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Eleven years ago
Meredith Palmer spent the afternoon of her seventeenth birthday curled up on her narrow bed, sobbing uncontrollably. Everything about her life was a disaster. It was never going to be better-and what if she was one of the unlucky people who peaked in her teenage years? What if this was the best it was going to be?
Seriously, she should just throw herself out her dorm room window and be done with it. Of course, she was only on the fourth floor, so she was not going to actually kill herself. The most likely event was maiming.
She sat up and wiped her face. "Given the distance to the ground and the speed at impact," she murmured to herself, then sniffed. "Depending on my position-" She reached for a piece of paper. "If I fell feet firstunlikely, but it could happen-then the majority of the stress would be on my-"
She started doing the calculations. Bone density versus a hard concrete landing or a softer grass landing. Assuming a coefficient of-
Meri threw down the pencil and paper and collapsed back on her bed. "I'm a total freak. I'll never be anything but a freak. I should be planning my death, not doing math. No wonder I don't have any friends."
The sobs returned. She cried and cried, knowing that there was no cure for her freakishness. That she was destined to be one of those scary solitary people.
"I'll have to get cats," she cried. "I'm allergic to cats." The door to her room opened. She kept her face firmly in her pillow.
"I don't think so."
That voice. She knew that voice. The owner was the star of every romantic and semisexual fantasy she'd ever had. Tall, with dark hair and eyesthe color of the midnight sky-assuming one was away from the city, where the ambient light emitted enough of a-
Meri groaned. "Someone just kill me now." "No one's going to kill you," Jack said as he sat next to her on her bed and put a strong, large hand on her back. "Come on, kid. It's your birthday. What's the problem?"
How much time did he have? She could make him a list. Given an extra forty-five seconds, she could index it, translate it into a couple of languages, then turn it into computer code.
"I hate my life. It's horrible. I'm a freak. Worse, I'm a fat, ugly freak and I'll always be this way."
She heard Jack draw in a breath.
There were a lot of reasons she was totally in love with him. Sure, he was incredibly good-looking, but that almost didn't matter. The best part of Jack was he took time with her. He talked to her as if she was a real person. Next to Hunter, her brother, she loved Jack more than anyone.
"You're not a freak," he said, his voice low. She noticed he didn't say she wasn't fat. There was no getting around the extra forty pounds on her five-foot-two inch, small-boned frame. Unfortunately he also didn't tell her she wasn't ugly. Jack was kind, but he wasn't a liar.
Between her braces and her nose-which rivaled the size of Io, one of Jupiter's moons-and her blotchy complexion, she had a permanent offer from the circus to sign on up for the sideshow.
"I'm not normal," she said, still speaking into her pillow because crying made her puffy and she didn't need for Jack to see her looking even more hideous. "I was planning my death and instead I got caught up in math equations. Normal people don't do that."
"You're right, Meri. You're not normal. You're way better than that. You're a genius. The rest of us are idiots."
He wasn't an idiot. He was perfect. "I've been in college since I was twelve," she mumbled. "That's five years. If I was really smart, I'd be done now."
"You're getting a Ph.D., not to mention your, what, third masters?" "Something like that." Unable to be in the same room with him and not look at him, she flipped onto her back.
God, he was so amazing, she thought as her chest tightened and her stomach turned over a couple of times. Technically the organ in question couldn't turn over. What she felt was just-
She covered her face with her hands. "I have to find a way to turn off my brain."
"Why? So you can be like the rest of us?"
She dropped her hands to her side. "Yes. I want to be a regular girl."
That chased off boys. It was how she looked. How she'd allowed food to be everything, especially after her mom died four years ago. It was turning down her father's badly worded offer to take her to a plastic surgeon to talk about her nose. She screamed that if he really loved her, he would never, ever talk about it again, when in truth she was scared. Scared of changing and scared of being the same.
She stood and stared at the closed dorm room door. "I hate you, Jack," she said as tears slipped down her cheeks. "I hate you and I'll make you suffer. I'm going to grow up and be so beautiful you have to sleep with me. Then I'm going to walk away and break your heart. Just watch me."