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Excerpt for The Universe Between Us by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Universe Between Us

By Jane C. Esther

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Jane C. Esther

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

The Universe Between Us

Finnian Kane, famous master of illusion, mentalist, and renowned atheist, has a crisis of faith after her sister’s death. She rents a cottage in the village of Axedale in Kent, desperately trying to find a safe haven from the intrusive media to grieve and work out how to move on.

The Reverend Bridget Claremont makes it her mission to help the enigmatic Finnian find her faith in life again. Bridge has long yearned for a life partner, and her best friend’s wedding has intensified that desire. But when you’re a lesbian vicar in a small English village, it’s not easy to find your perfect match.

Their chemistry is clear from the start, despite their different beliefs and Bridge insisting Finn isn’t her type. But will the mentalist find the magic that can charm the vicar?

The Universe Between Us

© 2018 By Jane C. Esther. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-107-5


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: January 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Ashley Tillman

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Tammy Seidick

Acknowledgments

I’m thrilled to be publishing my first novel with Bold Strokes Books. To the whole BSB family, you made me feel welcome immediately and have provided me with inspiration and motivation to create. Special thanks to my editor, Ash. You’re really good at your job, and I appreciate that.

Thank you to many friends who have helped me write this, including Gemma for your brilliant feedback, Suzy for interrupting your tropical vacation to be a beta reader, and Zooey, for sitting with me during many long evenings of writing. Sandra, you take the best photos and are also wicked smaht. Thank you for using those two skills to my advantage.

Shout out to my sisters, who are awesome people. I’d be lonely without you. Mom and Dad, thanks for raising me to know that I can do anything I put my mind to, like write a book. Finally, to my wife, Gabi, you’re the best brainstormer, reader, and editor that a girl can ask for. Without your encouragement and insight, I could not have written this book.

Dedication

For my two favorite people, Gabi and Zooey.

Chapter One

Jolie Dann stood in front of Singer University’s digital bulletin board, Nova’s chin resting on her shoulder, mesmerized by the scene unfolding before her. The din of the student union faded into the background, a steady stream of voices rising and falling over one another. Usually, Jolie would be among the students passing through the campus center, stopping to fill her mug with black coffee before heading to class, but today, she was on a mission.

She’d chosen the far right screen on the long wall labeled “Community,” a place where students could find and post messages, roommate ads, and service flyers. The wall lit up with a swirling panoramic view of countryside as the drone-recorded virtual rental tour began. The camera panned around the property, pausing on an odd looking modular house attached to some kind of dome covered in solar cells, and an impressively large garden. Surrounding it was nothing but fields and trees, as far as Jolie could tell.

“Holy shit. You have got to check this place out. Looks like a crazy old inventor or something.” Nova’s chin dug into Jolie’s shoulder with each syllable.

“It’s not that bad. It looks…functional. And look, green space, and nobody around for miles.” Jolie raised her eyebrows at her best friend. “And get your face off me. Your hair is tickling my cheek.”

“I think you’re being a little too kind. Look, there’s a house that’s obviously not even a quarter of a mile away,” Nova exclaimed, pointing at the screen. She shook her head of curly hair against Jolie’s cheek, then moved to her side as Jolie elbowed her. “I can’t believe you would rather live there than with your bestie and the girls.”

“You know how that would go. Party all the time, hang out. I mean, really, when do you actually work for those grades you seem to get? And you’ve seen me drunk. Didn’t that turn out spectacularly?”

“Oh, it was pretty spectacular,” Nova said with a smirk. “The way you hit on almost everyone at that party was the highlight of my spring.” She thought for a moment. “Maybe even my year. At least one person got something out of it, even if you claim you didn’t.”

“Whatever. I’m not living in the sorority house. I actually want some privacy and space, and you ladies have none of that. It’s like a giant, continuous orgy over there.” Jolie touched the screen to replay the tour.

“Please. Only, like, half the time. So dramatic. All I’m saying is that you would definitely get some, you’d be almost right on campus, and you’d get to live with your best lady.” Nova hip-checked her gently. “Unless you’re trying to drop me slowly. If that’s the case, I can take a hint.”

