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Blue Trace has never been smart about anything. When she meets math prodigy and world-renown artist Dr. Rhys Kennison, she knows she should run. But something about his quiet humor and scintillating touch enthralls her. Soon, they’re falling fast–too fast. And Blue’s never been one to shy away from disaster.

Chapter 1

Taking Up Space

Don’t take up space.
That’s what I’ve always told myself. Not too much—a little girl like you shouldn’t cry too loud, make a sound, speak your truth. Look how pretty you are—delicate as a robin’s egg.
Like the last crayon in the box. Broken into two.
I’m nothing like my sisters—Zi, big-boned, curvy, beautiful in the way her eyes see right into you and understand. Lux with her aloof perfection, always bigger boobs, better hips, prettier lips. They were all I had growing up, all I looked up to. I wanted to be Lux, with Zi’s soul. Other times, when things turned shiny with pain, I wanted to be Zi—too big for someone to hold down, with Lux’s street smarts and harsh logic.
Anything to be like my sisters.
Anything to be nothing like me.
My therapist says that’s the wrong way to think about it. I’m me. Different from them.
But who am I if I’m not my sisters? Straggly red-hair and muddy green eyes…not enough to be noticed. Never enough to be worth it.
Hell, blue may not have even been recognized in art for millennia, until someone noticed the sky has a shade. Look it up—I’m serious. As though the color itself couldn’t be seen, so they had no word for an azure sea.
No word for me.
I’m nobody.
The girl too small to be a woman, too stupid to know any better.
Too crazy to be normal.
And the really scary part: What if they’re right?
Your mid-term grade has fallen below 60%. Please see your instructor immediately.
Your mid-term grade has fallen below 60%. Please see your instructor immediately.
Your mid-term grade has fallen below 60%. Please see your instructor immediately.
Five classes. I’m failing three of them. Introduction to Writing, Pre-Algebra, and History of Western Civilizations. The emails alerting me to my inability to pass even the most basic of classes sit in my inbox, mocking. Why not send one message? Why three? Why keep pounding home the point?
My eyes burn, emotion pushing past the dam, but I sink my teeth into my lip, tasting blood.
“What’s up, Blue Bear?” My sister Lux sinks down behind me on the couch, her shoulder leaning into my back. “You look kerfuzzled.”
I don’t think Lux does that with anyone but me: makes up words. When I was little, she’d read me stories, and when I’d point at the pictures instead of the words, she’d run my fingers after the dark letters, pronouncing each sound so I could hear them. We’d make a game out of using those sounds in nonsense phrases. She would always laugh, a deep, raspy sound, even though she’s only two years older than me. Lux always knew exactly who she was.
I shut my laptop, but when her arm circles my shoulders, I know she spotted the warnings.
“Trouble in academic paradise, Blue Bear? What’s up?”
I shrug her off, standing up as though I’m going to the kitchen. “You want anything?” We’re in her apartment. Well, technically, it’s her and Zi’s apartment, but since Zi’s moved in with her new boyfriend, the place only gets used the days Lux is here. My oldest sister splits her time between here and New York City, both for business reasons—she owns the online dating service Kinked—as well as personal—her boyfriend Fin joins her in the city on weekends. He’s at veterinary school upstate.
Zi’s been pushing me to move in, largely so Lux doesn’t have to maintain the rent herself. She could easily stay with Zi at her new place—or hell, she could even stay with me. Not that she would.
Don’t get me wrong—the apartment offers plenty of space. Two bedrooms, lots of closets. Nice, safe neighborhood, close to everything. Unlike my little shithole.
But I don’t belong. I don’t feel like anything here—the walls blare too white, the carpet too soft, and I’m drowning in beige, tasting vanilla when only cake batter with marshmallows and sprinkles will do. I agreed, however, to try out living here for a week—five days left. And having my oldest sister around is a plus—there’s something to be said for not coming home to an empty space.
Lux being, well, Lux, she follows me into the kitchen. I ignore her while I pour some orange juice, then change my mind and dig out some dates. Medjool are my favorite, and I’m pretty sure Zi drops some in the cupboard every few weeks.
“You want to talk about the problem? Or are you going to keep ignoring reality in hopes it goes away?” She hoists a generous hip over one of the kitchen barstools.
