Jay na Thalang is a demanding, driven genius. He doesn’t know how to stop or even slow down. The instant he lays eyes on Maria Lopez, he knows that she is a sexy distraction he can’t afford. He’s done his best to keep her at arm’s length, and he’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Maria has always been cautious. Now that her once-tiny, apocalypse-centered blog is hitting the mainstream, she’s even more careful about preserving her online anonymity. She hasn’t sent so much as a picture to the commenter she’s interacted with for eighteen months—not even after emails, hour-long chats, and a friendship that is slowly turning into more. Maybe one day, they’ll meet and see what happens.
But unbeknownst to them both, Jay is Maria’s commenter. They’ve already met. They already hate each other. And two determined enemies are about to discover that they’ve been secretly falling in love…
Hold Me is about Maria Lopez (Tina’s best friend from Trade Me) and Jay Thalang (not appearing anywhere yet but here are three things about him that you might want to know: 1. He has tattoos. 2. He plays with lasers for a living. And 3. He has a pinterest page where he pins pictures of people gratuitously eating sandwiches in public.) The last point didn’t actually end up in the book.
Gabriel was supposed to be here ten minutes ago.
Instead, my brother is running late—no surprise there, as he plays the role of absent-minded 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 me directions to the place where he’d agreed to meet his friend…
Go to the chemistry complex, he said. The lab’s in the basement, he said.
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 had to ascend for air—and wifi—to look up room numbers and a map.
If I didn’t love my brother so much, I might be pissed.
But I’m here, a mere ten minutes late, and not even slightly miffed about the number of stairs I 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 better be here.
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 on the door, managing to bruise my knuckles, but the fireproof door makes only the slightest, most muffled thump in response. Only then do I notice the tiny piece of paper duct-taped to the door. Ring bell for entry.
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 destruction. There is no case of 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; his arms are folded in front of his chest. I’m pretty sure a super-soldier would be less intimidating. At least they might be susceptible to mind control. (I’ve never mind-controlled anyone yet, but then again, I’ve never met a super-soldier. Hope springs eternal.)
I saw a picture 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—PhD from Cambridge, an NSF CAREER grant, awards 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 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 seems 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—”
“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.”
He frowns. Shit. I didn’t think much of 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; the website is probably out of date. Now I’m wondering if Gabe gave me the wrong group name. Or the wrong department.
“So sorry.” He delivers the word with a period at the end. A sarcastic period, the kind that says that he’s not sorry at all. “I don’t know you, and I don’t have time for…” He squints at me, and gives me another look, this one a little more pointed. “What are you selling, anyway? Lab supplies? Amway?”
Assumptions shouldn’t be a big deal.
But they are. I don’t know him, but he just assumed it was more likely I was selling make-up then…any of the other many possibilities in the world.
I know what I look like. I’m pretty. I should be; I work hard for it. I like being pretty. I like wearing skirts and heels and makeup. I’m not going to apologize for doing my hair or knowing how to contour foundation or any of the other tiny skills I’ve invested years in learning.
I’m going to get judged for caring about how I look, and judged for not caring. I might as well dress exactly how I want.
I know that rationally, I shouldn’t care that a complete stranger has decided that I’m an airhead. But it still stings.
“It’s not that,” I say.
“So you are a grad student.” He rubs his hair, making it stick up in little black spikes. “Let me make this easy: I’m looking for three-sigma students. Not people who arrive two hours late, interrupting a perfectly good work session with my post doc, and who stare at me like deer drowning in headlights. There’s no point wasting each other’s time.”
My pulse pounds thickly.
“I’m…sorry?” I hear that question mark again and wince, just as his eyebrow rises. “I’m not sorry,” I say, “but I really am looking for Jay.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he says. “Just join another group.”
I inhale. “I think you misunderstand. Can I just talk to Jay—”
“Nope,” he says. “Sorry. I’ve got things to do.”
Before I can say anything else, he shuts the lab door on me. Great. I contemplate the buzzer and wonder what he would do if I rang it again. Given the degree of asshole he just displayed, and the fact that he said he was in the middle of a perfectly good work session, he’d probably just get mad at the hapless Jay, who is likely a new postdoc in his lab.
I exhale, take out my phone, and text my brother.
Are you sure you told me the right place? The Thalang group in chemistry? Did you mean biology?
His response comes seconds later. Yep. Almost there.
I frown dubiously at my phone. The Aroon na Thalang Group? There’s no Jay listed on the group page.
That’s him, my brother texts back. Jay. It’s a nickname. Nobody calls him Aroon.
I consider hitting my head against the cement wall in front of me.
Yay. Gabe’s friend—the one who just shut the door in my face, the one I’m supposed to have dinner with—is a dick.
Yes, he jumped to conclusions. Yes, I’m sure he’ll make all the right pretend apologies when Gabe clues him in. But he still looked at me and decided I was a lab supply salesperson, and didn’t let me get a word in edgewise.
It doesn’t help that I’m staring at a poster of his lab’s work. I’ve noticed these in the hallways earlier as I was looking for this place. They’re essentially advertisements for all the research groups that are recruiting new graduate students.
I’ve seen badly photoshopped versions representing various groups as X-Men or the Avengers. Here, someone has photoshopped Jay’s face on the massive, genetically enhanced dinosaur that wreaked havoc on a fictional theme park. I recognize the rest of the group from the picture as velociraptors.
“Apt,” I mutter.
Strangely, though, this reminder of fictional mayhem calms me down.
Most people, when they’re feeling a little upset, take deep breaths and think good thoughts.
