O N E
I PULL THE navy dress out of my suitcase and unzip the protective bag. I decided to bring it along in case I needed an ego boost. Tonight, I absolutely need an ego boost. Quickly stepping in and tugging it up and over my Spanx-clad midsection, I reach around and yank the zipper up clumsily. Anastasia’s throaty laugh echoes over the speakerphone.
“Please tell me it still fits.”
I cluck my tongue. “You’re the worst. Of course it still fits. I haven’t gotten that fat.”
“I only meant because for the last two years, you’ve had your nose stuck in astronomy textbooks and your ass in sweatpants.”
“That’s not true.” It’s totally true.
“Well, I’m sure you look amazing. When do you meet everyone?”
I delicately step into my black stilettos—probably the only time I will wear them all winter, so I might as well bust them out for this meeting. “In ten minutes.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No,” I mutter.
Ana calls me out. “Liar.”
I sigh as I smooth on some nude lipstick. “Fine. I’m petrified. But if I don’t dress like a professional, there’s no way they’ll treat me like a professional. This is my chance, Ana. This is it. My whole future depends on this job.” The reality of my words seep in. First impressions are everything.
“You’ve managed to get yourself this far, Em. Have a little faith.”
“Easy for you to say, Doctor Harper,” I chide. Anastasia is one of San Francisco’s top pediatric doctors. At 22, she managed to score an almost perfect on her MCAT. At 29, she landed the title of one of UCSF’s best pediatricians under 30. Seriously, TIME Magazine had an entire write-up on her. Hospitals and practices all over the country vied for her attention after that, offering her exorbitant amounts of money to start her career at their affiliates. In the end, she chose a small family-run practice in a low-income area of Oakland. She was even given an award by the mayor of San Francisco earlier this year.
“You’ve worked just as hard. Don’t let the patriarchy intimidate you.”
I ruffle my long, wavy hair, giving it a bit of volume as I study my appearance in the mirror. “Leonardo Kennedy is the Galileo of the twenty-first century. It’s hard not to be intimidated.”
“Well, then that makes you Nicolaus Copernicus. Mom says Leo is a complete gentleman.”
I huff. “Yeah, well, Mom is a bit biased, don’t you think? And I’m impressed you know who Nicolaus Copernicus is.”
Our mother, who happens to be a biology professor at Stanford, knows a lot of people in the scientific community, and when she told me about the United States Antarctic Program winter opening with Dr. Kennedy heading the research station, I applied enthusiastically. She knew Leo. Ana and I both did. His mother had gone to graduate school with our mother. So, of course Mom felt the need to give him a glowing recommendation on my part, and two weeks ago, I was offered the position of research assistant to Dr. Kennedy at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Not that her nepotism landed me the job; only one other person applied. I suppose spending six months in complete and total darkness doesn’t appeal to many people. It seemed like a dream to me… endless time to study and map the stars.
“She also told me he’s very handsome,” Ana continues. I roll my eyes even though I know she can’t see me.
“Why does this feel like a blind date rather than a business meeting?”
Ana chuckles. “I’m just saying. Wow him with that dress, Emilia.”
I glare at my phone. “I won’t be wowing anybody. I have a job to do down here.”
Down here meaning Christchurch, New Zealand—the home base and closest major city for the United States Antarctic Program, or, USAP for short. I happen to be leaving for Antarctica in the morning, and tonight was the only night that our three-person team would have a chance to meet before the big day tomorrow. Though I’ve been in New Zealand for a couple of days already, I’d spent my time enjoying the outdoors. I laid on the grass in the public parks, reading and rereading the manual and assignment for this winter. I walked everywhere, and ate everything I wanted to, knowing full well that they didn’t have fresh milkshakes or French cheese in the freezers at Amundsen-Scott. I would soon be in a glorified igloo with only forty-three other people for six months, and four of those months we’d be enclosed in total darkness. I needed all the vitamin D and caloric food I could get.
“Whatever you say. I should probably let you go. Don’t be late—remember, first impressions are everything,” she drones, repeating my mother’s favorite phrase.
“I know,” I reply, giving myself one last look-over before grabbing my clutch and making to leave. “I love you, Ana.”
“Love you too, Sis. Have a great time. Email me when you get settled.” I hear her sheets rustle as she climbs into bed. It’s almost midnight there. I feel sad that I’m not a twenty-minute BART ride away anymore.
