You don’t ask, you don’t get. It was one of the very first lessons Jo’s father had ever taught her—right after “stop existing” and “be a boy.”
She chuckled darkly to herself and wiped some of the sweat from her brow, leaning an elbow out the open window of the van and staring at the rows of palm trees lining the road.
She might not have been able to fulfill all his wishes for her, but at least there were a few of good old Dad’s teachings she’d taken to heart. She was going to ask all right. She just had to get there already, before she lost her nerve.
Twisting around in her seat, she glanced at the clock and worried her lip ring with her teeth. “How much longer?”
The driver, Roberto, tapped his finger against the steering wheel. “Ten minutes?”
Ugh, that still sounded like forever. After eight odd hours in airports and planes—and getting on near forty minutes in an un-air-conditioned van—Jo was more than ready to be done with travel for the day. Nodding to herself, she turned to face the window again, staring out at the little clusters of tiny, pastel-colored houses set off from the road. Clotheslines and satellite dishes and what seemed like unending swaths of overgrown green.
She took a deep breath, trying to let the scenery zipping past calm her down. Obsessing over what she was going to do and say when she arrived wasn’t going to get them there any faster. It was only making her more anxious and pissed off.
How could she not be agitated, though? She’d been busting her ass at school for ages. Had snagged decent internships after her freshman and sophomore years, and now here she was: one of nine undergraduates getting to spend the summer working in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, doing research at the biggest radio telescope in the world. It was her dream job. The capstone for her CV—the thing that was going to propel her into a top-level graduate school. Make her dad stand up and finally take notice of everything she’d managed to achieve.
Anger and disappointment echoed in her chest. She’d thought it would be all of that and more. Right up until she’d found out she was being shunted off into a second-tier project. Again.
Curling her hands into fists, she shook her head, pent-up rage sending fire and ice down her spine. Whoever this P.J. Galloway person was who had divvied out the assignments had a lot of nerve. If the guy thought she was going to sit back and be sidelined and coddled just because she was a girl, trying to hack it in the sciences…well. He had another think coming.
Just as her simmering frustration threatened to boil over, a sign appeared over the crest of a hill, pointing the way to the observatory, and Roberto put the blinker on.
Okay. Go time.
He looked to her as he took the turn, gesturing to the left. “I take you to where you are staying.”
“Actually…” She swallowed hard and channeled all the lessons she’d learned over the years. Making her voice as authoritative as she could, she insisted, “I need to go to the main building first. I have an e-mail.” She patted the pocket of her cargo shorts, reassuring herself with the crinkle of the printout she’d stashed there. “From Dr. Galloway.”
He frowned, lines appearing between his eyes. “I think you meet Dr. Galloway tonight.”
“Everybody else will,” she agreed. “But we have things to discuss before that.”
He gave her a sidelong glance, and she held her breath. But after a long moment, he shrugged. “If you say so.”
She exhaled long and slow. She had said so. She’d asked, and she’d gotten what she wanted. Now she just had to do it one more time.
Without saying anything else, Roberto drove them straight up to the observatory gates, where he got waved through by the guard on duty. Jo blocked out the sights around her, concentrating on psyching herself up for this. Channeling all her righteous indignation and all the times people had tried to pass her over in the past.
Because it wasn’t going to happen. Not today. No way.
As soon as the van pulled to a stop, Jo unhooked her seat belt and shoved open the door. Behind her, Roberto protested, “You sure you don’t want me to take you to the house?”
“I’m good.” She waved him off, her focus intent on the closed door in front of her. On flinging it open.
The second she was inside, it was like she went blind, the humming fluorescent lighting overhead no match for the brilliance of the sun outside. She blinked to get her eyes to adjust, staring down a series of corridors, all painted cinder-block walls and propped-open doors. She had no idea where she was going, but she didn’t let that stop her. She knew the drill: walk around as if you own the place, and most people will assume you do.
Sighing, Jo called over her shoulder, “Give me just a second.”