I should talk about this. I can practically hear my therapist whispering in my ear: she’s your sister. She cares. She won’t judge you.
“I’m stupid. We could talk about that.”
My sister doesn’t blink. “Of course. And the part where you’re brilliant. Next?”
I squish the sugary fruit between my teeth, the thin, crispy skin breaking, collapsing, coating my tongue in a rubbery sweetness. The pit interrupts my mindless chewing, and I ease my tongue around the gritty cylinder, cleaning off every tiny piece. I don’t know why I love dates—probably because when we were kids and people bought those dried fruit trays, no one wanted the dates. My friends said they looked like poop, and my sisters always went for the pineapples and the apple rings. I decided to like the dates, I guess. Probably so I could have something all my own that no one would ever take.
God, I’m depressing.
“I’m failing out of college, Lulu,” I say lightly, using her best friend Noah’s nickname for her. It doesn’t fit her—she’s a sexy, hard, yet wonderful, woman, an ex-Dominatrix with a mouth that at times, doesn’t know when to shut it. But maybe that’s why the nickname works—reminds us that Lux has this beautiful spirit, beneath her tough shell. “Not much else to say.”
“What are your choices?”
“Jesus, you sound like my shrink.”
She grins. “Maybe we’re in cahoots.”
I make a face, then snort. “Fin would have competition, then. She’s gorgeous.” I don’t think Lux has a defined sexual status. Neither gay nor straight, I guess bisexual is as close as you’ll get. She’s into sexy people, regardless of body parts.
Lux twists the stunning diamond on her finger, the emerald-cut stone encased in platinum. “No, that red-haired demon has me hoodwinked, fair and permanent.” Her ring should have been an engagement gift, but Fin knows better. He’s buttering my marriage-resistant sister up, probably for a proposal in like, ten years or so. “Come on. Out with it. What’s going on? Classes too hard? Professors who suck on ice? What?”
Picking at another date, I slice its soft belly with my nail, digging out the oblong nut inside. I twist the strange little stick in my fingers, the gummy remnants slowing the rotation. “They’re basic classes, Lux. I’m not smart.”
She doesn’t say anything. What’s there to discuss? You can’t teach morons. After a few minutes, she disappears to her room, then returns. She holds her iPad, and she taps through its contents, looking for something. When she finds the elusive file, her lips twitch with amusement, then soften. She turns the large screen towards me, spreading her fingers over the surface to enlarge the image.
“I barely finished college. I spent so much time partying that when I got to class, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the lectures. Noah’s final grades don’t look much better than mine. When people ask about your GPA—and they rarely do—I make a joke to avoid quoting the number. One advantage to being self-employed: no one cares.”
I stare at her final transcript from NYU, her business degree something I’ve always craved. “You almost failed.”
“Yep. And if I hadn’t gotten some help from teachers, signed up for tutoring, I would have spent another semester in school. Or dropped out. I’m pretty sure my professors had volunteers on standby to help me pack.” Her gray eyes, clear and determined, meet mine. “Go get some help. There are all sorts of programs available to help students who are struggling. I’ll go with you, if you want.”
Another date finds its way into my mouth, ensuring I’m too busy chewing to answer right away. Lux is probably the smartest person I know, next to Zi. Well, secretly, I think Lux is even smarter. She’s the one who got out of our shitty foster home as soon as she saw the opportunity. Unlike Zi, who stayed until I could leave. Sweet? Yes. Wise? Not when you look at what I put her through.
“I’ll drive over and see what they’ve got.” When she opens her mouth, I add, “Alone. If I have to embarrass myself, I’d rather do so in private.”
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, baby girl. We all need a little help sometimes.” Her crazy-full lips quirk. “Even me. But don’t tell Fin I said that.”
Adner County Community College, also referred to “ACCC” (or “ACK!” by students), sits on the township line of Bakertown. Set in a vale at the base of mountains—no clue the names of the damn things—Bakertown remains quaint and charming in the center. Then radiates slums and rotten tomatoes as you drive towards the outskirts.