“Shut up, I’m trying to pay attention,” Jolie said. She linked her arm in Nova’s and pulled her close as they watched the remainder of the tour. A hologram of the interior walls revealed a series of small rooms along a hallway that connected to a large circular space containing the kitchen and dining areas.

“Super weird,” Nova said. “Find out who listed it.” She began to reach toward the screen to touch the box with further information about the owner, but Jolie batted her arm out of the way and touched the screen herself. A photograph of an attractive young woman appeared, her angular face twisted into a look of annoyance, as if she was just then figuring out that she’d need to pose for a picture. “Oh, she’s cute,” Nova said. “Deep brown eyes, dark brown hair, totally my type.”

Jolie shot her a look. “Everyone’s your type. Let’s see. She’s looking for someone to take care of the place because she’ll be out of town a lot in the next few months, blah blah blah.” Jolie skimmed. She touched the arrow to display even more information. “Rent. Let’s see. Rent. Oh, here it is. Wow, that’s really cheap. It says that labor is part of the rent.” She shook her head in confusion.

“What is the deal with this place?” Nova asked. “That’s a billion times cheaper than anything I’ve seen around here. Even I’d get off my ass and do work for that price.”

Jolie smiled and said, “Would you? I don’t know.”

Nova giggled. “I dare you to go meet this weirdo and try to be her roommate. Hopefully she doesn’t murder you and chop you up and bury you somewhere in her giant field.”

“Hilarious. And real nice. Now if I do get murdered, you’re going to feel pretty bad for saying that.” Jolie elbowed Nova in the side. “You know what? You’re on. I’ll accept your dare and I bet you’ll eat your words.”

“Okay, so do it,” Nova said. “Reply right now.” She thrust her chin toward the camera on the bottom of the screen.

“Not right here. I’ll do it when I get back to my room, pinky swear.”

“Hey, sexy ladies.” Jolie and Nova both jumped at the squeaky voice behind them. “Not moving out on us, are you Nov?” Karlee, one of Nova’s sorority sisters, pushed between them and put her arms over their shoulders.

“You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried,” Nova said. She proudly flashed her sorority ring, a band of rippled silver against her dark skin.

“And you, Jo-Jo. Are you looking? I know someone with a space in her bed just for you, in case you ever want to give that a spin again.” She gave Jolie a full body once over.

Jolie rolled her eyes and extricated herself from under Karlee’s arm. “I’ll let you know if I’m ever that desperate,” she said.

Karlee pouted, and Jolie had to admit that she wouldn’t mind ending up in her bed for a second time, if she truly wanted mindless comfort. She just wished Karlee wouldn’t make it so easy.

“I have to get to the studio. Got to keep that art scholarship. I’ll call you later, Nova?” Jolie felt like a squeaky third wheel to their sorority bonding, and quickly moved away from the pair.

“You got it,” Nova yelled. “Don’t forget the dare.” Jolie could hear them looking at the listing and giggling over the woman’s picture.

Once she was safely outside, Jolie made her way to a bench surrounded by a mound of crisp leaves. She looked out over the quad, framed by a mixture of concrete monstrosities retrofitted with solar cells and rooftop gardens. On nice days, it seemed like half the campus took over the lawn, studying in small groups or reading alone. Jolie and Nova had made a tradition out of studying on the quad during finals, in the middle of December. It had been warm enough the last two years that they didn’t even need jackets. She reached into her pocket and unfolded her screen, navigating to the listing. If nobody had snatched it up yet, she’d be able to save enough money to quit her job in the cafe and focus completely on her art. Even with the short commute, she’d save hours a week not working on someone else’s schedule. She might even be able to hang out with her friends again without thinking she’d rather be in bed, catching up on much needed sleep.

