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A MODEL HOMECOMING
"Honey, I've missed you so much!"
"I missed you, too, Mom." Ashley Alioto -- otherwise known as A.A., one of the tween triumvirate of Ashleys who were the acknowledged social elite of Miss Gamble's School for Girls -- smiled up at her mother.
Jeanine Alioto was as beautiful as ever, tall and willowy, her long dark hair perfectly razor-cut and blow-dried, her eyebrows immaculately threaded, her lips injected with just enough Venezuelan bee serum to make her mouth a seductive pout. Sometimes girls at school -- non-Ashleys, of course -- asked her if it was a drag having a former supermodel for a mother, as though getting great genes (not to mention an endless supply of great jeans) was a bad thing.
The only kind-of-bad part was when her mother disappeared for weeks at a time because some rich guy wanted her to sail around the Caribbean with him or hang out at the Cannes Film Festival. A.A. was left at home in their penthouse apartment in the Fairmont Hotel with her stepbrother, Ned. They got along just fine without Jeanine -- duh, room service! -- but it was always better when her mother was home, not least because she always brought back a ton of cool gifts.
"And these are for you, Lili," said her mother, pulling a chic pair of black shoes from one of her overflowing Goyard suitcases and tossing them into the eager hands of Ashley Li.
The shoes meant for Lili had three-inch curvy heels with ankle straps fastened by a tiny ribbon. Receiving designer swag was just another one of the many perks of being an Ashley, but Lili, perched on the edge of the butter-colored chaise lounge, peered at them with a puzzled smile on her face.
"Thanks so much, Jeanine," she said in her peppiest voice, but A.A. knew what she was thinking. Lili was a total brand queen, and if she didn't recognize the name imprinted in the soft calfskin soles of the shoes, then they might as well be a pair of sweaty Crocs. "Are these an Argentinian...er, specialty?"
"Sweetie, they're tango shoes!" Jeanine scrambled to her feet. In her calf-high Fiorentini & Baker boots tucked into skintight Ksubi jeans, she was more than six feet tall, towering over the petite Lili and even over A.A., who'd inherited her mother's long, lean physique and was currently sprawled out on the white sheepskin rug. "I got them for A.A. and then remembered she'd rather throw herself around on a soccer field than do anything ladylike, and I know you're the same size. I spent a few days in Buenos Aires at the tango festival, and these are from the tango shoe store. Everything's handmade and super expensive."
"I'd love to learn the tango," said Lili with a sigh, flicking her glossy jet-black hair, a dreamy expression floating over her pretty, heart-shaped face. A.A. let out a snort of laughter -- all Lili needed was yet another extracurricular activity! When she wasn't taking violin or tennis lessons, she was brushing up on her French and Mandarin language skills, or learning how to take expert photographs, or helping a Stanford professor with his genetics research. If A.A. had Lili's overscheduled life, she'd go crazy.
"I thought you were going to Brazil." A.A. picked at the intricately woven blue hammock her mother had pulled from suitcase number one twenty minutes ago. There was an outdoor terrace off the suite where it would hang perfectly.
"Rio in the off-season just isn't me." Jeanine sighed, mussing her luxuriant dark locks. "The Copa is no fun in the rain, and I was sick of looking at all those undernourished girls from Ipanema hanging around and hoping to get discovered by Victoria's Secret."
A.A. rolled onto her stomach and rested her head in her hands. She loved it when her mother started dishing on the modeling world. Jeanine always called herself the Last of the Supermodels, talking about the good old days when the top models were known by their first names alone, everyone had major attitude and the breasts to go with it, and affairs with celebrities were de rigueur -- her first husband, Ned's father, was a British rock star. These days, she said, the girls were barely old enough to date, and all the magazine covers were hogged by skanky Hollywood startlets.
"And anyway," Jeanine continued, back on her knees and rifling through her suitcase again, "Gil was thinking of buying some gaucho ranch in Argentina, so we flew down there."
Gil was Richard Gilbert, the software tycoon Jeanine had been dating on and off for the last six months. She and Ned had already decided they didn't want him as a stepfather, but it was too soon to worry -- Jeanine's relationships had a habit of self-combusting before too many commitments were made.
"Did you and Mr. Gilbert learn to dance the tango while you were there?" Lili had already slipped off her Tory Burch flats and was carefully tying the delicate ribbons of the tango shoes around her slim ankles.
"I don't know what Mr. Gilbert was doing," said Jeanine, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "After three days galloping around in the mud wearing a poncho, I'd had enough. And let's just say horses weren't the only thing he was checking out in Argentina."
