias on his uniform. But I was too transfixed by the dislike on his face to drag my gaze away from his to read what they said. “Cut the act, Nik,” he said, stalking toward me. His voice was deep. I noticed a very faint twinge of Southern accent in it. “That amnesia thing may work on all your fashionable friends, but it’s not going to work on me. ” I blinked at him, then glanced toward the building’s front doors. Karl was still outside, cleaning up Cosabella’s mess. Which was unfortunate, because it was his job to prevent unpleasant scenes like this. I will admit that Blondie didn’t look like the usual ponytailed hipsters who showed up, demanding money from me or they’d go to the Star with their story of our torrid night in Vegas, or wherever. But why else was he here? “I’m sorry,” I said, mentally rehearsing the speech I’d had to say so many times over the past few weeks when I’d run into Nikki’s so-called friends and relatives who’d confronted me in the exact same way. “But because of my amnesia, which I can assure you really is real, I don’t remember who you are. You’re going to have to introduce yourself. Your name is?” Blondie’s blue eyes—they reminded me of someone’s. Only who?—which were pretty cold to start out with, got even colder as he stared at me. “Seriously,” he said. “That’s what you’re going to go with? The amnesia thing? You really think that’s going to work on me? Me?” He said “the amnesia thing” like it was some kind of lie Nikki had tried on him before. And apparently it didn’t work the first time. “It’s not a thing,” I said, sticking out my chin. Although, of course, it was. Considering I didn’t have amnesia. I just wasn’t Nikki Howard. Except legally. “I really don’t have any idea who you are. If you choose not to believe that, I suggest you leave before I have to do something we’re both going to regret. ” “Like what?” he asked. “Call the cops?” Since that was exactly what I was going to have Karl do—although it seemed like a shame to have to do that to a member of the U. S. military services—I didn’t say anything. Blondie stared at me some more. “My God,” he said after a minute, incredulity slowly dawning across his handsome, if somewhat tired-looking face. “You’d really do it, wouldn’t you? Call the cops on me. ” “I told you,” I said. The elevator, to my relief, had finally come. “I don’t have the slightest idea who you are. Now, if you don’t mind, I just got home from a shoot, and I’m really tired, and I still have to unpack—” To my total surprise, he reached out and grabbed my arm. His grip was hard. There was no way I could break it if I tried. And I wasn’t about to try, because I wanted to keep all my limbs in one piece. Now I was starting to get scared. Karl was nowhere in sight and the lobby was empty, unusual for a Sunday afternoon when the rest of the tenants of our upwardly mobile, $10,000-a-month-rent condo building tended to be running off to their workouts or to Starbucks for their latte fixes. Who was this creepy guy, with his cold-eyed stare and military uniform? “I said to cut the act, Nik,” he said in a voice as hard as his grip. Cosabella, at my feet, was beginning to sense something was wrong, and was whining nervously. Blondie ignored her. “You’re embarrassed to admit you know me? Fine. You always were. But how could you do what you did to her? She disappears, and you don’t even care? You know I couldn’t keep tabs on her while I was in a submarine. And now she’s gone. No one even knows where she is, not even her best friends, Leanne and Mary Beth. They haven’t heard from her. Don’t even try to make out like any of this isn’t your fault. ” He stared at me accusingly, but I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. Everything he was saying sounded like gibberish to me. Leanne? Mary Beth? And who was gone? Who was she? Whoever she was, she seemed very important to him. So important that his gaze no longer looked cold, but was shining with emotion. An emotion that looked to me a lot like hate. For me. “Whoa,” I said, holding up a single hand—the one not attached to the arm he was cutting off all the circulation to with his death grip. “Slow down. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Who’s Leanne? Who’s Mary Beth? Who are you? And who is this missing woman you’re talking about?” The last question seemed to slam him like a fist. He was so shocked he actually dropped my arm and took a step back, staring at me like I was some sort of strange and not particularly attractive breed of animal that had just been unveiled at the zoo. Maybe in the reptile house. “She is your mother,” he said finally, pointing to one of the insignias on his chest, which I now saw, belatedly, said HOWARD. “And I’m your big brother, Steven. Now do you remember me, Nikki?”