Jolie set her screen to record, cleared her throat and finger-combed her long strawberry blond hair, then recorded her message. She replayed it and recorded again. Once she was satisfied with her tone and inflection, she hovered over the send button, pausing a moment to read about her potential roommate once more. Name: Ana Mitchell. Age: 26. She had a distinguished look, not exactly youthful, Jolie thought, more weathered, like she wasn’t afraid of hard work. Jolie knew the type well, her father working himself into the ground every day with the farm. Ana would make an interesting subject for drawing, her sculpted shoulders hinting at an athletic body, and her expression indicating that she had something more important to do than sit for a rental drone’s intrusive photo shoot.

Jolie wondered what distracted her, and it occurred to her that it might be a spammer listing. They weren’t common anymore, but when virtual touring first became popular, there were some rogue drones that recorded houses unsolicited. Unsuspecting homeowners and landlords were flooded with messages, and listing companies had to scramble to clean up the mess they had created. Now, there was a law criminalizing the fraudulent listings, but they still popped up from time to time.

Jolie tilted her head back and squinted at the clear blue sky. A few drones buzzed overhead at various heights, no doubt filming or performing research for a class. She sighed. Part of her dreaded the moving process and the inevitable unease of spending so much time in a car, but the anxiety she felt since the accident that left her with a prosthetic leg was fading. Besides, her packed schedule left her exhausted, and something had to give. Money was tight, and anything she could save by living off campus at such a low price would be a help to her parents and the farm. She swallowed hard and flicked her finger to send the reply.

Chapter Two

Ana Mitchell was scrubbing the dirt from her fingernails when she heard the chime over her speaker system. “Read,” she said aloud.

Her personal assistant, Cassiopeia, replied in an almost-human voice, “Ana, you have one new reply to your roommate listing. It is from Jolie Dann, a student at Singer University.” The voice paused.

“More.”

“Here is Jolie Dann’s personal information. She is majoring in studio art. She is twenty years old and was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Mother: Iris. Father: William. Sister: Danielle. Hobbies: drawing, dancing, running.”

“Picture,” Ana said as she looked at the large, wall-integrated screen. She could activate any of her walls, but she preferred the one directly across from the kitchen because she could watch it while she cooked. A high resolution photograph of a smiling redhead in a green summer dress appeared on the screen. She dried her hands and walked closer, her heartbeat drumming in her throat. “Wow.”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Cassiopeia was the closest she had to a real friend, aside from her six future crewmates, but sometimes she wished the droid would ignore some of her comments.

“Nothing.” Ana shook her head as if that would slow her heartbeat. “Just thinking about how much trouble I’m getting myself into,” she said under her breath. She closed her eyes, harnessing all of her brainpower to calm the flood of adrenaline. When she opened them again, she swiped the picture off screen and brought up the video message. Her chest pounded again with an unfamiliar nervousness as Jolie began speaking. Her voice was exactly how Ana imagined it would sound, melodic and bold.

“Hi, I’m really interested in meeting you to see if we would make good roommates. To be honest, I need to move off campus to save some money on room and board, so I was happy to see your place listed at such an affordable rate,” she said, a brazen smile crossing her freckled face. “I’m fine with your work-for-rent requirement. I grew up on a farm, so I can do pretty much anything. Fix machinery, whatever.” She shrugged, then smiled again. It was a radiant look for her, Ana thought. “Let me know. Hope to hear from you.”

“Message complete. What would you like me to do, Ana?”

She thought for a moment. On the one hand, none of the candidates had seemed remotely interesting, except for Jolie. On the other, it would not be her most well-informed decision, judging from her immediate attraction. “Can you recall all of the replies to my ad?”

“Of course.” Cassiopeia tiled the pictures and information for each prospective tenant on the screen.

“Get rid of one and four.” Two pictures disappeared. “How old is two?”

“Forty-eight, divorced father of three.”

“Get rid of him.” If Ana didn’t have a choice about who she’d be living with for the rest of her life, she sure as hell was going to exercise that freedom now. She looked at the calendar on her wall. Two more weeks until her mother, Dr. Deborah Mitchell, would be back from France. Two more weeks of a semblance of privacy. If she got herself a roommate now, it might be too late for her mother to raise objections by the time she returned. She pictured Dr. Mitchell’s twisted face when she found out, and a flutter of panic resonated through her, followed by the burn of excitement. She figured she did what her mother wanted often enough to do something that she wanted every once in a while.