Roberto wasn’t letting her off that easily, though. He called after her again, and she swore beneath her breath as a couple of faces turned to give her curious stares. Yeah. Turned out the whole “walk around like you own the place” thing didn’t work quite so well when everyone knew you didn’t.
For the first time, a little prickle of doubt made her stomach twist. This entire plan of hers had the potential to be a disaster. She was tired and sweaty and disgusting, and it felt like her hair was plastered to her head. She was going off half-cocked, and in the kind of mood she was in, she was probably going to burn a bridge or two.
She hadn’t gotten as far as she had in life by being nice, though. In a man’s world, a girl never did. Not unless she had a hell of a lot bigger tits than Jo did.
The thick soles of her boots thudded against the tile floor as she rounded the corner, turning to enter a hallway lined by open doors. She scanned the numbers beside each one until finally she spotted it. Office number 109. She screwed up her confidence and tugged the hem of her top down. Shoved her hair out of her face and rubbed the studs in the shell of her ear for luck.
She knocked once before stepping right in, keeping her voice strong as she said, “Dr. Galloway?”
And then she did a double take as the chair of one Dr. P.J. Galloway slowly rotated, spinning to face the door, revealing—
Not the pot-bellied, middle-aged man Jo had been expecting. But a sixty-something-year-old lady in a lilac dress.
Fuck. So, so many layers of fuck.
The woman who was apparently Dr. Galloway raised one silver-hued eyebrow, peering over her glasses at Jo, and Jo was not the type to demur, but she shrank just a little inside. “Yes?”
“I’m—” Jo snapped her mouth shut when her throat made a wobbling sound. She swallowed and tried again. “I’m Jo Kramer, and I’m—”
“One of the delightful members of our Research Experience for Undergraduates program, yes. Yes, I know.”
As long as she didn’t know who else Jo was.
Before she could say another word, Roberto caught up with her. Breathing hard, he skidded to a stop in the middle of the hallway, and Jo glanced to find him sending a pleading look at Dr. Galloway over Jo’s head.
Dr. Galloway made a withering sort of noise but smiled as she shook her head. She refocused her attention on Jo, who hadn’t felt this much like a butterfly pinned to a specimen tray in years. “Is this regarding the matter about which you e-mailed me earlier this week, Ms. Kramer?”
Fuck it. Jo wasn’t about to back down now. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, crossing her arms over her chest and planting her feet. “It is.”
“Did you not receive my reply?”
“I did, but—” But what? But she’d thought she might be able to get her way through sheer force of will and personality. Thought she’d butt her head against the problem at least a few more times, because people got tired of dealing with her. They always got tired of dealing with her, and being exhausting and tenacious was how she got things done whenever someone slammed a door in her face. Whenever someone tried to tell her no. “But I’m here to argue my case in person.”
“Well, then.” Dr. Galloway tugged her glasses off and folded them before setting them down on her desk. “Please. Be my guest.”
All the words she’d rehearsed on the plane and in Roberto’s van seemed to shrivel as she called them forth. “I am…I…You’ve assigned me to a female advisor.”
“That I have.”
“And I’d like to request that I be switched to a different one.”
“Do you find yourself uncomfortable working for women, Ms. Kramer?”
“No! No, of course not.” It was ridiculous to think about. Almost as ridiculous as the idea that she’d be trying to make this case to a woman. A woman named P.J.
Seriously. How was she supposed to have seen that one coming?
Dr. Galloway tapped one short-cropped nail against the arm of her chair. “Because our nondiscrimination policy is quite clear on this point.”
“Nondiscrimination?” she croaked. As if Jo were the one trying to discriminate? It was laughable, and if this woman knew an iota of her history, she’d never dare suggest it. “I’m happy to work for a female advisor. Only…” She trailed off, uncertain how to say this.
How to explain the look that had been in her tenth-grade counselor’s eyes as she’d suggested that Jo should consider a field of study more suited to her sex. The way her physics teacher had never learned her name. The way the department chair at her university had scowled as he’d told her that maybe the lone female professor in their group might be able to find some work for her when he couldn’t be bothered to.
