Cover for Hold Me by Courtney Milan: Trans Latina being embraced by a multiracial Asian man

Hold Me

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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…

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Reviews

“The snappy comebacks, the snark, the weird insular world of scientists, the romance guaranteed that this book was FUN! It was also full of strong, capable women, especially Jay's mother and Maria's gran. I enjoyed it and really didn't want to say goodbye to the characters. Lovely! Recommended.”

—Nocturnal Book Reviews

“I love those angst filled romances where two damaged people find love. I really liked that the relationship between these two is messy and imperfect and so honestly real.”

—Top 10 Romance Reviews

“I loved the sheer level of geekery in this book.”

—Book Gannet Reviews

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Code Name

The code name for this book was originally "Eighteen Months." It still is Eighteen Months, but it’s a different eighteen months.

Excerpt

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.

“So sorry.” He delivers the word with a period at the end. A sarcastic period, since we are arguing punctuation, the kind that says 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?”

Other people’s stupid assumptions shouldn’t bother me.

But they do. I don’t know him, but he just decided it was more likely I was selling makeup than any of the other much more likely possibilities.

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. But I would get judged for not caring. I might as well dress exactly how I want.

Rationally, it shouldn’t matter that a complete stranger has decided that I’m an airhead. His judgment still stings.

“I’m not selling anything,” 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, who interrupt a perfectly good discussion with my postdoc, and who stare at me like they’re deer losing brain cells 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 try again. “I’m not sorry,” I say, “but if you would just tell Jay I’m here—”

“Don’t be sorry,” he says. “Just join another group.”

I inhale. “I think you misunderstood. I’m—”

“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 the postdoc he mentioned.

Fine.

I exhale, take out my phone, and…dammit. Still no signal. There is a single flickering bar of campus wifi, though. I connect and message 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.

Great.

It doesn’t help that I’m staring at a poster of his lab’s work. I 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 pasted 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 a catastrophe waiting to happen in some scientist’s experiment, it could be close by. Behind that fire door, 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 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 intersect. It’s not just me; this is a perpetual habit. He was late for his own PhD commencement ceremony. His advisor walked onstage 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 a uniform, shaggy brown, because he also forgets to get haircuts for months on end. 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 experienced them all.

We wait.

Professor Thalang opens the door again. Now that I know 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?—but no more. I remember the intimidating alphabet soup of 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 Jutta. She’s the greatest.”

My lip curls slightly at this exchange.

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 two 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—steps back and grins. “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, turning away from my brother. “Hey.”

Gabe doesn’t notice the look on his face. “Right. Jay, I forgot to mention that my little sister is coming to dinner with us. Her name’s Maria.”

I look Jay in the eye and decide to annoy him. “Hi?” I let my voice go up at the end intentionally, making the word into a question.

He grimaces. “Oh.”

Oh indeed.

“Shit.” He looks into my eyes and inhales. His eyes are dark brown and piercing, and the effect of his thick eyebrows is that he looks fierce…and not at all apologetic.

“Maria,” Gabe says, not noticing the ratcheting tension, “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 poster,” he says with a hint of disbelief. “You know what I do. Sure.” His accent becomes just a little more pronounced, almost pretentiously British.

That emphasis on sure, the way he looks at me… He doesn’t believe I could understand. He thinks I’m 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 project for the Department of Defense? 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.” 

“Don’t worry, little brother.” I pat Gabe’s shoulder. “His terrible transformation only happens around women. You’re safe.”

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Content Notes

Content notes coming soon