Authors: Alyse Raines
VERNIGHT PUBLISHING ®
Copyright© 2016 Alyse Raines
Cover Artist: Jay Aheer
Editor: Audrey Bobak
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For anyone who has lived in the shadows of dark memories.
And The Black Keys, for keeping me company while I wrote this.
THE FUNDAMENTAL THEORY OF US
Copyright © 2016
Sawyer Layne jumped every time her phone made a sound. Like now. In the middle of class.
She’d forgotten to turn her phone to silent when she rocked into class three minutes late and plopped into her chair. That stupid chirp sounded and she flipped out, sending everything on her desk flying. Like, into other people. A thousand pigeons on speed in Times Square during a minute of silence would have made less of a racket.
She made a total fool of herself. But what else was new?
Dropping to her knees in the quiet room, she began snatching up pages from her notebook—
thanks, crappy dollar store find, for falling apart when I needed you to keep your shit together
—when a hand brushed hers. Sawyer recoiled, jerked, and banged her head on her desk. She looked up. A second later, she shut her eyes.
It was too late. Andrew Warren had seen her. He always saw her.
“Is there a problem, Miss Layne?” Professor Ballantine said, with his pinched, nasal voice.
Sawyer’s face felt fifty shades of red. She took a breath.
In. Out. Repeat
“It’s my fault.”
She flipped her eyes open, taking in Andrew crouched in front of her, his muscles strained under a threadbare white tee. Through the shirt, she caught a glimpse of his tattoos. There were so many curves and twists, and she couldn’t make out if the lines belonged to one giant tattoo or a couple of them, tangled together. His soft-looking lips moved in a cloud of dark stubble, but his voice faded under the hectic pounding of blood in her ears. One of her pens flicked effortlessly through his fingers, the way some people do with coins or guitar pics.
Andrew Warren. The kind of gorgeous that made girls do stupid things. Over six feet tall, tan skin, and a body packed with muscle. So unlike the pale, thin men back home—at least the ones on the Upper East Side. He was also older than most freshmen, and had stubble. Lots of stubble. More of a short beard, really. He was nothing like them. Nothing like
Or was he? What did she know?
“Well, just hurry up.” Professor Ballantine sighed. “I’d like to finish on time, for once.”
Sawyer ducked her head, a curtain of stringy, ash-blonde hair falling in front of her face. She reached for a sheet covered in scribbles at the same time Andrew did, and his hand covered hers. The room spun. Her heart stopped. For a terrifying second, Andrew left his palm on top of her hand, a big, hot, calloused palm.
Breathe. Air in, air out, repeat. Repeat. Don’t forget the repeat
Andrew leaned in, the light, spicy scent of his cologne making her dizzy. His too-bright blue eyes bore into hers, right through to her brain, where the darkest of her secrets hid behind stacks of dusty boxes. Pressure banded tight around her chest.
“Are you okay, Sawyer?”
. The lie fluttered on her tongue like a nervous butterfly. It wouldn’t come out, though. Not when he was this close. Too close.
As though he knew all about her internal freak-out, Andrew pulled his hand away and grabbed the rest of her things while she sat there, incapable of movement. Incapable of speech. The guy made her stupid with a look, a touch. Andrew stacked her pages together in the notebook bindings and set it on her desk, and put her pen on top. Holding her gaze, he levered himself up on his desk, beside hers, and slid into the chair. She read the look in his eyes loud and clear. Those baby blues saw past every firewall she put up. Somehow, he knew.
“If we’re finished with the distractions…” Professor Ballantine glanced around the room, waiting until Sawyer got back in her seat. “Good. Now, as I was saying,” he continued at the board, chalk in hand. The other professors called him “old-school”—they all used state-of-the-art projection systems, or at least white boards, while Professor Ballantine stuck with his chalk.
Sawyer tried taking notes, but her hands shook, and every time she touched her pen to paper, it looked like a drunk hobo got a hold of her notebook. She glanced through her hair at the other students in the class. Some were whispering, about her, she guessed by the way they stared at her. Others lost interest the minute Professor Ballantine took up his lesson. Sawyer stared at the fresh page on the desk, feeling someone’s gaze on her. Andrew. She knew he’d be trouble from the moment he sat next to her on the first day of Fundamentals of Probability two months ago. He kept taking the seat beside her, and made sure the only empty seat in class, on days when she ran late, was next to him.
Andrew—not Andy or Drew, and he corrected everyone who tried out the shortened version of his name on him—was the kind of tall, dark, and dangerous guy she avoided like the plague. So why couldn’t she stop stealing glances at him during class? Or in the halls. Or when she saw him around campus. Or when he came into The Spot, the café in the campus bookstore where she worked. Total moth-to-flame vibe.
More like a housefly slamming into the window over and over, dedicated to finding a way through the invisible force field. Maybe next time she’d learn her lesson. Or the next. Or the next. She kept looking, and so did he.
