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Authors: Whitney Lyles

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BOOK: Love Off-Limits
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Six

Natalie made a conscious effort not to tap her foot on the carpet as she waited for Jo's grandmother, Seto, to finish reading her teacup. Jo sat next to her on the couch, flipping through an
Us Weekly,
occasionally lifting her head to comment on someone's lack of fashion sense.

“Look at what the Olsen twins are wearing in this picture. Would someone please fire their stylist already?”

Natalie had already taken her turn with the magazine while Seto had read Jo's cup. She glanced at the picture, though. “I know. And they have such cute faces. Why do they dress like that?”

Having Seto read one's cups was the ultimate treat. It wasn't often that Natalie met people who could see the future, and Seto was a master as far as she was concerned. They always had to wait for Seto to offer her services. According to Jo it was rude to ask to have your cups read. When Seto did offer to read their cups, which was once every few months, it was like the best day of the month. They always invited Vincent to join them, but he said he'd rather not know. He said that hearing things in advance might change the way you act and it could affect the future. His thinking made sense to Natalie, but she still couldn't resist peeking ahead. She'd never been one to wait until Christmas Day to see her gifts for the first time. She hated suspense.

Seto and Jo referred to the fortunetelling custom as “reading cups” or “reading tea leaves,” but Natalie never saw any leaves in there. After she managed to get the tea down her throat, Seto flipped the cup over, and what looked like mud streaked the inside of the special porcelain cup in veiny little rivulets. The muddy mess inside spelled out Natalie's fortune.

Today, Jo didn't seem happy with her
fortune. Jo always wanted Seto to focus on her love life. When Seto revealed that the cup said there was someone out there for Jo, a smile had flashed across Jo's face. However, when Seto said “but,” the smile quickly faded. Seto proceeded to share that Jo wasn't ready for “this someone.” It was going to take time. “How much time?” Jo had wanted to know. But Seto had only given the vague answer that it all depended on Jo. Natalie had hoped Seto would be a little more specific when it was her turn.

The tea had tasted like dirt mixed with a strong dose of herbal vitamins. Natalie often thought it would taste like a vitamin if you chewed it. Not to mention the tea was loaded with caffeine and always left the girls wired out of their minds for the remainder of the day.

After she'd taken the last sip of tea, she'd prayed for answers about her complicated love life, her job at the school newspaper, and whether or not her parents would find out that she'd failed a recent geometry test. Then she'd watched Seto, looking for signs of worry. A hard one to read, Seto always examined the mug with her eyebrows slightly raised, occasionally letting out little
interested sounds as if she were either pleased by what she saw or totally puzzled. Natalie could never tell. A knot tightened in her stomach, and she understood why Vincent avoided the tradition.

As Natalie waited for Seto to finish, she tried to read her for any clues as to what she saw in there. Would Seto really tell her if disaster was on the horizon? Would she say, “You're going to end up heartbroken and alone for the rest of your life. Scandal is waiting”? It was Seto. She'd practically become a surrogate grandmother to Natalie. Chances were she would sugarcoat the reading a little.

Finally Seto spoke. A native of Iran, she had a thick accent. “This is very good.” She pointed a wrinkled finger inside the cup. “You see. You have the lion's head in here. This shows strength. You are very strong. It is a very good sign. You are powerful and you can do anything you vant to do.”

Natalie and Jo exchanged excited glances. So far Natalie liked it.

Seto continued. “You have been very vorried lately. You vorry about yourself and other people too. But maybe you think too much. Maybe you think too hard. You know
vhat I mean?” She looked up at Natalie.

Natalie nodded.

“You don't need to vorry so much. Let some things go.”

Now Seto was starting to sound like her mother. Natalie knew she worried way too much.

“I see a young man in here. No wait, two young men. They care for you and you care for them too. Very much.” Natalie felt a chill run up her spine. Two guys? How would Seto know this? There was no way Seto could know how she felt about Matt. She'd only admitted it to herself less than an hour ago, and even if she had known all along, this was so top secret. She wouldn't even let Prints William in on this one.

Seto continued. “It's confusing to you. But don't vorry. Everything vill be fine. One of the boys is a someone who likes you…vhat do you call him? A hidden admirer?”

Natalie and Jo chuckled. “You mean a secret admirer, Seto?”

“Yes, secret admirer.”

Well, now Natalie knew it couldn't be Matt. He'd always acted as though Jeremy and Natalie were a match made in heaven. He wasn't attracted to Natalie.

“He may give you something you can hold in your hand.” Seto sat up and leaned forward as though something important was coming. “Be careful. You try very hard to balance things, but something might be hard to balance. Just be careful.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just, you know, vatch what you do.” Seto handed the cup to Natalie. “All right, now I vant you to turn the cup upside down and make your vish.”