Even our slums look sort of quaint, though, if I’m honest. Hell, I live in them. Unlike other neighborhoods with homes falling apart, no heat, regular murders, my little street equals Beverly Hills. We tend towards comfy crimes like casual drug dealing and endemic domestic violence. People wonder why relationships don’t interest me—gee, with influences like that, I’ll skip most of the guys in a fifty-mile radius, thanks.
I park, then follow the winding pathway to the math building. Since Pre-Algebra is my easiest class, technically, and my hardest class in reality, I figure I’ll start there.
See, I barely passed high school, largely because I ended up on drugs when I was in my late teens. Well, mid-teens. I wound up in treatment (twice), tried to commit suicide, then finally got my shit together and quit hanging out with people who made access to pills easy. I’ve no problem staying off drugs—I’ve been sober for eight years or so. The spending time in my head part I find difficult to do. Energy outlets help—working a lot, touring thrift shops for things that strike my fancy, fucking strange men. Yeah, the last part is a problem. There’s no shame involved—at least, that’s what I tell myself. Willow insists I need to stop attaching morality to everything. And really—I use protection. I try not to lead people on, and I avoid messy emotions. Still, watching Lux and Zi find happiness with another person makes me wonder if I need to rethink my moral standings.
Or not.
These aren’t moral choices, Blue. They’re choices. Actions have reactions. Consequences. I really wish Willow would get out of my head.
The math building must have been built by people offended by pleasant aesthetics—squat, dark brick, and square, even the inside lacks personality. Yellowed walls, aged flooring—the kind with gold strip dividers and cracked corners—paired with pressed-wood doors and cheap finishing. God. Try a little, would ya?
I wander the hallways, looking for my professor’s office. I clutch the syllabus, where his office hours declare him available to talk. But when I arrive in the vestibule of his office cluster, a single woman stands at her desk, slipping into a coat.
“May I help you?”
Her nameplate reads “Rose Fifter.” “I’m looking for Dr. Meehan.”
“Oh, he left for the night already. He changed his office hours last week—he should have told you in class.”
I’m already small—five feet and a hundred pounds soaking wet—so feeling even smaller does nothing for my confidence. “I-I don’t remember.” Crap. Feel stupid much? Why yes, yes I do.
“Well, let’s make an appointment,” Rose says with chipper efficiency. She drops into her chair, taps her computer, then looks at me. “What do you need to see him about?”
“Tutoring. Pre Algebra. I wanted to g-get some help.” I snap my jaw closed, scared I’ll stumble over another word.
“Oh, well, hang on. You don’t need Dr. Meehan specifically for help.” She looks over her shoulder. “Rhys, you available to take a student? I have someone here who needs help with pre-alg.” She abbreviates the class, as though the full name isn’t worthy.
In the far back corner, a single door remains open—the rest are shut tight. “Ah, yeah. Sure.” The voice sounds deep, with a broad accent—British, maybe? So slight, I can’t tell.
He comes to the door, tall and lanky. Not much to him, really, and he’s super bookish—though his glasses follow the current trend of “frameless.”
“Dr. Meehan’s class or Ms. Tergan’s?”
“Dr. Meehan’s.”
“Ah.” He hesitates, as though he dreads one more appointment.
I look from Rose to this stranger with glasses and a stuck-up appearance. “I can come back another time.” I start to back away.
Rose seems confused. “No, no, it’s fine. Dr. Kennison has late hours tonight, and he’s a sharp cookie. He’s not going to do anything else besides grade papers, and I promise you, he’d rather help you.”
A small smile curves his lips. “True. Come on back. I don’t bite.”
When I reach his door, he’s already crossing to his desk, gesturing to the chairs across from him. “Have a seat. I’m Rhys.”
I take a seat, unsure how this whole thing works. “Don’t I call you Professor Kennison? Dr. Kennison?”
“Only if you’re in my class.” He grins, but his eyes flit over my face. “Everyone else calls me Rhys.”
One of my issues—the reason I ended up in in-patient treatment for the third time—is dissociative disorder. What everyone blamed on my drug use actually has more to do with my childhood. I’m told I probably pulled myself out—mentally—when bad things happened, and then returned after the ordeal was over. Because that became a coping skill for my fear, I didn’t access emotions like everyone else. Which means, in addition to not handling my own emotions well, like, say, having a psychotic break when my mother died, I also don’t process other people’s emotions accurately all the time. Of course, that probably has something to do with being constantly worried someone’s disapproving of me.
