Chapter 17

I didn't walk away too far, though. Just about everybody in the gym had seen what happened, and when Mr. Scott, the principal, came racing up, about 10 people immediately pointed to me. Thanks, guys.

Five minutes later, I found myself sitting in Mr. Scott's office, a room I'd never visited in my four years at the school. Mr. Scott had sighed and told me to wait for him while he went to see to Jessica.

I'd never been in trouble at school before, so I was a little concerned, but I have to admit I didn't particularly care. Seeing all that blood messing up Jessica's carefully made-up face was well worth whatever punishment I faced. I highly doubted they'd expel me for a single punch.

I stared at the shiny copper nameplate sitting on Mr. Scott's desk and found myself giggling as I remembered the cheers and claps I'd gotten as I'd been marched down death row to the office. One girl had even shouted, "Do Heather next!" although it had sounded suspiciously like Sam.

I'd probably completely blown it with Matt now. It had seemed hopeless before, but now that I'd broken his girlfriend's face right before the dance pictures, well… Impossible seemed a more fitting description.

But God, it had felt good. I didn't know if this would make Jessica back off or only make her worse toward me, but at the moment it didn't matter. I would be having wonderful dreams that night. I smiled and sank back in the chair.

Mr. Scott came back in the room, looking flustered. He sat down in his chair, crossed his hands over one another on the desk, and fixed me with a gaze that obviously said he wished he were at home with his wife instead of here with us crazy kids.

"You punched her," he finally said in a monotone.

I tried to look contrite. "Yes."

"She provoked it?"

I nodded.

He narrowed his eyes sternly at me. "Young lady, I hope you realize violence is not permitted at this school. It is not the answer to your problems."

I nodded again, trying to look as if I agreed, when I was actually thinking just the opposite. Every once in a while, violence was exactly the answer.

Mr. Scott sighed. "All right. Detention Monday and Tuesday. Don't do it again." When I just stared at him, he nodded his head in the direction of the door. "You can go now."

I didn't have to be told twice. I bolted for the hallway, feeling light-headed and joyous.

That was it? Two detentions? I needed to punch people more often.

I began walking back toward the dance through the darkened hallway, feeling the overwhelming need to find Sam and gloat. I didn't even notice the person standing in the shadows of the doorway across from the principal's office as I walked past.

"Natalie."

I gasped and spun around, half expecting to find a hairsprayed mob waiting for me. "Matt! You scared me."

"Sorry." He came toward me, and I realized he had a few blood stains splattered on the gray-blue shirt he wore. Despite that, I couldn't help noticing the shirt perfectly matched his eyes. I'm sick, sick I tell you.

I nodded at the bloodstains. "Get your girlfriend taken care of?"

He stopped and looked down at his shirt, then shrugged. "They took her to the hospital."

I crossed my arms over my chest and gave him what I hoped was a stony gaze. "Well, if you're expecting me to say I'm sorry, I'm not. She deserved it."

He shook his head, brushing his blond hair out of his eyes. "I just wanted to see if you were okay."

"I'm fine," I said coldly. "What do you care anyway? Shouldn't you be at the hospital? She told me all about your plans tonight. I'm sure you'd hate to miss them."

His eyes flashed. "What about you and loverboy? I'm sure you have plans of your own."

I put my hands on my hips and glared at him. "Nothing like yours, apparently. I saw you and Jessica pawing each other all week. Why didn't you just get a room?" To my surprise, tears stung my eyes, and I turned around quickly before he could see them. "I don't want to talk to you. Go away." My voice cracked, and I hoped he didn't notice.

Silence. I glanced over my shoulder and saw he was still standing there, so I decided I would be the one to go away. I strode as quickly as I could back to the gym. He didn't follow me, though he could've caught me easily if he'd wanted.

Sam came running over as I entered.

"Nat," she cried, eyes wide, as she grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the others. "How much trouble are you in? Did they kick you out of school? Oh my God, I want to see that again."