Natalie took the cup and turned it upside down onto the saucer. She thought about what she wanted to wish for. Clarity. Peace of mind. The vision to figure out what she should do with her crazy love life.

Seto looked in the cup, and then at Natalie. “I see you have made your vish, and you vill get him.”

Him? Had she subconsciously been wishing for him…meaning Matt? She didn't even want to think about the answer.

Natalie noticed Jo raise her eyebrows. “Him?”

Natalie shrugged, then thanked Seto for the reading.

Seto was the coolest grandma, and Jo's whole family was pretty cool too, for that
matter. Jo's older sister, Sam, was off at college. Her parents traveled the world constantly, leaving Jo in the care of Seto. Seto was kind and funny, and best of all she went to bed early. Whenever they spent the night, they had Jo's whole mansion to themselves.

Natalie's family life couldn't be more opposite. Her parents never went out of town. Grandma Jones dominated the remote control and snored so loud a neighbor once complained. Her brothers were hooligans. Throw Prints William and the cat into the mix, and it was an insane asylum.

After Seto was finished reading their cups, Jo and Natalie made sundaes and watched a rerun of
My Super Sweet 16
with no interruptions.
Paradise.
Going to Jo's house was like going to a fancy resort—not that Natalie knew what it would be like to go somewhere fancy. But the high ceilings and polished hardwood floors were extravagant. Their front door alone was taller than the first story of Natalie's house, and they had glass cabinets, and frescoes painted over their ceilings. Everything was clean and clutter-free at Jo's. At Natalie's house, fur and her brothers' dirty cleats could always be found on their stained carpet.

“So, announcements for the Howl at the Moon court will come out tomorrow,” Jo said.

“I know.”

“Don't be so glum. Do you know how many girls would kill to be in your position?”

“I know, but it's just hard to explain. I mean, I still really care about Jeremy, but I'm telling you, I just don't know if he's the right guy for
me.
Sometimes I just think we're kind of opposite. We might be better off just being friends.” She thought for a moment. “But then on the other hand, maybe I'd really miss him if I broke up with him.”

“Maybe you just need to take a break from him. Just see what it's like without him for a couple weeks. You guys spend so much time together. I bet you'd really miss him.”

Natalie shook her head. “I can't take a break from him.”

“Why not?” Jo licked the back of her spoon.

“Because it would be so cruel. He's so sad about his parents. I know he doesn't show it a lot to everyone else, but he really is sad. Then with the nominations coming
out…I feel like I'll be letting him down. It would be such a blow.”

Jo's spoon was noisy as she scooped up another bite of ice cream. “I see what you're saying. But maybe you could wait till after the dance. It's only right around the corner. I mean, if you're that torn, it's not fair for you to be unhappy just for someone else's happiness.”

“I just don't think I could stand to see him so sad. And to think that it would be my fault.” Natalie glanced at the clock. “I should go. I have so much homework.” She carried her empty ice cream dish to the kitchen.

“Me too,” Jo said. “I have a paper due tomorrow.
The Great Gatsby,”
she said, and groaned.

Jo walked Natalie to the driveway.

“Tell Seto thanks again for reading my cups.”

“Is there a crush you're not telling me about?” Jo grinned mischievously.

“No.” Natalie played it cool. It wasn't a lie. What was the harm in thinking he was cute? And okay, maybe smart and insightful. And creative. And funny.

“I was just thinking again about Seto's
reading. Two guys that you care about? And your wish at the end? Who are you wishing for?”

Natalie smiled. “C'mon, they're just teacups. As of right now there is only one guy in my life.” She felt weird keeping her secret from her best friend.

“The cups never lie.”

Natalie believed her, mostly because before Seto had come to live with Jo's family, Seto had lived in New York and had been bombarded night and day by people seeking truths about the future. Part of the reason Seto had moved was to be with her family, but also to get away from her millions of clients. Jo had told Natalie stories about how Seto had warned people against danger, and when they didn't listen, the danger had come true. Natalie thought about the warning to be careful of juggling too much. Was she talking about the column? Or her love life? Or everything?

What's more important? Loyalty or love?

Member: Up All Night

Advanced Member

So it's midnight and I have a question for the world. When it comes to love, does
loyalty come first? Are certain people off-limits? For instance, do guys pick their best friends before girls? Or would they pick a girl before their best friend? Just something that's been on my mind lately. Curious as to thoughts on this. All right, if I'm ever going to make it to first period without detention I have to hit the hay. Good night, all.

