Harry Boyle carried his full lunch tray away from the cafeteria and looked around for a place to sit. He was stuck in an American high school movie. Scratch that, in every single American high school movie. Only his drama was playing out in Glasgow University, where he was the only student who was still high school age. Worse still, he didn’t even look his age—he looked younger. Why couldn’t he have been more like his brother, Flynn? When he was fifteen, Flynn had grown a beard and more muscles than Thor. Actually, now that he thought about it, Captain America was a better comparison. Flynn was the after version, and Harry was Steve Rogers before science gave him muscle.
He gave himself a mental head slap. He couldn’t stand there thinking all day, it would attract attention. And attention of any kind was never good. He needed to get out of his head and find a table to eat at. Only every single one was taken, which meant he had to share—again. This never went well. Bracing himself for the inevitable questions over why a kid his age was at uni, he picked the nearest table with only one person sitting at it and headed over.
“Excuse me,” he said in a voice way too deep for his lanky frame. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
The girl wore a blood red cable-knit sweater that matched the polished nails on the hand holding the latest iPhone. In front of her sat a half-eaten salad. Who ate salad in winter? Actually, who willingly ate salad?
The girl tossed her long, perfectly straight brown hair over her shoulder as she looked up at him. “Do you make weird noises when you eat?”
Okay, he hadn’t been expecting that question. Usually people asked if he was lost and needed help finding his mum. “I don’t think so.”
“Do you plan on talking to me?” Her English accent was so crisp it reminded him of listening to the Queen on TV.
“No. I just want to have lunch.”
She inclined her head. “Then, you may sit.”
Harry put his tray on the round table and pulled out the chair opposite her. Ten seconds later, he was digging into a good old Scotch pie with plenty of chips and baked beans to go with it. It’d taken him two years to accept an offer to attend uni, but he might have done so sooner if he’d known he could eat like this every day without his mum knowing. No. That wasn’t true. He still would have chosen to stay home in Invertary, just to be close to Maggie. The only reason he’s left was because he had no choice. He couldn’t do the research he wanted for his masters while he was still at home.
“You do realize that there is enough fat in that pie to clog ten arteries,” the girl who didn’t want to talk to him said. “You might as well chug motor oil.”
He blinked at her, wondering if he was allowed to answer or was supposed to remain silent. She stared at him as though waiting for a response, so he gave her one. “I don’t think motor oil would taste this good.”
“Honestly.” She shook her head. “Didn’t your parents explain about vegetables?”
“And don’t you care about your body?”
He looked down at himself. “Uh…” What was there to say?
“How old are you?” the strange girl demanded.
“Just as I thought. Old enough to know better.”
“How old are you?”
He eyed her salad. “You know, you might be in a better mood if you added some chips to that. Want some of mine?” He nudged his plate toward her, hoping she wouldn’t take any of the crisp, steaming golden chips just waiting for him to devour them.
“Certainly not.” She recoiled. “How can your brain function properly if you give it food like that?”
“Trust me,” Harry said, dipping a chip in tomato sauce. “I don’t have a problem with my brain. In fact, if eating like this slows it down a bit, that would be fine with me.” Then he could go back home and hang out with Maggie. Even though he’d chosen Glasgow because it was the closest uni to Invertary, it was still too far from home. One more week, and they’d break up for Christmas, then he could get back to his best friend. No, she was more than that. She was the girl he planned to marry. She just didn’t know it yet…
“Are you a student here?” the girl said, interrupting his thoughts.
“Aye. Computer science.” He didn’t bother asking if she was a student. It was obvious.
“So, you’re like a genius or something?”
Now that question he was used to getting, and kind of sick of too. “Or something,” he said and then waited for the other standard questions he knew were coming. Things like, what’s your IQ then? Is your mother here with you? How can you do uni when you aren’t even old enough to drink? Yeah, he’d only been at uni for one semester, but already the questions were getting old.
“You should have gone to Cambridge,” the girl said.
Harry stopped eating. Okay, he hadn’t expected that either. “I had an offer from them, but I wanted to be close to home.” He’d had offers from half the colleges on the planet, but none of them were within easy reach of Invertary. “I did my undergrad at Cambridge—distance learning.”
She didn’t even blink at the mention of him already having a degree. “My entire family went to Cambridge. The colleges there are set up to deal with younger, brighter students. You probably would have fit in a whole lot better than here. The students here are mostly interested in how cheap the beer is at any given time.”
“You’re not interested in beer?” Neither was he. It smelled like cat piss.
“Goodness, no.” She shuddered. “I don’t mind a good wine, but beer…”
“So why did you pick Glasgow when everybody you know went to Cambridge?”
“I’m a rebel,” she said with a completely straight face. “What’s your name?”
“Harry Boyle,” he said between mouthfuls of food.
“Well, that’s unfortunate.”