Over Sam's shoulder, I could see Matt joining another group of people across the dance floor. I sighed, feeling suddenly tired.

"Detention, Sam. That's it." I sighed again.

Her smile got even bigger, if that was possible. She let go of my arm to let me sit at the table, but she sat right next to me and leaned toward me. "Best. Dance. Ever. I wish I had a camera. The look on Jessica's face after you hit her was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

The others at the table smiled and nodded, and Brad said, "I didn't think you had it in you, Nat."

I looked down at my swollen knuckles, then around the table at my friends, and suddenly Matt didn't seem so important. So I didn't get the guy of my dreams… It wasn't that big of a deal. I had my friends, I was almost finished with high school, and now I also had the respect of half the school. Despite the disasters my life had devolved into, sticking up for myself had not been one of them.

I leaned back in the chair and smiled ruefully at everyone. "Jessica didn't either."

I was going to enjoy this dance, with or without Matt, I decided. And I did, for about an hour. It was nice sitting around and talking, without any hidden little plans dancing about in my head. Sam and Trevor seemed to get along great, and I was really happy for them. To think, I could have ruined that by pushing her on Jeremy.

Speaking of Jeremy, he'd gone to the bathroom a while before and hadn't come back yet. I turned around in my chair to look for him, just in time to see two people enter from outside.

"Oh my God," I breathed. "I can't believe it."

Sam, who'd been talking to Trevor, turned to me. "What?"

I nodded toward the entrance. "She came back."

Of course Jessica wouldn't miss a social event, broken nose or not. My God, she was like the Energizer bunny. Only evil. I could see her scanning the room, her eyes narrowed to slits over the white bandage on her face. I knew she was looking for me so she could do something horrible. Even worse, other people were staring at her, whispering behind their hands. That would make her want me dead even more.

"Does she just want more punishment?" Jamie, on my other side, asked.

"Or to give it," I said, dry-mouthed.

Sam clapped her hand on my shoulder. "She's not going to try anything, Nat. Besides, you know she wouldn't miss the crowning." She motioned toward the front of the room, where I could see a group of teachers massing with stacks of paper and pens.

"Oh God," I groaned. I'd forgotten all about the Sadie Hawkins king and queen. Those titles hadn't even existed until about two years before. Apparently, they'd decided rubbing these popularity contests in our faces twice a school year wasn't enough. "What other school has a crowning for this dance?"

Sam shrugged and turned back around. "It's all rigged anyway."

At that moment, the art teacher came to our table and handed us pieces of paper and pens. "Just write your vote for king and queen, and I'll be back in five minutes," she said.

We stared at the papers as if they were poisonous. Finally, Jamie sighed and reached for one. "Well, I know who I'm voting for."

Sam smirked. "I'm voting for Natalie."

"What? No!" I could feel my face instantly flush.

"Oh, come on. Why not? You deserve to be queen for the night. It'll be my form of protest."

I sighed. "Sam, there's no point. We already know who's going to win."

She shrugged. "Guess we'll find out."

I shook my head and turned back to the paper. I knew who I didn't want to win, that much was simple. And it really didn't matter who I voted for, but I still felt like I should write down someone who deserved it. So I wrote Sam for queen and, after a moment's hesitation, Matt for king.

Jeremy slid into the seat next to me with a, "What did I miss?"

I shook my head. "Nothing. Believe me."

The art teacher came back around and collected the votes. We waited anxiously for the teachers to tally up the results. Despite our hatred of the whole process, we still had a morbid fascination with it. It was horrifying, really.

Finally, the principal got up on the makeshift stage with a microphone. "All right folks, here's the moment you've all been waiting for." The student activities teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, stood next to him, holding the two crowns.

"Oh my God," Sam said. "Those are the same ones they use for Homecoming!"

I took a closer look and decided she was right. "Boy, they went all out for this, huh?"