Even putting that question out there made her feel so shady. She wasn't seriously considering the notion of ever going for Matt. She was curious and not just for herself. She wondered what other people would say or do. It was an interesting and debatable topic. One of the reasons she liked Romeohelpme so much was that she could start conversations with her peers. Maybe she could see things from a different perspective.

Natalie couldn't sleep; she lay in bed listening to Alicia Keys on her iPod and wondering if anyone had replied to her post. Once she put her words out there for everyone to read, it almost became an addiction to see the replies. She loved getting messages. After thirty minutes of tossing and turning, she flipped on her light switch. Then she logged on to the website.

Member: Dragon Guy

Advanced Member

RE: What's more important? Loyalty or love?

Bros before hos baby. That's all I have to say.

Real nice.

Member: Glamour Girl

Advanced Member

RE: What's more important? Loyalty or love?

I think it would depend on the situation. It would depend on how serious the relationship was to begin with. If it was just casual dating then I think it would be okay, but if it was your boyfriend's best friend then no—off-limits for sure.

Several responses followed in the same vein as Glamour Girl. People agreed—it all just depended on the situation. The truth was, Natalie didn't even know the situation. Until his parents had split up, Jeremy had seemed as though he were drifting from her a little too. Then all of a sudden he seemed like he wanted to be closer than ever.

Member: Skater Chick

Newbie

RE: What's more important? Loyalty or love?

Dragon Guy, you're an idiot. If you really like someone in the long run, does it matter? People should just do whatever they want and not worry about what everyone else thinks. Take a look at all the great leaders and artists. You think they didn't follow their hearts?

Natalie closed out her computer screen. Maybe Skater Chick was right. Or maybe she was wrong. Was it selfish not to care about what other people thought? She had a topic for another post.

Seven

“So, Vincent and I are going to the dance together for the third year in a row.” Jo swung her dark hair over her shoulders. Natalie sensed the disappointment in her best friend's voice. Though loyal and an awesome friend, Vincent wasn't exactly Jo's idea of a romantic date. It was no secret that he'd had a crush on Jo since they were riding tricycles. However, the feeling wasn't mutual.

“Well, Vincent is always a blast. You know you'll have fun, at least.” Natalie had always been cheering for Vincent.

Jo shrugged. “True. Maybe I'll make it to senior prom next year with someone I actually like. I think I'll die boyfriendless.” Jo sighed. “Destined to be single forever.”

“You know you could have a boyfriend in one second if you wanted one.”

“Like who?”

“Like Vinny.”

“I love Vincent to death, but just not in that way,” Jo said.

Natalie had heard this a million times. She sort of understood why Jo had her reservations about him. He was different from the rest of the guys they hung out with. For example, Vincent was in the drama club and loved musicals. He would gladly go see romantic comedies, and he always had an opinion about the way the girls did their hair. He just seemed to notice more details than most guys they knew. But it was really cool. He just wasn't afraid to be himself. He liked the things he liked, even if they weren't categorized specifically to his gender. Natalie thought it was great. It seemed like girls had so many more options these days. For instance, take Danica Patrick. No one said she was weird because she raced cars. But if you put a guy in a leotard everyone raised their eyebrows. Why were people so weird? Natalie just didn't get it. She was proud of Vincent for being himself.

He wasn't exactly the kind of guy Natalie
pictured slaying dragons to rescue the princess. If he ever wanted to win Jo, he would have to be a dragon slayer. Jo was looking for the fairy-tale love life. But the funny thing was, Vincent was perfect for her and she didn't even see it. They both shared a killer sense of style. Jo's dream was to become a fashion designer or interior decorator. She had a bold slant to her wardrobe and tended to wear things that Natalie would've never had the guts to try on. She was always volunteering for design committees on campus. If there were dances to decorate or homecoming floats to make, she would lead the committee. It was all the same stuff Vincent liked too. They both had a unique appreciation for art.

“He's coming. He's coming…” Jo's whisper sounded rushed and nervous.

Natalie knew it was Brian Gonzalez before she even spotted his perfect teeth and deep-set coffee-colored eyes heading their way The whole reason Jo walked with Natalie to fourth period was so Jo could have a “Brian sighting.” There was a much faster way for Jo to get to Drawing and Painting. However, once Natalie had informed her that she passed Brian Gonzalez every day
in between third and fourth periods, Jo had taken a detour from her Drawing and Painting route and joined Natalie in between classes.

Brian Gonzalez had been Jo's biggest crush since high school had started. She'd even confessed that she'd prayed every single night of the summer for Brian to be in at least one of her classes—except PE—come fall.

He approached quickly. Natalie noticed Jo straighten her back and run her fingers through her hair.

