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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 betterand 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 happenthen 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 eyes the color of the midnight skyassuming 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 nosewhich rivaled the size of Io, one of Jupiter's moonsand 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."
"Sorry. You're stuck being special."
She loved him so much it hurt. She wanted him to think she was more than his best friend's kid sister. She wanted him to see her as a woman.
Right, and while she was having a fantasy moment
maybe he could see her as a beautiful woman he ached for. As if!
"I don't have any friends," she said as she did her best to ignore the need to tell him she would love him forever. "I'm too young, especially in the Ph.D. program. They all think I'm some upstart kid. They're waiting for me to crash and burn."
"Which isn't going to happen."
"I know, but between my academic isolation and my lack of a female role model since the death of my mother, the odds of my maturing to a normal functioning member of society grow more slim each day. Like I saidI'm a freak." Tears rolled down her temples to get lost in her hair. "I'll never have a boyfriend."
"Give it a couple of years."
"It's not going to happen. And even if some guy does take pity on me and ask me out, he'll have to be drunk or stoned or something to want to kiss me, let alone have sex with me. I'm going to d-die a virgin."
The sobs began again.
Jack pulled her into a sitting position and wrapped his arms around her. "Hell of a birthday," he said.
"Tell me about it."
She snuggled close, liking how strong and muscular he felt. He smelled good, too. If only he were desperately in love with her, the moment would be perfect.
But that was not meant to be. Instead of declaring undying devotion and ripping off both their clothes or even kissing her, he shifted back so they weren't even touching.
"Meri, you're in a tough place right now. You don't fit in here and you sure don't fit in with kids your own age."
She wanted to protest she was almost his agethere were only four years between themand she fit with him just fine. But Jack was the kind of guy who had dozens of women lining up to be with him. Pretty, skinny girls she really, really hated.
"But you're going to get through this and then life is going to be a whole lot better."
"I don't think so. Freakishness doesn't just go away." He reached out and touched her cheek. "I have high hopes for you."
"What if you're wrong? What if I do die a virgin?" He chuckled. "You won't. I promise."
"It's what I'm good at."
He leaned toward her, and before she knew what he was going to do, he kissed her. On the mouth!
She barely registered the soft, warm pressure of his lips on hers and then the kiss was over.
"No!" She spoke without thinking and grabbed the front of his sweatshirt. "Jack, no. Please. I want you to be my first time."
She'd never seen a man move so fast. One second he was on her bed, the next he was standing by the door to her dorm room.
Shame and humiliation swept through her. She would have given a hundred IQ points to call those words back. Heat burned her cheeks until she knew she would be marked by the embarrassment forever.
She'd never meant him to know. He'd probably guessed she had a massive crush on him, but she'd never wanted him to be sure.
He shook his head. "Meri, I'm sorry. You're
you're Hunter's little sister. I could never
I don't see you like that."
Of course not. Why would he want a beast when there were so many beauties throwing themselves at him?
"I understand. Everything. Just go."
He started to leave, then turned back. "I want us to be friends. You're my friend, Meri." And with those horrifying words, he left.
Meri sat on the edge of her bed and wondered when she would stop hurting so much. When would she fit in?
When would she stop loving Jack? When would she be able to walk in a room and not wish for the floor to open up and swallow her whole?
Automatically she reached under her bed and pulled out the plastic storage container filled with her snacks. After grabbing a frosted cupcake, she unwrapped it.
This was itshe'd officially hit bottom. Nothing would ever be worse than this exact moment. It was like dark matter in the universe. The absolute absence of anything. It was the death of hope.
She took a bite of the cupcake. Shame made her chew fast and swallow. When the sugar and fat hit her system, she wouldn't hurt so bad. She wouldn't feel so lonely or totally rejected by Jack Howington III. Damn him.
Why couldn't he love her back? She was a good person. But she wasn't busty and blond and tiny, like the girls he dated and slept with.
"I have a brain," she murmured. "That scares guys." She said the words bravely, but she knew it was more than her incredible IQ 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."