In truth, she didn’t really need help with the property, or the small sum of money she’d advertised as rent. She just wanted the house to remain in good hands during her brief absences, and then once she was gone from this world. Dr. Mitchell had almost certainly planned for that, but Ana didn’t trust her mother to make major decisions about a house she’d practically built herself. It was too precious to be left to some idiot assistant who wouldn’t know what it could do or how to take care of it, and they’d probably sell it to someone who would tear it down. She needed someone she trusted to keep it the way she’d intended. Could that be the cute girl staring back at her from the wall?

“Reply to Jolie,” Ana said. The nervousness crept back in as she recorded her message. She ended it with directions and a list of times when Jolie could come by to meet her. “Send.”

“Good choice, Ana. She appears to be the most similar to you, and by my calculations, she’s the most attractive choice.”

“That was obvious,” she muttered as her pulse began to return to normal. Since when had Cassiopeia started commenting on attractiveness? Had she picked up on the change in Ana’s biomarkers? “Thanks, Cass. You may hibernate. I’m going to the terrarium.” She said the last part to no one in particular, the house already tracking her every move, and grabbed a book off the table.

The sun seemed to stream through the small dome of the terrarium, illuminating Ana’s hammock. She smiled as she pushed open the sealed glass door and stepped inside. They’d have three of these once the settlement was complete, for growing food and maintaining some kind of mental health for the seven colonists. Ana spent hours in her replica dome, experimenting or taking a break from her massive list of responsibilities. The dome was one of the only constants she’d have between this life and her future.

Ana needed to shake the nervous anticipation that was making her palms sweat at the thought of meeting Jolie. She had a difficult afternoon of exercise ahead, four miles of running, some weightlifting, and hours in her lab afterward. She’d figured out a long time ago that the only way she’d be able to accomplish everything she needed to was through an agile mind and careful manipulation of her emotions. Having a roommate, she reasoned, was a necessary shake up that would double as mission prep, testing her psychological stamina and ability to live in close quarters with another person. She only had a few months left to make absolute certain that she was prepared for her role, so it was now or never.

She couldn’t turn back now. She had found herself a roommate, assuming it all worked out, and by the time Dr. Mitchell returned from Paris, there would be nothing her mother could do about it. Defiance settled uneasily in her bones. The dry terrarium air swirled around her, and she breathed in the overwhelming scent of rosemary. It smelled like Earth, sweet and musky, heavy and comforting. She’d pushed for some rosemary to be added to the seed bank, and it was one of the small concessions she was granted by the team.

She stepped over and around some genetically-enhanced kale and climbed into her hammock, supported by thin stakes on either end. It looked especially inviting today, as Ana had been up throughout the night checking on bacterial cultures. With all of the promise of robotics and artificial intelligence, it was a shame that nobody had developed a machine that would do her experiments for her, especially during the night. She yawned. Five minutes, she told herself. Five minutes to relax and get back on track. She opened the faded paperback to a dog-eared page, and after re-reading the same paragraph several times, gave in to a light and pleasant sleep.

Chapter Three

“Karlee likes you,” Nova said, stuffing a couple of fries into her mouth.

“She tell you that after she visually undressed me last week?”

Nova ignored her. “You should give her a chance.”

“Oh, please. I gave her one chance and that was enough. I don’t think I could deal with her following me around all the time. She gets way too excited about nothing. Thank God you didn’t adopt her attitude when you joined the sorority, or we wouldn’t be sitting here today.” Jolie kicked Nova’s foot under the table.

“I just think you two would be so cute together. That’s all I’m saying.” Nova raised her palms in surrender.

“No way.” Jolie laughed. “Easy to get is not my style.”