The way her father had always looked at her whenever she’d asked him for anything. Anything at all.
“Only…?” Dr. Galloway prompted.
Fuck it. There wasn’t really any way Jo could mess this up any worse than she had so far. “Only, I wasn’t sure if you were assigning me to a female advisor on account of my being female myself.”
It had happened before, and it burned, every time.
Dr. Galloway’s expression was one of very, very thinly veiled amusement as she arched her brows higher. “Ms. Kramer. You are one of six women enrolled in our undergraduate research assistant program this summer. Four of the nine resident scientists who were kind enough to take on students happen to be women. It would sadly be mathematically impossible for at least one of our female students not to be paired with an advisor of the same gender.”
The breath Jo sucked in made a whistling noise, a sound that echoed the one currently happening inside her head.
Six women. She was one of six women here this summer, and the very thought of it made something loosen in her chest.
Three years of undergraduate physics and astronomy and math and computing courses, and not once had there been six girls. Hell, in general, there had never been more than one. She’d only ever had one female professor in all that time, and now there were going to be at least four.
She wasn’t about to let her guard slip—it was entirely too tightly ingrained in her for that. But for the first time in a decade, the armor she surrounded herself with seemed to lighten. It made the junction of her shoulder and her neck pinch a little less hard, and her lungs filled in a way they rarely did as she let herself inhale.
Seeing Jo’s posture relax, Dr. Galloway smiled, her lips teasing upward with a knowing look that wasn’t about derision. No, Jo recognized derision entirely too well, and this was something else. Something Jo didn’t know exactly what to do with, but something that felt…safe, almost. It was a novel concept.
“Will there be anything else?” Dr. Galloway asked.
“I…um…no. Just that.”
“Well, thank you for being so accommodating with accepting your assigned advisor. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I do have some work to finish up before our welcome session this evening.”
“Right. Of course.”
“Si?” he said, stepping forward.
“If you would be so kind as to deliver Ms. Kramer and her belongings to the girls’ residence?”
It was a dismissal if ever Jo had heard one. Her cheeks felt warm, embarrassment at the way she’d acted—at what she’d assumed—almost as hot as the climate.
But that was how things had gone for her—how things had always gone for her. You could only be discouraged or shunted aside so many times before you learned to expect the worst of people.
It burned to admit that she was wrong. But a person did what she had to do. “I apologize for—” she started.
Dr. Galloway waved her off. “Not an unrealistic presumption, unfortunately. I’ve been there a time or two myself, as you can imagine.”
Dr. Galloway started to spin around to face her computer screen again, and Roberto stepped to the side, holding out a hand for Jo to go ahead of him. Gritting her teeth, Jo nodded and plotted her retreat.
She’d only just turned away when Dr. Galloway called after her. “Oh, Ms. Kramer?”
Jo paused. “Yes?”
“Do try not to accuse Heather of sexism the first time you meet her. I think you’ll find she’s not quite as understanding about that kind of thing as I am.”
Jo’s stomach churned. “Right.”
With that, she put one foot in front of the other and let herself be marched back to the van they’d left waiting at the front of the building. The whole time, her neck tingled, shame and anger both twisting her up.
Shame at her behavior. At her presumptions and the way she’d let her temper get away from her. Anger at all the people who’d made her feel like she had to go in swinging every time—at her professors and her father. At herself.
“The other girls are already here,” Roberto said. He visibly stopped himself from getting her door for her.
“Great.” It wasn’t, though. She was in no mood to play nice with other people right now.
But maybe that was for the best. There wouldn’t be any hiding or mistaking. They’d know right off the bat what kind of bitch they were dealing with, and they could skip right over that awkward moment when people tried to be her friend.
She had neither the time nor the inclination to be anybody’s friend. She was here for ten weeks, and she was here to do her job. In her first five minutes, she’d managed to make a bad first impression on the person running the program and on the guy she’d have to talk to any time she needed a ride off-site for any reason. But that was fine. Totally fine.