I swallow the lump in my throat. Though the station has telephones, it’s the first time I’ve ever spent this much time away from my family. And there’s no going back once I’m there. I couldn’t leave Antarctica even if I wanted to. The winters down there are so severe, no planes can come or go until the Antarctic spring, which is an entirely different season than winter. For one, there is sunlight, unlike in the winter. Secondly, the threat of a storm decreases drastically. In fact, our flight tomorrow is the very last flight in. I already knew I’d miss my mother and Anastasia terribly. They’d been my support system—my everything—for my entire life. Our father had walked out on my mother when I was three. He didn’t want her working, and they fought all the time about her career. Ultimately, he couldn’t take it anymore and abandoned us. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since, and the three of us, though all independent women, depend on one another.
“I will. Bye,” I murmur, hanging up.
I toss my phone into my clutch and grab the room key. Five minutes until eight. I’m never late, and I’m not about to start tonight. I close my hotel door and walk quickly down the red, patterned carpet towards the golden elevators. I hear a loud ‘ding’ and rush over to the closing elevator door.
“Wait!” I shout, waving and speeding over. “Hold the door, please!” I catch only the sliver of striking male features: yellow-green eyes and a miserly scowl. The doors close in my face, leaving me to stare at my outraged, warped reflection on the shiny metal surface. He had plenty of time to throw a hand between the closing gates.
Son of a bitch.
Two minutes later, the doors open again, and I step inside. Jamming the ‘L’ button roughly, I compose myself and straighten my dress. It’s the perfect dress for an occasion like this—proper, but with a twist, like me. The capped sleeves fall down to my outer shoulders, exposing my chest with a slightly retro V-cut. The hemline hits just above my knees, and the form-fitting, indigo material clings to my generous curves without revealing too much. It says, I am a woman, I am serious about this job, and I am not going to let anyone boss me around.
The door slides open to the lobby, and I make my way to the hotel bar, where Dr. Kennedy said he would be meeting us. I’m nervous about meeting the person I’d idolized growing up.
The brainy boy turned genius scientist. My confidant and pen pal turned stranger.
The bar is empty, save for a couple canoodling in the back. I decide to make myself useful and order a gin and tonic while I wait. The bartender smiles at me as he mixes my drink, and when I dig around in my clutch for my credit card, he waves it away.
“It’s on the house. A beautiful woman like you should never buy her own drink.”
“Thank you,” I reply, grinning. I sip my drink and glance around the bar. It’s eight on the dot, and I’m the first to arrive. That’s a good sign. Nothing like the rush of being early. The bartender hands me a bowl of bar snacks. I hesitate at first. I once read that bar snacks are one of the filthiest things you could touch and/or eat. Bacteria, everywhere. But I’m ravenous, so I squirt some Purell—one of my lifelines as a germophobe— into my hands to counteract the germs I’ll be ingesting. I let the sanitizer dry and pull the bowl of snacks next to me, eating the nuts voraciously. Why is it that these things taste the best when you’re hungry?
“My favorite kind of weakness,” a husky voice with an American accent says from over my shoulder.
I swing around to face the offender. It’s ‘Elevator Man’. I can tell it’s him because he has those same chartreuse eyes. And while he may be an imbecile, he’s certainly nice to look at now that I can see the full picture. He’s tall, lanky but muscled, with short, tousled brown hair and those penetrating cat eyes. He has a strong face and tan, sinewy arms. He’s wearing jeans, a tight gray t-shirt, and Converse. For some reason, the Converse intrigue me. He watches me with cold interest.
“Excuse me?” I cross my arms, not about to forget the offense against humanity that he committed five minutes ago. There’s no way in hell I’m letting him hit on me if he doesn’t hold the door open for people. It’s simply common courtesy.
“The nuts,” he answers, his face serious. His eyes hold mine as he reaches down and grabs a handful. His pupils darken as he chews, and I have to look away. “I can never resist.”
Something about his voice is so provocative. I cross my legs and look away. I discernibly look down at my watch and check the time. 8:04.
“Waiting for someone?” he asks, leaning casually against the bar and munching on the nuts. The way he’s throwing them back into his mouth—swiftly and confidently—does something to my body. My face flushes with heat. Damn him and his beguiling power.