“But—”

“Next topic, please,” Jolie said in the least annoyed tone she could muster. The truth was that Nova had been by her side through thick and thin the last few years, but ever since her best friend had joined the sorority last spring, Jolie had felt a quiet distance wedging between them. It was especially obnoxious when Nova tried to set her up with her sorority sisters, and her main push lately was Karlee. She was fine being single, why couldn’t Nova see that? She glanced at her friend, who had her thick eyebrows raised in a holier-than-thou expression.

“Fine,” Nova said. “When are you meeting crazy inventor chick?”

“When are you going to stop being an asshole about it?” They looked at each other and broke into laughter.

“Okay, when are you going to be meeting your wonderful new roommate, who is sure to be normal and sane?” Nova asked again.

“Actually, this afternoon. I should go get ready in a few.”

“I’m intrigued. She’s not what you’d call unattractive.” Nova smiled slyly and Jolie rolled her eyes. “Don’t try to tell me you didn’t check her out, Jo. I know your type.” Jolie pursed her lips and glared. “Okay, okay.” Nova became serious and put her hand on top of Jolie’s. “Are you going to be okay getting over there? And making that trip every day?”

Jolie took a deep breath and sighed, imagining taking that ride every day, at least twice. “Yeah. I’ll get used to it,” was all she said. Her stomach tightened and she quickly changed the subject. “So, you think she’s hot? From that picture?” Damn. Wrong subject.

“Didn’t you see it?” Nova waved her off. “Trust me, girlfriend, I can tell a hot mama from a mile away. It’s called animal magnetism.”

“I don’t think that’s what that is.”

“Doesn’t matter. I have it, and I’m going to use it as long as I do,” Nova said.

“Okay. Whatever you say.” Jolie felt the uncomfortable tingle in her right knee that usually came on when she was anxious, and closed her eyes, envisioning the flat, agrarian landscape of home. In a moment, it passed. She was becoming more nervous about her upcoming meeting each time she thought about it. It wasn’t just the car ride that gave her pause. That part would take some getting used to, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle. Moving out here for school was the last major change she’d made. Aside from that, she coasted through life embracing the familiar, her days punctuated by habit and security. Did she really want to disrupt that?

“Your knee hurts again, doesn’t it.”

Jolie nodded, burying her face in her hands. “What am I doing? It’s nice here. I like it. Maybe I should just live with you after all,” she whined.

Nova took her hands and looked deeply into her eyes. “Woman. As much as I want to agree with you, you are going. You are going to impress her, and she will ask you to be her roommate, and you will say yes. Because I know, deep down, you want time for doing non-school and work things. Plus, I dared you,” she said with a wink.

“I know. I miss home. Not even the people, really, but the open space. I would love to have that again, but what if it really isn’t better? I’m so used to the noise here. What if it turns out I need that?”

Nova shook her head. “Just go and find out. And if you don’t think she’s cute, give her my number.”

“You’re incorrigible.” Jolie felt a pang of jealousy at the thought of her best friend dating her future roommate.

“I’ll help you get ready. Want to hang out on the quad first?”

Jolie nodded. “Sure. I have nothing better to do.” She playfully punched Nova in the arm.

“I’m glad I’m your nothing-better-to-do friend.”

They pushed their chairs out, squeaking them across the linoleum floor, and walked past the afternoon coffee crowd trickling into the campus center.

Chapter Four

Ana wiped her clammy hands on her jeans. She busied herself with tidying up the few items in her house that didn’t have a designated storage space. Jolie was due in forty-five minutes and Ana had never felt so wretched.

“Cassiopeia, please conduct a health scan,” she said, her cheeks on fire.

“Conducting scan. Stand in front of me.” Ana moved in front of the wall monitor and waited. “It appears you are having an episode of acute anxiety. Blood pressure and heart rate are elevated. There is no indication of any illness. I believe you are nervous about your upcoming meeting.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to be saving humanity and I can’t even deal with meeting a potential roommate?” Ana silently cursed all of her carefully constructed socialization the last thirteen years. She had her mission crew, she talked to people, just not on her own terms. All of it was related to her work, though the lines between work and life blurred so heavily that she’d never been able to separate the two. She was prepared for so many different spacecraft and medical emergencies she’d likely never encounter, yet her mother had neglected to put something as simple as screening roommates into the training plan. Ana knew it was because that work had been done years ago for her. She closed her eyes and tried to center herself, but couldn’t shake the jitters emanating from somewhere deep inside.