My point—I do have one: what I thought was his annoyance or ennui about my arrival, is actually shyness. At least, that’s my impression. He smiles to hide it, I think. Like now, he’s smiling as he digs through textbooks, but occasionally, he glances at me, then right back down.
He’s sort of good-looking, but not in a traditional sense. He’s half-Asian, I think, with almond-shaped eyes and black, straight hair that falls into semi-organized disarray. His cheekbones are sharp, slanted, and he has a very square jaw. Yet, he’s a bit intriguing. Take off the glasses and put some trendy clothes on the guy, and he might be a looker.
I should probably tell him my name. “I’m Blue.”
He pauses in his search. “Is that a nickname?”
If I could count the times I’ve been asked that… “Nope. That’s my real name.”
“Really? I’ve never known anyone named Blue before.”
His smile turns self-conscious. “Sorry. That’s probably not the most flattering thing I could have said.”
Flattering? “It’s fine. I get asked a lot. Sometimes I act like a shit as a result.” I offer a conciliatory smile.
If the man wasn’t half-Asian, he’d be bright red, I think.
Holy shit, he likes me. Well, he likes to look at me, at least. Why, I’ve no clue. My face isn’t half-bad, but I’ve been trying to avoid wearing overtly sexual clothing—part of my turning over a new leaf, I guess—so I’m in yoga pants and a thin sweater. I look like I’m twelve, seeing as which I have no ass, no hips, and barely any breasts. My hair’s a ratty mess, and my pale green eyes end up washed out when I don’t wear makeup, like today. But since getting checked out may be the only win I get today, I won’t complain.
“Let me run over to Meehan’s office and grab your book. I thought I had a copy, but…” He turns in his chair, evaluating the massive bookshelf behind him. He’s indexed the books by color—that’s the first thing I notice. Each volume aligned beside the next, covers of multiple colors tucks in strategically. A mosaic of book spines—it’s stunning.
When he leaves, I dart over, nosy at how anyone can be that anal. Don’t get me wrong—since I’ve been working on my issues, I’ve gotten tired of my chaotic, messy ways. My apartment is, mostly, straightened up, and I’ve always kept my space clean. Mostly.
This is impressive, though. Framed photos tuck into corners—an older man holding hands with an Asian woman, but they don’t look very loving. Another offers a much younger Kennison, laughing, beers on a table before him, friends on either side, making faces. In the center of the display, he’s crossing a finish line, his jersey and race badge declaring his location as the Boston Marathon. Turns out, Mr. Book-Lover doesn’t have a bad body underneath the stuffy suit pants and white Oxford. On the bottom shelf, several certificates mark his education. I squint at the one, the fancy script making the letters hard to read. Does it say Deford? Wait, no, Oxford University. Damn. No slouch, this Rhys Kennison.
“Are you marveling at my OCD or my inability to get rid of a single book?”
I startle, unaware he’s standing right behind me. The scent of fresh laundry, a hint of citrus cologne, and something warm envelope me for a moment. His burning gaze locks onto mine with a heat that’s almost tangible. Then he looks away, and I’m left cold inside.
“I think you’re using this one, right?” He holds up a blue book, barely thick enough to be worth the $110 price tag.
“Yep.” I return to my seat, unnerved by whatever transpired. Did I imagine his interest? Those emails about my grades upset me—am I displacing my needs onto someone else? Fuck. Life was so much easier when I flew off at people rather than trying to sit in my weird emotional patterns, questioning if this is what embarrassment feels like, or pride…or lust.
Forcing my mind to the task, I pull out my homework assignments, the ones I’ve been unable to figure out no matter how hard I try. The reality: they’re probably not very hard. I can’t see how the letters and numbers work together, though. I listen, I take notes, but everything falls into jumble when I try to sort the concepts in my head…or on the page.
His fingers, long and precise, move with surprising grace. Tiny scars line the edges of his hands, and when he turns the pages, his palm facing up as he holds the book, more of the thin white lines, as well as thick callouses, show against his smooth skin. What’s a math guy do to earn those kinds of marks?