Gazing out the window at the mountains in the distance, she sucked her lip ring tight between her teeth. The first impressions she’d given them weren’t wrong. They were just irrelevant.
And she’d work as hard as she needed to to prove it.
Adam McCay was lucky. So, so lucky. He just had to keep reminding himself of that.
Mopping sweat off his brow, he folded up the last of his shirts, tugged open a drawer, and dropped them inside. He straightened back up and surveyed his room. Four white walls and a couple big, screened windows with clunky wooden shutters. A closet and a dresser.
And it all looked unbearably empty. None of his usual posters or prints. None of his usual anything, but there hadn’t been space in his suitcases for much except books and clothes. It didn’t really matter, though. Just ten short weeks here, and then he would get to go home.
He frowned at himself for even thinking it. If he started romanticizing home on his first day, he was going to be wallowing by the end of the week. And it was so damn shortsighted and selfish, anyway.
He was here, in sunny, beautiful Puerto Rico. He had a summer research job that any physics or astronomy major in the country would kill for, mapping out galaxies using a giant radio telescope. He was getting paid, and he was getting valuable experience, and he was living someplace exciting and interesting.
And all he could think about was that his phone still hadn’t rung.
Even though he’d sworn to himself he wouldn’t do it—wouldn’t keep worrying at this like a scab about to bleed—he pulled out his phone and glanced at the screen. No messages, no missed calls. Nothing. He put the thing away with a sigh. Shannon was probably busy with whatever she was up to back at home, and he didn’t begrudge her that. Their mismatched schedules were part of why they’d decided to take a break this summer, after all. Part of why she’d wanted to take a break. And he hadn’t thought she was entirely wrong.
He had thought he’d hear from her occasionally, though.
Not that standing around obsessing about it was going to do him any good. He shook it off, giving himself a couple of quick slaps on the cheek for good measure, because honestly, this mood of his was starting to piss him off.
He gave the room another quick once-over, but there really wasn’t anything left for him to do. Coming from his parents’ place in Florida, he’d managed to be the first one here by a long shot, arriving early enough that it had warranted the observatory’s driver, Roberto, making a special trip out to San Juan just for him. It had been a good chance to pick the guy’s brain about how things operated out here, and an even better chance to get first dibs on the room of his choice. An extra couple of hours to work on getting settled in, but now he was restless, and really, really in need of a distraction.
Normally, this was the kind of energy he’d prefer to burn off by going for a run or lifting some weights, but the heat made him think twice about it. He’d have to get used to fitting in his exercise routine in the early mornings if he didn’t want to die of heat stroke. Didn’t help him much right now, though.
At a loss, he pointedly did not reach for his phone, but instead wandered out into the hall and stuck his head into the room next door.
“Hey.” It took him a second, but he remembered. “Tom?”
Tom was sitting on the floor, suitcase barely touched, with a book in his lap and a fan pointed right at his head. Adam chuckled at the sight, plucking at the damp fabric of his own T-shirt in sympathy.
“A summer without AC is gonna be killer, huh?”
Tom shrugged. “Labs are all air-conditioned, and it won’t be too bad out here at night.”
True enough. Changing the subject, Adam gestured at his bags. “You need any help getting unpacked or anything?”
Okay. Adam was plenty accustomed to dealing with the antisocial types who ended up in the sciences, but this was going to be a very long summer if everybody was like this. “All right. Well. Just let me know.”
“You could go ask one of the girls. Girls usually like…” Tom trailed off, giving Adam an assessing look. “…Help from guys like you.”
Adam frowned at the “guys like you” comment. And at the inflection to the way Tom had said “help.” Really, the whole sentence kind of bugged him, but he didn’t want to go taking offense for no good reason. Whatever Tom was implying, the fact of the matter was that Adam did get his fair share of attention from women. Shannon’d always used to make fun of him for it—used to ruffle his hair and tweak his nose and tell him he was going to get himself in trouble someday.