“Ana, please go meditate. I will alert you when Ms. Dann arrives.” Cassiopeia dimmed the screen in a show of finality. Sometimes the droid was too intuitive for its own good.

Ana sighed heavily and smoothed her flannel shirt. If this was how she was going to feel until she got used to having a roommate, maybe she should forget the idea. “Mom, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she mumbled. She turned to face the screen again and almost called on Cassiopeia to cancel the meeting, but a burn of defiance rippled through her and she strode out the side door instead.

Picking up a colander lying upside down in the dirt, she began to harvest the large cherry tomatoes that hung from her eight tomato plants. They’d stood up as best they could to the hail storms that came in late summer, and many of the fruits now displayed the familiar brown pockmarks. Ana hoped Jolie liked to snack on damaged tomatoes. She heard a rumbling and looked toward the sky, surprised to see that dark clouds were rolling in from the Northeast. They were as black as she’d seen them. She touched the bracelet on her wrist and brought up a weather report. She should have seen this by now, but she’d been thrown off all day nervously anticipating the meeting.

Ana jogged to her shed and pulled out some old sheets and a bag of stakes. Within a few minutes, she had covered her entire garden from the large hail and high winds of the advancing nor’easter. She stood back and looked at her work, the once white sheets billowing slightly with the wind. This was at least the tenth time this year that she’d had to do this, and there were even a few storms she had missed, when she was away or asleep. By far the worst year yet, according to Luke’s research. The last report her fellow mission specialist had sent included a milestone for North America. Thirty straight years of steadily increasing storm numbers, rising temperatures, and elevated sea levels. Ana knew this wasn’t even the worst place to be living these days. At least there was relative peace in the States.

She cursed the impending storm, wishing it would move out to the Midwest where the rain was sorely needed. But she couldn’t will it away. All she could do was hope that her work with the mission would somehow make the future better. She’d known she would be a part of it her entire life, and now, as the time for launch drew near, the responsibility weighed heavily on her psyche. Unfailingly, she felt it most acutely each time it stormed.

As she walked back toward the house, the first few drops of rain fell. Soon, it was coming down in sheets. She watched from her living room window as it poured, and worried about Jolie traveling in this weather. By now it would be too late to reschedule. Besides, with a renewed sense of purpose and her mission before her, she realized that she really did need someone to take care of everything while she was gone. She couldn’t leave it to chance, or her mother, who was competent beyond measure, but not compassionate. She wanted to know exactly what would become of the little plot of land she’d called home for over a decade. She’d miss it more than anything, and believing that it would be in good hands was some comfort.

“A vehicle is approaching with Ms. Dann inside,” Cassiopeia chimed suddenly. Ana snapped to attention and moved to the kitchen to warm two mugs of water. She peered outside and watched Jolie step out of the driverless taxi, her clothes immediately soaking through in the drenching rain. Ana ran to the door and held it open, motioning her inside as the car backed down the gravel driveway.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Jolie said as she reached the door. “I’m dripping everywhere.” Her strawberry hair was matted to her head and her clothing clung in a way that made Ana draw a quick breath. She realized she was staring and a blush crept up her neck.

“Uh, hold on a second, let me get a towel.” Ana dashed to a cabinet and grabbed two of them. “Here,” she said as she pushed the towels toward Jolie. Their eyes met for a moment and Ana saw Jolie shiver.

“Thanks.” Jolie took the towels. She smiled distractedly as she blotted her clothing and hair. “Not sure how much good this is going to do, but I appreciate the effort.”

Ana silently chastised herself for not being able to work through this problem. Obviously she should offer her dry clothes and tea. Why couldn’t she think? Her planning and problem solving skills were usually impeccable. She cleared her throat and put her hands on her hips. “Here, uh, wait here for a second and I’ll get you something to wear.” She fumbled the words like an idiot, and realized that she was acting like one as well. “I’ll put your clothes in the dryer while we chat.”