Sam pretended to put a crown on her head, then fluttered her hand in front of her mouth and batted her eyelashes. "It's such an honor. I'm going to cry."

I rolled my eyes at her, but looked back at the stage with a grin.

"Okay, here we go. Your Sadie Hawkins king for this year …" He leaned forward and grinned at us, waiting until someone yelled "Come on!" to continue. PrinciPAL, my ass. "Matt Taylor! Come up here, Matt."

I clapped, truly happy for him. He walked onto the stage with a big smile, and I could see that his face was a little pink. Mrs. Sweeney put the crown on his head, and he turned toward the crowd and made a wide, dramatic bow, which made the crown fall off. The crowd laughed, and he grinned and picked up the crown, putting it on again.

Sam leaned toward me and whispered, "Oh my God, Nat, wouldn't it be romantic if you were named queen with Matt?"

"No way!" I hissed. "That won't happen." Damn her, though. As I stared up at the stage, I couldn't help envisioning it. Mr. Scott would announce my name, and I would go up there for my crown, and Matt would be so overjoyed that he would just have to kiss me. It would be perfect.

Yeah right. There was that pesky fact that we weren't really on speaking terms, thanks to my inability to keep my mouth shut when I was around him. And also, I'd never win.

I sighed, watching Matt forlornly, hoping he'd at least look in my direction. He didn't.

"And your queen …" Mr. Scott pulled the paper out of the envelope and paused for a brief second, looking uncertain. I admit, lame as it was, my heart did a little jump at the look on his face. Because my name on that piece of paper would certainly surprise him.

Then he looked up and smiled. "Jessica Marshall." I released the breath I had been holding and turned to Sam with a small smile.

"See. It was always going to be her." I took vengeful joy in the smattering of boos that underlaid the applause, though.

Sam scoffed. "She got the sympathy vote."

"Jessica, are you here?" Mr. Scott asked, obviously assuming she would still be at the hospital. But no – pure evil, remember?

She climbed onto the stage, taking the crown from Mrs. Sweeney's hands and setting it on top of her head. "Thank you everyone," she said into the microphone still in Mr. Scott's hand. Her voice was muffled, thanks to her injury. In the bright spotlight, I could see that her face was swollen and bruised, and I hid a smile. She was tough, you had to give her that.

Mr. Scott shrugged, looking at Jessica incredulously, then said, "All right, then. Time for the royal couple's dance."

Jessica smiled at Matt, or at least I thought it was a smile; it looked more like a grimace. I didn't think she could do it too much without causing a lot of pain. She reached for his arm, and together they walked off the stage, a spotlight following their progress. When they reached the center of the dance floor, Jessica dropped his arm and turned to him.

And he just kept walking.

"What's he doing?" Sam muttered.

"I don't know," I breathed. "But he's coming this way."

Jessica's mouth had fallen open, as much as it could, anyway, and there was a collective gasp. Matt didn't even bother to say anything to her. Instead, his gaze was intent on our corner of the room, which I doubted he could see with the bright spotlight that continued to follow him. I grabbed Sam's arm and squeezed, barely realizing I was doing it.

When he reached us, he stopped in front of me, gazing down at me with a piercing stare. "Nat," he said, his voice hard. "I have to tell you something."

My heart was pumping so quickly, I suddenly worried I might faint. But I pushed myself to a standing position, eyeing him warily, suddenly afraid of what he was going to say. He didn't sound happy, but would he be crazy enough to start a fight with everybody watching? "Okay."

He stared at me a moment longer, then took a deep breath and said, "I'm an idiot."

"Well, yeah, but—"

He interrupted me by grabbing my arms and pulling me to him for a kiss. I had a vague notion that people were talking excitedly around me, and whistles and catcalls were circling the room, but I honestly didn't really notice. A surprised happiness welled up inside of me, so intense that I thought I might burst into tears.

And then Mr. Scott's voice in the microphone: "Um, Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor, if you please. Mr. Taylor, stop."