“Hey, Jo.” He flicked his chin when he saw her. “What's up?”

“Nothing,” she said, producing a nervous smile. The whole encounter lasted less than five seconds, and as soon as he was gone Jo groaned. She turned to Natalie.

“I hate the question ‘what's up?'” she said. “I never know what to say. Did he want a whole synopsis of my day, or was I supposed to tell him what I was doing at that exact moment? What do you normally say when people ask you what's up?”

Natalie had never thought about this before. “I don't know. I guess it just depends on the situation. If you called me on the
phone and asked me what's up, I would probably give
you
a synopsis of my day. But yeah, I could see how it would be awkward if someone asked you in passing.”

“What should I have said? ‘Nothing' sounds so boring. I probably sounded like such a dork. I wish I could've said something wonderful and mind-blowing. Did I sound like an idiot?”

“I think he's probably forgotten by now. And I think you answered just fine. I would've said the same thing.”

“Really? You swear?”

“Yes. It would've been worse if you had said, ‘Oh, just heading to Drawing and Painting to get out my oils and work on the latest still life.'”

Jo cracked up. “True.”

“Or what if you had said, ‘The only thing that's up is my love for you, Brian. Do you want to go to prom?'”

Jo laughed some more.

They'd come to the fork in their route. Vincent would swoop in at any moment and walk with Jo the rest of the way to Drawing and Painting. His photography class was next door.

“Hey, Vincent,” Natalie said.

He had an excited grin on his face. “Guess what?”

“What?” The girls waited for him to answer.

“I just got the lead in
South Pacific
!” His dark eyes lit up.

He looked sharp in his distressed jeans and black-and-purple button-down shirt. He'd left the shirt untucked, and a black straight leather tie completed the look. His mom was a hairdresser at a chic salon downtown and he always had fantastic haircuts. He looked like a rock star. One month he'd be very Pete Wentz, and a few months later he'd be like Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers.

They took a couple seconds to congratulate their friend before Natalie said good-bye and headed for class.

Just as she was walking away a hand slipped into her own. Before she could even whip around to see its owner, she knew it was Jeremy. They always crossed paths between third and fourth periods. He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She caught a whiff of him—his Jeremy scent. She used to love the smell of his shampoo and something else she couldn't define. He'd often
left sweatshirts in her car, and she'd wear them to bed at night, smelling his eau de Jeremy. In a way she wanted that excitement back. She wanted to be happy to wear his sweatshirts again. Wouldn't life be far less complicated?

“Second year in a row! Howl at the Moon Court.” He gave her a high five with his free hand. Seeing him excited made her happy. “Maybe we'll actually win this time.” He smiled at her mischievously. “Jo already told you, didn't she?”

“No way!” She was a terrible liar, and she could tell by the way he laughed that he knew she was lying. “Jo? Tell me? She would never do something like that.”

“You girls. You don't keep anything from each other, do you? Is anything off-limits?”

She swallowed. “Some things are.”

“Oh, before I forget. I made you something in wood shop today.”

“You did?”

He pulled out a small wooden key chain shaped like a butterfly. The wings were crooked and uneven, but it was sweet and had a very rustic, cool look. A flower from the bank and now a handmade key chain from him?

“Thank you! That's so nice of you.”

They slowed down at his math class. “I'll call you later,” he said as he let go of her hand.

“We have to start shopping for costumes.”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Who knows. Maybe this will be our year.” As he walked away, he raised his arms in triumph.

 

After Natalie got home from school, she had the lovely task of walking Prints William. Grandma Jones explained her lungs couldn't take the stress of a walk, and it was also better if the dog peed on someone else's grass. As compensation, Grandma Jones paid Natalie five bucks a walk. Since Natalie didn't have any income to speak of, thirty-five dollars a week wasn't bad. It didn't fill her gas tank, but it got her to Cold Stone and school.

Many of the neighbors had already begun decorating their yards for Halloween. Plastic skeletons dangled from trees, and about five houses down from Natalie a gigantic blow-up pumpkin covered the neighbors' lawn. For a number of reasons she was sort of looking forward to walking the dog. She
liked looking at all the decorations, and she knew it was terrible, but Matt lived a few blocks over. She'd even taken an extra minute to primp before she'd left.

Grandma Jones had asked her why she was putting on lip gloss to walk the dog. Actually, “What the hell are you doing?” had been her exact words. “Putting on makeup to watch Prints William poop on the neighbors' lawn? You must really need some excitement in your life. Why don't you put on makeup for that cute boyfriend of yours? Now, that would be fun.”