“Tell me about it.” The girl was funny.
“I’m Rachel Ford-Talbot,” she said. “First year. Business major.”
She went back to frowning at her phone while he ate.
Harry watched her for a while, knowing he shouldn’t say anything, but he couldn’t help himself. “You need to set up your security really good on those phones, they’re easy to hack.”
Those piercing eyes hit him again. “Don’t be ridiculous. iPhones are well known for being unhackable.”
Harry cocked his head. “I could do it.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Prove it.”
He shrugged, reached into his backpack, pulled out his laptop, and booted it up. Five minutes later, he’d changed Rachel’s screen image and locked her out of her phone. That’s when it occurred to him that he might have made her mad.
Warily, he glanced up from his laptop to find her staring at her phone in awe. “What else can you do?” she demanded, as though he were some sort of performing monkey whose sole purpose was to entertain her.
“I’m designing a security program that basically works by piggybacking onto the existing security within a system and plugging holes to make it titanium tight.” There’d already been interest from the British government for the code.
“If you design something like that during your studies, does the program belong to you or the university?”
Once again, she surprised him with her question. “Why would the uni own my research?”
“For the love of Prada, didn’t you look into this before you accepted a place here?”
“That’s no excuse. Your parents should have thought to check into this too. Did they?” Before he could answer, she carried on, “Don’t answer that. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then they probably don’t either. Basically there’s something called intellectual property rights, and depending on the policy of each university, either the school owns the research of its students or the students do. Or some combination of those two options. If you’re designing something worth millions, you need to make sure that you own that product. Otherwise, the university will get the money from it. Not to mention, they’ll be the ones to decide what happens to your work.”
Harry pushed his half-eaten meal away, feeling suddenly nauseous. “How do you know all this stuff? You’ve only just started your degree.” Did she read business books for fun? If she did, she was in good company. He’d been curling up with books on coding since he was in nappies.
“Business is in my genes. My family owns a pharmaceutical company. Father is a business genius and saved my grandparents’ company from ruin. Mother is a chemist. She was always more interested in the science side of things. This kind of issue was standard dinner conversation.” She pointed at him. “You need a lawyer and a business manager. You need to make the university sign a contract that stipulates your research belongs to you, and then you need someone to apply for patents, copyright protection, and trademarks. You need to protect yourself. Hasn’t anyone told you this?”
“Told me about protection? Sure. My brother gave me a lecture and a box of…never mind what he gave me…before I left home. But this isn’t the kind of protection he was talking about.”
“Is that what passes for humor when you’re fifteen?” she asked.
“No, it’s what passes for panic. I don’t want the uni owning my work.” He had plans for that research. He was going to get rich, then go home and sweep Maggie off her feet. That money was his in with her because his looks sure as hell weren’t going to do it. It was a lesson he’d learned from watching Bill Gates—nerdy guys needed moola to get the girl.
“Unlock my phone,” Rachel ordered. “I’ll ask my father if you can use the company lawyer.”
“Aren’t lawyers expensive?” He was pretty sure that whatever they charged, the allowance his parents gave him wouldn’t cover it.
“Yes, they’re expensive, but don’t worry about it this time. I’ll also have him draw up a contract for us while he’s at it.”
“We need a contract?” Harry’s eyebrows shot up. His brother never covered this in the talk he gave him before he left for uni. “To be friends?”
“No.” She shook her head in clear disgust. “This is why you need me. I’m going to be your business manager, and we need a contract to set that up. It will give me permission to apply for the protection your ideas need.”
Harry looked around, checking the bustling cafeteria for cameras. Was this a joke? A skit for that College Humor site?
“Uh, I don’t need a business manager,” he said at last. “I don’t have a business.”
“Yes. You do. You are the business.”
“And you’re going to manage me?”
“Goodness knows you need it.” Her thumbs flew over her iPhone screen as she spoke.
“This is a really weird conversation.” Harry was beginning to wish he’d picked another table.
“Don’t worry. This is just to get you set up. I have no intention of doing this long term. I have plans, and babysitting your budding software career isn’t one of them.”
“Plans?” It was becoming increasingly clear why Rachel had been sitting alone—she was as much of a freak as he was. She just hid it better.
She nodded. “As soon as I get my degree, I’m going to work in the family company. One day, I’ll take the helm when my father retires. Sure, everyone thinks it will pass to my older brother, Jonathan, but he isn’t as interested in it as I am. Jonathan is more of a financial whizz. But I can’t wait to get my hands on the company. I have so many ideas for making it bigger, better, stronger. It’s what I was born to do. But first, seeing as I’m here for the next few years, I may as well help you set up your company. Somebody has to make sure you don’t get ripped off.”
“Rachel?” Harry waited until she looked up from her phone. “You know you’re kind of scary, right?”
For the first time since he’d rocked up to her table, she smiled. And that was kind of scary too.