Matt jumped away from me and spun around, grinning guiltily. I fell helplessly back against the table, a grin of my own spreading across my face. Next to me, Sam giggled and gave me a not-too-surreptitious thumb's up.

"Sorry," Matt called.

Mr. Scott shook his head and waved his hand at the DJ. The spotlight and the lights on the stage flicked off and the music started again. Jessica stood unmoving on the dance floor, her hands clenched at her side, shooting me deathray looks – which weren't nearly as effective with that huge white bandage. Then Rachel and Heather grabbed her arms and pulled her off to the side, Rachel obviously trying not to smile.

Matt turned back to me and held out his hand. "We need to talk."

"No kidding." I took his hand and let him pull me to my feet. He led me across the room to the exit, and I tried to ignore the stares everyone was giving us.

The blast of cold air as I pushed open the door stung my eyes, and I gasped in surprise. I suppose the smart thing would have been to grab our coats first, but hey, you can't tell passion to wait while you get your coat. Matt pulled me over to the bench just outside the exit and we sat down. Out in the parking lot, I could see a few couples standing around talking, but nobody was near enough to identify.

I hugged my arms around myself for warmth. Matt gave me a small smile, then took off his sweater and wrapped it around my shoulders.

No, don't get excited. He had a T-shirt on underneath.

"Thanks," I said quietly, looking at the ground. Now that we were out here alone, I was suddenly too embarrassed to look at him.

He grabbed my hand and squeezed. "Sorry if I embarrassed you back there. I just … I had to do something drastic."

"Drastic? Why?" I forced myself to look at him, and the way he was looking back gave me goose bumps. I'd never seen him look at me like that before.

He shrugged. "Well, I was acting like such a jerk. I didn't think you'd ever forgive me. This whole thing is my fault, really."

I shook my head. "What are you talking about?"

He squeezed my hand again. "Let me tell you a story."

A story. I'd prefer making out, but okay…

"There was this person," he began, "who was in love with this other person. But the other person wasn't interested. So this person pretended to go out with another person to make the first person jealous."

I gave him a blank look. "What are you talking about? What does this have to do with me and Jeremy?"

He smiled slowly and touched my cheek, shaking his head. "I'm not talking about you."

"But …" My mind was slowly turning in my head, but it was so fuzzy from all the events of the night that it wasn't making connections.

"Nat, I was only dating Jessica because nothing else was working. I figured, it worked for you and Jeremy …" His face was growing red, and he looked at the ground, his expression guarded.

My mouth slowly dropped open, but I was so overcome by surprise that I couldn't do anything about it. "You … were trying to make me jealous?"

It had worked!

Matt had begun to look worried. "I'm sorry if I upset you, but I didn't know what else to do. I thought if I helped you with Jeremy, you'd see he wasn't right for you." He snorted. "Boy, did that backfire. I didn't really want to do it, but I had to try Jessica. I knew it would drive you nuts." He shrugged. "I've waited two years for you to notice me. I was desperate." He turned away from me, dropping my hands and looking toward the parking lot. All I could do was stare at his profile as he spoke to me over his shoulder.

I swallowed hard, still unable to talk.

Matt hung his head. "I know you're with Jeremy, but I had to tell you the truth. I couldn't stand Jessica any longer, and as long as I stayed with her, she'd keep tormenting you. Plus," I could tell that he was smiling, even though he wasn't facing me. "I have never been so in love with you as the moment you punched her."

"So you … don't like Jessica?" I said slowly. I had to say it out loud to reinforce it in my brain.

He shook his head and turned back to me. "God, no." Disdain flashed across his face for a brief moment. "It was an act. A lie."

"But," I persisted. "Your journal. You said you couldn't wait to see her."

"My what?"

Oops. I cringed and looked away from him. Probably shouldn't have mentioned that. "I found your journal at your aunt's store. I didn't read all of it, I swear!"