Natalie had ignored her. However, as she recalled the encounter she wondered if Grandma Jones was right. Maybe what she'd said explained everything about her attraction to Matt. Maybe her life really was just boring. Maybe she had a suppressed need for excitement. Was she only using Matt as a way to spice up her route with Prints William and her mundane school days?

She was heading toward Matt's block at a brisk pace when she noticed a tug on the leash. She turned around to find Prints William lifting his three-inch leg right in front of the Scary Neighbors yard. She always felt uncomfortable whenever he took
care of business in anyone's yard, but the Scary Neighbors' yard was the worst. It was the house that never passed out candy on Halloween and had a broken brick wall that looked like actual tombstones all year round—not the fake seasonal ones with cute names that many of her neighbors had decorated their yards with for Halloween. The Scary Neighbors had beat-up cars and dark circles under their eyes.

While she waited for Prints William to pee on their dead grass, she had visions of being attacked with an ax. They didn't seem like the type of people who would understand a little dog sprinkle on their lawn.

“C'mon, Prints,” she said quietly. She tugged on the leash, but he still kept peeing, leaving a trail of pee behind him. She felt guilty about dragging him like a rag while he tried to relieve himself. But it was for their own good. If the dog wanted to live, he could suffer for the moment. Relief washed over her when he quit peeing. But her relief faded fast when the dog assumed squat position. She tugged again, hoping she might be able to drag him to the next yard—a landscape filled with lush greenery and a colorful welcome sign that
read
AUTUMN IS THE SEASON TO GIVE THANKS!
But when she pulled on Prints William, he only left a trail of sausagelike poop all over the dead grass, making it worse—and harder to clean up. He looked pathetic being dragged along in squat mode. She figured the best thing to do now was hurry. She shoved her hand inside her pocket for the poop bag she'd brought along with her, only the poop bag wasn't there. She shoved her hand into the other pocket—empty. As she turned out her empty pockets, her heart skipped a beat. She could've sworn she saw the Scary Neighbors' curtain move. Someone was watching her.

The dog, oblivious to her panic, took his time. A rough voice emerged from inside the house. “Get your pooper-scooper! Don't even think about leaving here until you get that poop scooped up! Don't make me come out there!” It was male and sounded like it had spent many days inhaling cigars. She pictured him sharpening his ax while she frantically searched for a pooper-scooper.

Her heart shot into overdrive. She looked around for the voice but there was no one. Did she yell back and sweetly explain that she forgot her pooper-scooper and she'd
come back with a weapon and her parents to clean it up? Or did she run for her life?

“Hey, Nat.” She'd been so scared she hadn't even heard the engine idling behind her. But she instantly recognized the voice. She spun around and faced Matt, who had an elbow dangling from the side of his truck. He looked happy to see her. If he only knew how happy she was to see him. The only thing she scooped up was Prints William. She ran to the passenger side of his car and jumped in.

“Wait! You little—” She slammed the door before she heard the rest of what Raspy Voice had to say.

She looked at Matt. “Drive.”

Matt hit the gas and they were off.

“What was that all about?” Matt asked. “Why were you hanging out in front of the Scary Neighbors' yard?”

She told him all about Prints William deciding to relieve himself in front of the Scary Neighbors. Matt laughed most of the way to her house. “Well, I guess my timing was perfect.”

“Thank God you came. They probably would've eaten me for dinner. I can never, ever walk past their house again. They will kill me.”

Matt laughed again. “I don't think they'll kill you. But maybe you should make them some cookies to make up for it,” he said jokingly. His hair was damp and his eyes looked a little red and bluer than usual. Salt water had this effect on eyes.

“Did you go surfing?” she asked.

He nodded. “I needed a little break.”

“You work on the paper a lot.”

Prints William put his hind legs on Natalie's lap and propped his front paws on the window. The dog panted as he viewed the scenery outside.

“I think he's looking to see if we're being chased by a man wielding an ax,” Natalie said.

Matt laughed again. “What would you have done if I hadn't come?”

“Run for my life.”

“You wouldn't have picked it up with your hand? What kind of a neighbor are you?”

“Ewwww!”

“You know I'm kidding.”

“Seriously, I think you may have just saved my life.” She was just starting to relax a little when she became very aware of the odor in the car, and it wasn't coming from
Matt. She immediately recognized Prints William's fish-butt breath. Worse, it was starting to fog up the windows.

As this horror occurred to her Matt turned the dial on the defroster to high. Then he rolled down his window. What if he thought it was her breath that smelled? Not only did she have mozzarella-crust mouth, but horrendous breath as well? A real princess he'd rescued here. As if he'd ever see her as kissing material. She had to say something.

BOOK: Love Off-Limits
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