After a few minutes, Sawyer gave up note-taking and tried absorbing whatever info made it into her messed-up brain. She reached into her bag and pulled out a tinted water bottle. Numbing juice—that was what she needed. No one could tell there was cheap vodka in the bottle. She took a healthy swig, then another. Andrew kept shooting her puzzled glances as he jotted down the kind of comprehensive notes she wished she had access to. In another life, she might ask him if he would consider sharing them with her. Not this life, though. Asking someone for a favor somehow meant he had control over you. Which she’d never give anyone. Ever again.
Once class ended, Sawyer snuck out of the room and headed for the one place she could feel completely safe and at ease. Sitting at home alone led to drinking (which she totally couldn’t afford but did enough of anyway), so she spent most of her time outside of classes in the library, which had Wi-Fi. And she spent her time alone. Except lately, Rachel Dover from Sawyer’s Studio Art class and her job began showing up at the library with a friend—sometimes without, thank God—and made Sawyer her project. At least, that’s how it felt. Why else would someone she barely said ten words to since they met keep coming around?
Case in point: Sawyer had just taken a seat near the back of the library and was in the middle of hooking her laptop up to the library’s Wi-Fi when Rachel slid into the seat across the table. She popped her gum and twirled vibrant purple spikes of her pixie-cut hair around long, pale fingers tipped with sparkly black polish. Sawyer shut her eyes and pressed her thumbs to her temples. Today sucked ass. Sweaty, hairy ass.
“Hey,” Rachel said, half-whisper, half-shout. “I saw you barreling down River Street like you had a hive of killer bees trying to get all up in your shit.”
“I didn’t barrel.” Sawyer shook her head. Arguing with Rachel was less fun than bathing in a fiery sand pit.
Rachel leaned over the table. The lights above glinted off her eyebrow piercing, with a tiny lightning bolt dangling from it. How did that
bother her? “You barreled, Saw. There are witnesses.”
? Since when had they become “shortening names” close? And, hello? Saw? It made her sound like a serial killer, or an actress in one of those cheesy slasher movies where all the blonde cheerleaders died horrible, bloody deaths.
Since she didn’t feel up to getting into an argument about whether she barreled or walked, Sawyer slouched in front of her laptop until Rachel’s face disappeared behind it, and she focused on the screen. Statistics made sense to her. Numbers made sense. People, not so much.
“You can’t hide away in here forever.” Rachel tilted the screen back as far as it went, peering at Sawyer over the top. “Besides, there’s a party tonight, and I’m taking you.”
“No,” Sawyer said, winning a
from someone across the aisle. Ignoring them, she glared at Rachel, who never got the hint. Ever. “I don’t do parties, okay?”
“Because some of us came here to get an education.”
Another shush. The shushers were out in full force today. Sawyer snuck a sip from her bottle.
Undeterred, Rachel popped her gum and rested on her elbows. Her leather jacket strained at the shoulders and creaked. “Come on, Sawyer. It’s one party. What’s the worst that could happen?”
The worst? Sawyer knew the worst, and it could happen at a party or in her own home. Knew it like that annoying relative who came around too often, talked too loud, sat too close, and had grabby hands. “Why do you keep trying?” Sawyer said, lifting her laptop screen back up.
“Because some people need loosening up.”
Sawyer needed to loosen up like some people needed to spend more time on Facebook.
Rachel slid around the table and parked her acid-wash jean-clad butt in the chair next to Sawyer, completely oblivious to the “go away” glare she was on the receiving end of. “How about this? I’ll drive. You just have to come with me and have fun.”
“Who says I’ll have any fun?” Sawyer gritted her teeth. Why wasn’t the vodka kicking in yet? Maybe this cheap brand was so watered down that she was actually getting some H2O.
“Who says you won’t?”
The laws of history. Every moment of her life leading up to this one, right here, sitting beside a girl who sounded like a bubble gum princess/homecoming queen who fell into a vat of punk. The first time she saw Rachel, before she learned her name, Sawyer had nicknamed her “Purple Punk Princess.”
“Look,” Sawyer said. “I don’t do parties. I don’t hang out. And I don’t do friends.”
Anyone else would have gotten up, called her a bitch, and stormed away. Not Rachel. The girl smiled. Actually smiled, with her eyes and everything. “You’re a tough nut, but I’ll crack you.”
. Homework assignments weren’t happening. Sawyer shut her laptop and slumped in her chair until her gaze was level with the table. “Can’t you leave me alone?”
Rachel popped her gum again. “Nope. And you wanna know why?”
Again, Purple Punk Princess ignored Sawyer. “Some people have this look, like they’ve been through shit and when they reached the other side, they just accepted the stink-storm, and thought ‘what the hell? It can’t get any worse, can it?’ You know, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can either let the shit sink in and stink up your entire life, or wash it off and toss a match on the bridge to that crap-fest, and walk away with your head held high. Who do you want to be, Sawyer? The stink-monkey or the I-don’t-give-a-shit girl?”
Stink-monkey? Well, when she put it like that … Sawyer could easily say the second option, but the truth was, she cared what people thought. She shouldn’t. She knew that. God, she’d spent the last five years wearing every hurtful name tossed at her, letting it all weigh her down. One day soon, she’d crack. Again.
“Sorry. Not this time.” Sawyer snatched up her laptop and her messenger bag and left the library with Rachel following her into the parking lot.