A pang echoed dimly through his ribs. She wasn’t the reason he hadn’t headed over to the other house to lend a hand. It wasn’t. He just didn’t need any complications this summer. His life was messy enough as it was.
He forced a weak approximation of a smile. “Well. I’ll…leave you to it, I guess.”
Yeah. With Tom not exactly inviting him in, he moved on. The other guy sharing the house with them—Jared—had seemed a lot more sociable, but as Adam approached his room, it was to find the door closed, music ringing out from within. He was tempted to knock regardless, but hesitated.
In the end, he sighed and kept walking, meandering through their minimally stocked kitchen for a glass of water before soldiering on.
Outside, it was even stickier and muggier, and the itch beneath his skin only deepened. Fresh air usually made him feel better, but the density of it pressing on his lungs was claustrophobic. He set down his glass, then clasped his hand to his chest and dug his thumb in hard.
All at once, it dawned on him the situation he’d gotten himself into. He was lucky to be here, sure, but he was also cut off from all his friends and from the girl he’d been seeing on again and off again since he was seventeen. His cell phone reception was mediocre, and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere without a car. It was too hot to run, and his housemates didn’t have any interest in keeping him company.
And…and the van that had brought him there that morning was pulling into the drive.
For one single, heart-stopping second, he imagined leaving all his shit behind and making a run for it. Telling Roberto to take him to the airport, that he’d made a terrible mistake. But that wasn’t who he was. It wouldn’t be—not anymore. Dropping his hand from his chest, he sucked in a deep, hard breath. Curled his fingers into his palm and squared his jaw.
Rather than heading his way, the van veered off toward the house where all the girls were staying, lurching to a stop right in front of their door. Roberto stepped out and headed around to the rear, but there was a tension in his shoulders. Before the guy could get over there, a girl tugged open the doors at the back. A girl in heavy boots and cargo shorts that hung low on slim hips and a long-sleeved shirt that made him feel even hotter in his tee. Her face glinted with metal, piercings in the shells of her ears and in her lip and her brow, and her chin-length hair shone a deep jet black, except in the front. Where it had been dyed blue.
He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. She was…something. That was what she was. Everything about her said to stay the fuck away, but as she beat Roberto to unloading her things, Adam took a single step forward. And then another. And another.
Because it didn’t matter if she was tough as nails. He’d treat her the same as he would anyone else, and that meant offering to help. And if his palms got even damper just watching her as she turned toward the house, well…that was no one’s business but his own.
Roberto and the girl were saying something to each other, but Adam couldn’t quite make it out. He kept moving, crossing the space between the two houses as Roberto held up his hands, then turned and walked toward the front of the van. Adam frowned at the expression on the man’s face, but before he could call out, the engine started up, and the gravel churned beneath the tires as the van peeled out.
Adam stepped aside as it rumbled past, peering beyond it to watch the girl’s shoulders slump. She was faced away from him, looking brittle in a way he hadn’t entirely anticipated. Black ink peeked above the collar of her shirt, curving along the base of her neck, and his hands itched as he stared. Maybe it had just been too long—maybe it was that he’d never touched a girl who looked like that—but for a second all he could think about was tracing the lines etched in her skin, following them down, down, down. Soothing the brittleness away with his lips against her nape.
He shrugged aside the guilt that threatened to boil over at that thought and walked a little faster, because he could, damn it. He could touch and kiss and sleep with anyone he liked. Because—if the way she had spoken the last time he’d gotten a hold of her was any sign—Shannon wanted him to.
And he didn’t know exactly what got into him at that point. It was clear the girl didn’t hear him coming, and for some reason he wanted to show off a little. Make an impression. Get noticed.
He stole across the last few feet of gravel, sneaking up behind her and getting close as he leaned in for the handle of her suitcase, a flippant hello and a flirty smile on his lips. And he was just about to use them, too, but before he could do a single damn thing, a steely grip closed around his wrist.