Matt let out a sharp laugh. "And you think I was talking about Jessica?"

"Well… You said you liked her curled hair."

He shook his head, giving me an incredulous look. "Um, hello, what are these?" He tugged one of my own … curls. Oh hell.

I about choked. "But then you were going out with her."

"Lies," he repeated, then slid toward me so he was merely inches from me. My breath caught in my throat as I looked up at him. "No more lies," he breathed. "This is what's real."

He gently placed a hand on each side of my face and pulled me to him, kissing me gently.

It was just like at the ice rink, when he'd pretended to kiss me. Only this time, he definitely wasn't pretending. I could feel it in the growing intensity of his lips on mine, the way his fingers wrapped around my hair and tugged gently. And the way the kiss didn't end after a few seconds.

It seemed we were there like that forever, slowly leaning against each other, oblivious to the snow collecting in our hair and on our shoulders. It was as if something magnetic was drawing us together. I wanted to sink into him, disappear.

And before I knew it, I was pouring everything I'd felt over the past month into the kiss, all the longing, the frustration, the realization too late that it was Matt – had always been Matt – who I wanted to be with. All the times I'd dreamed about kissing Jeremy, none of them even compared to this.

When we finally pulled apart, I was gasping for breath, and even if I'd wanted to walk, I would have been physically incapable. My whole body felt like it was on fire.

There was bit of laughter from some people just leaving the dance, who'd apparently just had quite a show, but I ignored it. Matt's hands were still entwined in my hair, and my fingers were wrapped around his wrists. He stared wonderingly at me.

And I burst into tears.

He yanked his hands back as if he'd been stung.

"I'm sorry." He clumsily pushed away from me, his face deep red. "I'm so sorry."

I hiccupped and grabbed his hand, yanking him back toward me.

"Don't be." I flung my arms around his neck, almost afraid to let go. I didn't want this moment to slip away. "I've been so scared I ruined everything. I was so stupid. And we kept fighting, and I thought I blew it."

His eyes widened. "You mean …"

I nodded. "I feel exactly the same way. In fact, Jeremy and I broke up tonight because even he knew it was you I wanted." I touched his cheek, overjoyed at the fact that I could do it without feeling guilty. "I'm so sorry I was such a jerk."

He grinned and grabbed the hand on his cheek, kissing my fingers gently. "We were both stupid. I should have just asked you out to begin with instead of goading you with the Jeremy thing. I always make things more complicated than they need to be. I guess we both do." He pulled me to him, holding me tightly. "Everything will be simple from now on. Like this." And he kissed me again.

* * *

We walked back into the dance some time later, hands entwined and both of us wearing goofy grins.

It was a fast song, but Matt pulled me to him as if it were a slow one. Over his shoulder, I could see Jeremy watching us, a thoughtful expression on his face. Behind him, Sam was alternately grinning at me and pretending to make out with her hand. I rolled my eyes at her, then grinned back.

"Oh, by the way," Matt said in my ear, releasing me from his arms. "I forgot to tell you something."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "You're not secretly married with 12 kids are you?"

He snorted, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper, handing it to me with a sheepish smile on his face.

I looked at him quizzically, then unfolded the paper and read the first line aloud. "Dear Mr. Taylor." I scanned the rest quickly, then jerked my eyes back to him. "You got into NYU, too?"

He nodded and shrugged.

"But ... Why didn't you tell me?"

He shrugged again. "I guess I was a little preoccupied with being stupid. I figured, I don't care where I go to school, and you're always telling me to do something with my life. So I figured, why not go where you go? I thought I might get into acting." He winked at me. "I seem to be good at it."

I looked at the letter again, awestruck. "This is dated before mine. What if I didn't get in?"

He grinned and tugged at one of my curls affectionately. "I knew you would."

This time it was me who made the move. I pulled him to me and pressed my lips to his.

I had a feeling we would be doing that a lot – and that was okay with me.

For once, my heart knew exactly what it wanted.