For the next half hour, he goes over the basics we’ve covered in class. I finally give up sitting on the other side of the desk. Standing beside him instead, I watch, baffled, as his fingers fly across the page, dropping numbers, carrying sums, and doing something to letters to make them equal a digit. His handwriting creates perfect angles—like an architectural creation, each line exact and purposed. The problem remains that I can’t understand the digits, and my frustration rises. What is wrong with me?
“Blue, is any of this making sense?” He sits back in his chair. “I feel like I’m not helping you. Tell me what stops you when you look at the equation—that second one. Where do you get stuck?”
I glare at the page, forcing my eyes to follow the hard corners and crossed sticks of language, anything to find something coherent to say. But there’s nothing. I can’t understand how the whole thing works, much less the pieces.
“I just…” Emotion builds, and heaviness traps my dignity as I shrivel deeper inside myself.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m not trying to frustrate you.” He reaches for my arm, then catches himself. His dark eyes, gazing at me behind wireless rims, offer only kindness, which makes my humiliation worse. I could deal with his annoyance.
I shake my head, snagging my lip with my teeth. How do you explain when you can’t even figure out what’s wrong?
“It’s…look, we’ll go over the problems again. I don’t have to be anywhere for another hour. Why don’t you pull your chair over here and we’ll give the first two another go?”
My breathing threatens to give me away, panic crawling up the back of my throat. I’m so tired of not comprehending, not feeling, not being enough. When I look down at him, I’d swear molten desire peeks out from behind his professional facade.
I don’t think, don’t consider the consequence. I silence him with my mouth. Anything to stop this growing desperation in my chest and find out what’s behind that very proper exterior. He jerks back, but I follow him, my hand landing on his chest.
“What are you—”
I try again, tracing my tongue along his bottom lip. I don’t know if he means to, or if he’s stunned, but he opens his mouth beneath mine. And then we’re kissing, his hands traveling the length of my ribcage. His chair conveniently doesn’t have arms, so I straddle him easily. Warm and surprisingly appealing, he snakes an arm around my waist. I mold my body to him, enjoying the slight taste of coffee and mint. My hands sculpt his shoulders, find the hard, well-built chest from the photograph. After a few minutes, we’re both breathless.
“This isn’t—I mean, we shouldn’t—”
I dig my hands into his silky hair. “Are you complaining?” Nudging my hips against him, I discover what I hoped to—Rhys is definitely into this. So I slide my palm between us, admiring his impressive length.
His hands grasp my arms, but his eyes bear conflict. That’s all I need. Drawing him into another kiss, I press harder against his arousal, my own desire spiraling. Soon he cups my ass, guiding me into a hard friction. We pant into each other, lips almost touching as sensation takes over. He drops his mouth to my neck, and I fight the moan that bubbles up as I begin to implode.
“Fuck,” I whisper as the waves buffet me into submission, and soon I’m knocked down into pure pleasure.
His fingers curl over my shoulders, trapping me against him as he rocks his erection against my pliant cleft. Then he groans into my neck, his eyes squeezed closed as he comes, shaking beneath me.
Relaxation spreads over my body, and I slouch against him. His arms wrap around me, his face against my hair. He inhales deeply, as though breathing me in. I never thought of myself as sniffable. For some reason, that makes me giggle.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have…” He gently moves me off him, embarrassment flooding his expression. “I, ah…” He rubs his forehead, lips pressed tight.
My (slightly) hysterical amusement makes everything funny, and I bite my lip to avoid laughing out loud. Poor guy—getting his sexy on with a student probably equals a big no-no. He’s clearly rattled, but relief saturates my nerves after the building frustrations of today. “I’ll work on what you showed me,” I lie. “See if I can make some sense out of the homework.”
His hands rip through his hair, then clench the back of his neck. Whatever his usual behavior is, I’m guessing this situation doesn’t have much protocol. “Blue, I should apologize—”
I hold up a hand. “I’m not sorry. And I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.” I give him a grin, and the guilt in his expression darkens. Shit. I suck at this part. “Don’t stress it, Professor Kennison.”
With a lighter spirit than I’ve had in days and the heady flavor of chocolate on my lips, I head home.

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Ally Bishop

Easton, United States

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