All his weight went out from underneath him, and he was rolling. He choked, lungs empty as his back impacted with the ground, and then he was just lying there, mouth agape and gasping for air, looking up at dark eyes and fair skin and pale, soft lips. Blurry eyes and blurry lips.
He squeezed his eyes shut before blinking them open. Squinting at the face above him, he watched it swim into focus, bringing with it glints of metal from the girl’s piercings, the dark furrows of angry lines between her brows, and…Jesus. Everything hurt. He groaned and shifted just to make sure he could still feel all his fingers and toes.
And, wow, he thought he’d gotten himself into a shitty situation before? Contending with it all while feeling like one giant bruise was going to be awesome.
The girl drew his attention from the sharp rocks digging into his shoulder blades by shaking him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Well, he had been trying to make an impression. Mission obviously accomplished, if not exactly in the way he’d been hoping.
He blinked a few extra times for good measure and lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. “Um.” His voice sounded gritty and raw and like he’d just been flipped by a girl who weighed a hundred pounds. “Hi?”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she mumbled under her breath before stepping away and extending a hand.
He eyed her warily and decided maybe he’d just pick himself up off the ground after all that. Holding his palms out to show he meant no harm, he sat up with a groan. The back of his head twinged, and he lifted one hand to grab at it, wincing.
She’d crossed her arms over her chest by that point. “Who are you?”
“Adam.” He jerked one thumb toward the guys’ house across the way. “I live next door. Was going to offer to help you with your bags, but I’m guessing that won’t be necessary.”
“No. It won’t.”
And he didn’t miss the fact that there wasn’t the slightest hint of an apology to her tone, nor any hint that she might be thinking about offering one. It was a little presumptuous to expect one, but saying you’re sorry was pretty de rigueur for attacking a guy who’d come in peace. Or at least that’s how he’d always assumed this kind of thing was supposed to go.
“Okay.” Her expression held, firm and impassive and living up to the promise of all the ways she presented herself. A beat passed, and then another. For the first time, something in her eyes flickered, and the set of her lips cracked. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”
“Yeah. Got that.”
“People get the wrong idea, and instinct takes over, and—”
“Right. I said I got it.”
Her mouth snapped shut, and any quiver of vulnerability he might have thought he’d glimpsed disappeared. “Fine. Asshole.”
She had got to be kidding him. “I was trying to be nice!”
“Well, you failed.”
“Sorry?” He waited, but she clearly wasn’t about to reciprocate, and okay, sure, whatever. Except it bugged the hell out of him. Rubbing his neck, he grumbled at her, “Least you could do is apologize for trying to cripple me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Hardly. I’d have to be an idiot to cripple you using a move like that. It was pure self-defense.”
“Used on someone you didn’t need to defend yourself against!” Ugh. He was just blurting stuff out at this point, and that never went well. Nothing he’d tried today had gone well, and he laughed darkly to himself. He just shouldn’t try. “Fine, fine, I get it. You don’t apologize. I hope that works out super well for you.”
No further insults seemed to be forthcoming, so he ignored her as he stood, dusting off both himself and his pride. God, this whole day—this whole summer—was a mess. If he’d just stayed in Philly, he’d be hanging out with his friends right now, and maybe he’d be working a crap job stocking shelves or something, but he’d be able to go to Shannon’s apartment tonight, and maybe she wouldn’t exactly comfort him or anything, but she’d let him be near her. Feeling not nearly so alone and bruised and useless as he did right now.
Gravel crunched beside him as the psycho started wrestling with her luggage. He rolled his eyes, because the bags were clearly heavy, but before he could take too much satisfaction in her struggle, a tiny plastic wheel rolled over his toe, and he just…lost it.
He jumped back, rounding on her and kicking at the gravel, ready to spit, because this was ridiculous. “Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you?”
All she did was laugh, though, and it was hollow and awful, and for half a second he felt bad. “You don’t even want to know.”
His empathy didn’t last long. As she turned around and stormed away, he shook his head. “You’re right,” he called after her. “I don’t.”
Only there’d been something in her expression just then. Something real.
Something that made him wonder if maybe he did.
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