“A couple of colleagues,” I say quickly, waving him off. Where are they? I’m supposed to be meeting Leonardo Kennedy and Gretchen Thompson, the second research assistant. I’ve corresponded with Gretchen before. She seems pleasant. However, the only communication I’ve received from Dr. Kennedy was instructional—what to pack, where to meet, etc. Impersonal and bland. So unlike the chummy letters we used to send each other as kids.
“Don’t worry, I’m not interested,” the man muses. The way his enrapturing eyes flick up and down my body say otherwise. For a second, I think I hear him incorrectly. It’s not that I’m conceited or that he has any reason to be attracted to a complete stranger, but the way he said it was so harsh. I instantly hate him for it. He looks away and I stare down into my lap in embarrassment. “I’m waiting for colleagues too,” he adds.
“Great. I’m glad we’re on the same page,” I respond with a bite. I take a large, gin-filled sip from my drink, trying to hide the grimace on my face.
“You seem disappointed,” he murmurs, taking a step closer to me, “that I’m not buying you a drink like your bartender friend over there.”
I turn to face him. “I’m not disappointed.” I sit up taller and uncross my legs. Perhaps I should leave, find another stool or a booth to wait for Gretchen and Dr. Kennedy. If first impressions are everything, I don’t want them to think I’ll seemingly flirt with any kind of riffraff that approaches me at a bar. So unprofessional. Not that I’m flirting—but to prying eyes, our body language speaks volumes.
“You’re quite overdressed,” he continues, swirling the straw in the drink I hadn’t seen him drinking until now. “Trying to impress someone?”
I glare at him and cross my arms, my hackles rising. “As a matter of fact, yes,” I huff, turning away from him. A low rumbling laugh reverberates across my skin. The feeling of his breath on my neck slinks from vertebrae to vertebrae. Damn him.
“These colleagues you speak of must be very important,” he teases, his face hard. You’d think he would crack a smile, but no. He remains passive and calculating. Maybe he’s incapable of being nice.
“First impressions are everything,” I say without thinking.
The man slides his narrowed eyes to mine. “Want to know my first impression of you?” he asks, sipping his drink coolly.
I press my lips together. “Not really.” I glance at my watch. 8:09.
“You’re meeting some important work people for the first time tonight. You decided to wear your favorite dress because it highlights your dark hair and it shows off just enough skin to make you seem both competent and alluring. You’re wearing lipstick but it’s not red or pink, which makes me believe you want to seem feminine but not high-maintenance. Your hair is styled casually so that they might think you slipped into your dress and heels after a day of walking around. Am I correct?”
I gawk at him. No one has ever sized me up like that, and certainly never so accurately. My stunned silence prompts him to continue.
“You do something that requires a professional demeanor, and since you’re an American in New Zealand, I’m guessing it’s something important—technology or science. My guess is the latter, since you’re well-spoken and you have a tan, leading me to believe you spend a fair amount of time outdoors.”
I scoff. I do like to sunbathe. With lots of sunscreen, of course. “You can’t possibly discern all of that from a dress.”
He smiles, the first of the night. “I’m very observant.” He glances at his watch. “And very late. If you’ll excuse me, I have some colleagues to meet.” He sets his empty drink down and turns to walk away.
To my horror, he turns back around. “You must be Emilia Harper.” My mouth drops open. He holds his hand out. I give him a disbelieving look as he watches me with a cocky smirk.
“You’re Leonardo Kennedy?”
His smile fades. “I’m not sure which look of yours I like the best. This or the headgear look from seventh grade.”
I want to scream. I hated that Christmas card. Of course he saw it. I’ve known about Leo Kennedy since I could walk and talk. Though I never did meet him or his mom—they lived in Chicago—he was a constant topic of discussion in our household. Taking a better look at the man in front of me, I should’ve recognized the dark hair and self-assured grin. I’d seen pictures of him growing up. Though, I hadn’t seen a recent one. It seemed the years had made him insufferably arrogant. Being touted as the world’s most important astronomer—the Yo-Yo Ma of astronomy—had gone to his head.
“Screw you,” I mutter. I throw down a five for the nice bartender and grab my clutch.
Just as I’m about to stand, Leo reaches out and places a hand over mine. “That kind of talk is a little inappropriate for your supervisor,” he murmurs, barely audible.