I’m Maria Lopez. I take deep breaths and think about the end of the world.
Literally. These basement chemistry laboratories are an apocalyptic filmmaker’s wet dream. I am not far from the room where plutonium was discovered. If there’s an apocalypse waiting to happen in some scientist’s lab, it could be close by. Behind that fire door there, someone may well be tinkering with some nanotechnological device that will spell the end of civilization as we know it.
So far, despite humanity’s best efforts, civilization has persisted.
I know all about apocalypses that don’t happen. The apocalypse is nothing more than shitty things that happen to you instead of someone else. The apocalypse has been fiction for me, and fiction it will remain.
Life goes on.
I can handle one dinner with an asshole. I’ve dealt with worse.
Almost there, Gabe texts. Sorry!
It’s okay, I answer. I didn’t expect you to be on time.
He texts me an emoji of a face with its tongue sticking out.
Gabe and I have lived in different cities since I was twelve and my parents kicked me out of the house. Even back then, he used to pick me up from school twenty or thirty minutes after class let out. In the years since, he’s been late for Skype calls and the occasional dinner when our paths intersected. It’s not just me; this is a perpetual habit. He was late for his own PhD commencement ceremony. His advisor walked on stage alone with Gabe’s hood and gave the crowd a shrug.
I didn’t think things would be any different now that we’re living a mile apart.
After everything we’ve been through together, I can spot him fifteen minutes.
The fire door to my right opens, and Gabriel walks through. He has medium brown hair—like me, except his is cut as short as someone who has forgotten about haircuts for three months can manage, and mine has gold and red highlights. His jaw is a little more square, and he’s about an inch shorter than I am. Which is why I hug him and say…
“Hello, little brother.” He’s three years older than I am. Before I went through my growth spurt, he used to give me noogies and say, “that’s what you get for being so small.”
Biology is a bitch, and so are younger sisters. I give him a noogie.
“Gah.” He pulls away. “It’s not fair.”
That was my line when we were kids.
I stick my tongue out at him.
“I need to invent time travel and punch my teenage self in the face.” He turns to the door and presses the bell. “You’re going to really like Jay. He’s a good guy.”
I grimace at his back.
It’s not the first time I’ve played nice with one of his “good” guy friends, and it won’t be the last. There are a lot of reasons for guys to be a dick to me, and I’ve seen all of them.
We wait. The door opens again.
Professor Thalang opens the door again. Now that I know that he’s Jay, and my brother’s friend, his age is a little easier to discern. He’s probably a few years older than I am—three, five?—and no more. I saw his CV. Damn. He has been busy with his life.
His eyes land on my brother and his face lights up. He grabs Gabe by the shoulders, slapping him on the back.
“Look at you,” Jay says. “You survived Switzerland. Almost. Too bad about the other thing.”
Gabe laughs. “Dude. Don’t give me shit about the other thing until you meet Silke. She’s the greatest.”
My lip curls slightly.
Yeah, that little crack is about par for the “good guy” course, in my experience. My brother spent the last two years in Switzerland. He had a postdoctoral position at CERN. He worked with some of the brightest scientists in the world at the world’s most powerful supercollider. He published four papers about elementary particles. But all of that is equivalent to almost surviving Switzerland, because while Gabe was there, he got engaged to a lovely, smart computational scientist. Surely a fate worse than death.
I might as well be invisible. Jay—Professor Thalang—I’m not sure how I should think of him—smacks my brother’s back. “How have you been, man?”
“Oh, you know. Busy on that revision for JACR still.”
I don’t remember what journal that acronym stands for. I suspect that if I don’t say anything, the two of them will descend into science. Which I don’t mind, but I want Jay to squirm.
“Gabe.” I touch my brother’s arm.
That’s when Professor Thalang notices me. He literally didn’t see me before now. He frowns in my direction, drawing away from my brother. “Hey.”
Gabe doesn’t notice the look on his face. “Right. Before I forget—Maria, this is Jay Thalang. Jay, this is my little sister, Maria.”
I look Jay in the eye, and decide to annoy him. “Hi?” I let my voice go up at the end of the word intentionally, making the word a question.
He grimaces. “Oh.”
“Shit.” He looks into my eyes and inhales. His eyes are dark brown and piercing, and the effect of his dark, thick eyebrows is that he looks fierce.
“Maria,” Gabe says, not noticing the tension racheting up, “this is Jay. He was a postdoc at Harvard when I was there. He does work on—”
“I read his lab posters in the hall after he shut the door in my face,” I say sweetly. “I know what he does.”
Gabe frowns. Even he can’t avoid noticing this anvil of a clue indicating that all is not well.
Jay doesn’t quite roll his eyes. “You read my posters,” he says with a hint of disbelief. “You know what I do. Sure.”
That emphasis on sure, the way he looks at me… He doesn’t believe I could understand. He’s calling me stupid.
Like I said. It’s not the first time someone’s made assumptions about me, and it won’t be the last. The good thing is, if he’s not going to even pretend to be nice, I don’t have to, either.
“I understand everything,” I say, turning to Gabe. “Did you know Jay’s working on a top secret Pentagon project? He uses invisible radiation to turn himself into an asshole.”
Gabe looks at me, then at his friend, then back at me. “I’m missing something,” he declares.
“Don’t worry, little brother.” I pat Gabe’s shoulder. “His terrible transformation only happens around women. You’re safe.”
The code name for this book was originally "Eighteen Months." It still is Eighteen Months, but it’s a different eighteen months.