Hold Me

By: Courtney Milan

The Cyclone Series, Book #2


1





MARIA





September




Gabriel was supposed to be here ten minutes ago.

Instead, my brother is running late—no surprise, as he plays the role of absentminded scientist a little too well. He double-booked dinner tonight. He forgot that he was supposed to find me after my class. And when he sent directions to the place where I’m supposed to meet his friend…

Go to the chemistry complex, he said. The lab’s in the basement, he said.

Ha.

There are multiple buildings, each with their own basement. Some have two. After a brief, maddening trip down a rabbit hole of cement walls, metal doors, and blue-green paint, I ascend for air—or, rather, cellular signal—to look up room numbers and a map.

If I didn’t love my brother so much, I might be pissed.

But I’ve finally found the right place, a mere ten minutes late. I’m not even slightly miffed about the number of stairs I’ve had to tackle in heels. After all, Gabe is not a distant Skype call at odd hours coming from half the globe away. He’s in Berkeley. He’s here.

At least, he’ll be here soon. For now, he’s directed me to ask for his friend Jay and wait.

I eye the door I’ve found with skepticism. A little placard to the side designates it as the Thalang group. The door itself is festooned with warnings of impending death.

DANGER, says a sign in giant red letters. VISIBLE AND/OR INVISIBLE LASER RADIATION. Another sheet of laminated paper lists every chemical in the room that could kill me. It’s a long list.

Possible fatality. Just how I like to start all my evenings.

I knock hard enough to bruise my knuckles, but the fireproof door makes only the slightest, most muffled thump in response. That’s when I notice the tiny piece of paper duct-taped to the door. Ring bell for entry.

I ring.

I wait.

I’m not sure what to expect from a chemistry death lab, but my imagination has always been excellent. Radioactive bees? Radioactive nanobots? Radioactive mind-controlled soldiers? The possibilities are endless.

The door opens.

Damn. The room beyond looks painfully prosaic—desks, bookshelves, and a couch are visible from here. There are no super-soldiers equipped with prosthetic lasers, intent on world domination. There is no aquarium filled with radioactive spiders. There aren’t spiders of any kind.

There’s just a man standing at the door, frowning at me. He’s almost exactly as tall as I am in these heels, which makes him pretty darned tall. He’s almost as brown as I am, even though he can’t get much sun down here.

He takes one look at me, tilts his head, and narrows his eyes. His eyebrows are thick and set in determined lines; he folds his arms in front of his chest. I’m pretty sure a super-soldier would be less intimidating.

I saw a photo of Professor Aroon na Thalang, the principal investigator of this group, on the website five minutes ago when I looked up the location of his lab. In that picture, he was thumbnail-sized and serious. Between the tiny image and the CV highlights listed beneath—an impressive acronym soup composed of a PhD from Cambridge, an NSF CAREER grant, and funding from DARPA—I had assumed he was twenty years older than me.

He’s not. He looks about twenty-three. It has to be the Asian genes. He’s kind of hot, in a glowering, grumpy scientist kind of way.

“You’re incredibly late,” he says. He has a hint of an accent. A British accent, to be precise, enough to remind me of that Cambridge PhD.

“Um.” I bite my lip and curse my brother. “I’m sorry?”

“You’re sorry, question mark.” His eyes narrow as he says this, like I’ve committed some kind of cardinal sin, and his accent becomes more marked. “Either you’re not sure you’re sorry, in which case you shouldn’t be apologizing, or you’re sorry, period, and you need to work on your inflection. Which is it?”

This is going well. I try again. “I’m Maria—”

“I don’t care. Group meeting finished an hour ago.” He looks even more annoyed. “If you want to work in my lab—”

“I don’t want to work in your lab. I’m here to meet Jay.”

His glower deepens. Shit. I waved off the fact that I didn’t see a Jay listed on the group website. It’s September, the start of a new academic year. Groups change; I figured the listing was out of date. Now I’m wondering if Gabe gave me the wrong group name. Or the wrong department.

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