Goosebumps erupt on my skin where his hand holds mine firmly. I look at him with repugnance. His face is still cold, and I wonder for a second if he thinks he’s being funny. More like rude…
Still, it’s strange to be so close to someone that you’ve known your whole life. Or, known about. In a way, I’ve been competing with Leo since we were kids. First to enroll in science camp. First to graduate high-school with a 4.5. First to be published in an acclaimed scientific journal. First to make a life-changing discovery. Those accomplishments had all been Leo, and I’d been clawing my way to second place ever since. Though we never met face-to-face, we wrote angsty letters to each other in school. We talked on the phone a lot.
Until we didn’t, because I’d gotten sick of second place.
Because I wanted first place.
He’s familiar, and I know so much about him, yet this captivating stranger before me is not what I was expecting.
“Hi!” a chipper voice says from behind us. Leo’s hand flies off of mine, and we both turn to face a stunning blonde. She’s wearing a black blouse, grey slacks, and red stilettos. At least we both seemed dressed to impress. The same couldn’t be said for Leo and his dirty Converse. “I’m Gretchen Thompson. Sorry I’m late.” Her eyes flick between Leo and I. He’s the first to stand, offering a handshake.
“Nice to meet you, Gretchen,” he says smoothly. He gives her a wide, close-mouthed smile.
“Hi,” I say faintly, overcome with agitation from Leo’s earlier bodily contact. I can still feel his hand on mine. “I’m Emilia.”
“It’s great to finally meet you. What are you guys drinking?” She gives me a warm smile and takes a seat next to me.
“I’m just about to order another gin and tonic.” Or seven. I place my empty glass on the bar, and Leo sets his glass next to mine, taking a seat on the other side of Gretchen.
“Oooh, that sounds divine after the travel day I’ve had,” Gretchen squeals, taking my hand and squeezing it. I like her. She reminds me a bit of Anastasia—genuine and happy. Honest. Her teeth are straight and white, and she has shoulder-length silvery blonde hair. Her eyes are a pale blue, and her long face is beautiful and strong.
“We’ll have three gin and tonics, please,” Leo booms to the bartender, giving me a rousing wink before turning to Gretchen. “So, you’re from the University of Colorado in Boulder, right?” he asks her genuinely.
“Yes.” She smiles brightly and faces me. “You’re affiliated with UC Berkeley?”
I nod. “I am.”
“Lucky. I’m jealous of the sunshine.”
I laugh lightly. “Well, in the Bay Area, our summers are basically winter.”
Gretchen giggles. When I look over at Leo, he’s watching me with a mystified expression, as if he can’t quite seem to figure me out.
“Chicago and Antarctica are basically the same in winter,” Leo interjects, reaching for our poured drinks and handing them to us. “I win.”
Gretchen and I laugh. It suddenly feels easier with her there—the icebreaker we so desperately needed.
We all clink glasses. I gulp down about half of my drink. I should’ve eaten dinner. The gin is hitting me harder than I thought.
The three of us continue our small talk.
More drinks are ordered.
Somewhere along the way, we order French fries and migrate to the comfier booth in the back of the bar. In a way, I think we’re all digging our feet into the last night in civilization. I know for a fact that scientists work hard and play harder. I’m used to it.
At one point, a man approaches the table and sits next to me. He knows Leo—they’re good friends—and this makes the stranger all the more interesting to me after my fourth drink. I certainly don’t intend to go back to the stranger’s room with him, but when the bar closes, the four of us make our way upstairs to his loft-style hotel room. Talk of board games and more drinks get passed around, but by the time we enter, I see Gretchen fall into the plush arm chair, asleep within two seconds. Her red stilettos litter the floor in front of her. Leo passes out on the couch, one arm over his eyes. His shoes are still on. That’s all I can process. In my drunken state, I follow the man—Jake, I figure out later—up the stairs to the bedroom. He’s good-looking. A little stout and a little too beefy for me, but he’s certainly not bad to look at. His hair is short, and his smile is perfect. I know I probably shouldn’t be doing this. I’m smart enough to know that this is all because of what tomorrow holds. Jake and I shut the bedroom door behind us. He drags me to the king-sized bed. His hands are cool, and they feel so good against my fiery skin… we barely make it to the bed before our clothes are in a pile on the floor.
I suppose it would’ve been a shame to waste the dress.
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