She tugged a vibrant purple-patterned silk scarf out of her bag and draped it over A.A.'s shoulders, and then rummaged for another one, this time a swirling, kaleidoscopic mix of greens and pinks.
"For you," Jeanine said, wafting it at Lili. "These are just Pucci -- I picked them up at the airport when my flight back was delayed. I grabbed a blue one for Ashley, too, because I know how you three have to have the same things."
"So you and Gil have broken up?" A.A. tried not to sound too pleased. She sat up to adjust her trademark pigtails and loop the scarf around her neck.
"Let's just say I need someone who's man enough to tango with me and me alone," Jeanine said, rocking back on her heels and shooting them her famous wicked Cosmo-cover smile. "And you know what I always tell you, girls."
"Leave them while you're still looking good!" chorused A.A. and Lili, laughing. For the millionth time in her twelve years, A.A. felt relieved and happy that her mother was so much fun, more of a friend than a mom. It was so easy to talk to her. Everything was better when Jeanine was home -- even if she did insist on redecorating their luxurious penthouse suite way too often. But as long as she didn't let her snooty decorator banish A.A. and Ned's vast video game collection or try to downsize the flat-screen TV in the loft-sized living room, they wouldn't complain.
"So what's been going on at Hogwarts?" her mother asked, pulling the Pucci scarf away from A.A. and tying it in an effortlessly chic headband around her own hair.
"Social Club had its first coed mixer with the Gregory Hall boys," Lili told her, "which I pretty much organized -- "
"Pretty much nearly murdering Ashley at the same time," interrupted A.A., and then they both scrambled to fill Jeanine in on the crazy events of just a week ago. The vanilla cupcakes Lili ordered had triggered Ashley Spencer's serious nut allergy, and she'd ended up unconscious on the dance floor.
No one had known about Ashley's allergy, except A.A., who'd only remembered Ashley's secret when Ashley wannabe and terminal dork Lauren Page had asked if Ashley happened to be allergic to anything. If it hadn't been for quick thinking on Lauren's part, Lili would be facing a future in juvenile hall rather than Groton.
"Sounds like you all owe this girl Lauren," said Jeanine. Outside, a light rain pattered against the tiles of the terrace, and she reached for the remote control, instantly conjuring up a flickering fire in the white granite fireplace.
A.A. and Lili exchanged glances: That climber Lauren was still in social Siberia -- that is, unless the Ashleys decided otherwise. Lili and A.A. were neutral on the subject, and Ashley had had other things on her mind since the dance.
Namely one other thing. Namely Tri Fitzpatrick. The boy that A.A. had known forever, her video-game buddy. The boy who was the cutest (and shortest) seventh grader at Gregory Hall. The boy who was supposed to be crushing on her, not on Ashley. Not that she was interested in him, so why did it bother her so much that he'd finally found someone who returned his affections?
"Anyway, Lauren's old news. Everyone's talking about something else now," A.A. told her mother. "At the beginning of this week, the weirdest thing happened."
"There's this new blog," Lili chimed in, her voice as animated as her face. "Nobody knows who's behind it!"
"But it's someone at our school, that much is obvious." A.A. pulled off her cashmere socks and wriggled her bare toes.
"It's like Facebook," Lili added breathlessly. "You have to check it every day, or every hour, or every five minutes!"
"Everyone's saying we're the ones who did it, but it's not true," A.A. said, looking at Lili, who shook her head vehemently.
"What are you girls talking about?" Jeanine asked, emptying her giant makeup bag onto the polished wood floor and grabbing a Chanel nail polish bottle before it rolled away.
"It's called AshleyRank," A.A. explained. "That's why everyone thinks the Ashleys started it."
"All the seventh-grade girls are ranked according to how cute and popular they are. Totally addictive. You know," Lili smirked, "like watching Shark Week. A feeding frenzy. Who gets to rule the ocean -- or in this case, seventh grade." She reached into her beige Fendi Spy bag and retrieved her Blackberry, frowning a little as she tapped on the miniature screen. "Here it is. AshleyRank, one through thirty-six.
"Cass Franklin is number thirty-six," Lili said, her voice full of pity and condescension. She didn't have to check the blog again because she'd already memorized the key details.
"That's the girl I told you about," A.A. said to her mom. "The one who should be living in a plastic bubble. She has to keep an oxygen tank in her bag in case of emergency."
Jeannine looked concerned. "Ho...