“Thanks, that would be great. Oh, by the way, I’m Jolie,” she said, grinning widely. She stuck her trembling hand out toward Ana, who had begun to walk away. “It’s really nice to meet you.”

“Ana.” She turned back sheepishly and shook Jolie’s cool hand. “Guess the weather could have been better for your trip. I was going to reschedule, but by the time I realized how bad the storm was, it was too late.”

“It’s no problem. Just a little rain, right?” Jolie chuckled, but her eyebrows arched in a way that made it seem like the drive had indeed been precarious. They both listened for a moment as some hail started to pelt the windows.

“You might be stuck here for a bit,” Ana said.

“Tornado warning?”

“Usually. Follow me,” Ana said as she walked toward her room. She emerged with an armful of clothing and a thin blanket. “Just some sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Here’s a heat blanket, too. Oh, and if you want to change in there,” she pointed toward the spare room, “that would be your room.” Ana opened a sealed door to reveal a bed pod inset into the wall with some shelves over it. A small desk fit into the corner next to a door that opened into a closet and some storage space.

Jolie glanced around the room and nodded. “This is cozy, and very white.”

Ana suddenly realized that it must seem tiny and sterile to someone used to living in a Singer dorm room. When she had designed the house all those years ago, she wasn’t expecting to share it with anyone, though she’d added the guest room just in case. An unexpected wave of panic rose in her as she realized what little space and privacy she had to offer a potential roommate.

“But, you know,” Jolie continued, “it might be just what I’m looking for. Let me change and I’ll let you know for sure.”

Ana let out an audible sigh and realized she’d been holding her breath. “Okay. I’ll just be on the couch. With the tea.” Ana winced at her awkwardness as she walked out and shut the door. She put some tea powder in the mugs and sat down, tapping her foot on the floor. What was she doing inviting a stranger to live in her house? There were so many ways this could go wrong. She had only months to go before departure, and a lot of classified experiments to be running in that time. Hopefully, Jolie wouldn’t have the science background to realize what was going on, but what if she figured it out? Ana heard the bedroom door open and snapped her head up.

Jolie emerged with a lightness that warmed the room. She was wearing the gray sweatshirt and matching pants, and toweling her hair. The sweats hung off of her slight frame, the shoulders drooping comically, but she seemed happy and the color was returning to her cheeks. Ana once again found herself staring. She would have a lot of weird behavior to think about tonight. Hoping Jolie wasn’t put off by her awkwardness, Ana motioned her over to the couch.

The hail had changed to rain, and the light filtering into the living area was gray and dull. Ana handed a mug to Jolie, then lifted her own and blew on the hot tea. She moved her fingers over the corner of the coffee table and the light in the room changed to a late afternoon scape.

“So, what do you think?” Ana asked.

“This place is interesting. I like it. And it’s definitely in my price range.”

Ana laughed and pulled her dark hair over her shoulder. “Oh, that,” she said. “I had to put an amount in there. Honestly, I don’t need the money. I already own the house and I don’t really have any expenses that need to be covered. If you’re willing to help me out when I’m away, then just chip in for any extra food we buy. There’s not much, since I grow almost everything here, anyway. Everything except meat.”

“I don’t eat meat. I mean, I would eat it, it’s just usually out of my price range.” Jolie shrugged.

“I haven’t had meat in years,” Ana said. “I do like the occasional bag of roasted crickets, but now that I think about it, it’s been a while for those, too.”

Jolie crinkled her nose. “Never understood the appeal, honestly.”

Ana leaned in and said, “You know what’s really disgusting? Those frozen caterpillars that are supposed to be some kind of replacement for sausage. I can tell you definitively that they are not at all like sausage.”

Laughing, Jolie held her stomach. “You have to stop. I’m going to throw up. I guess I’m lucky I grew up in the middle of nowhere without all the selection you had. We had some chickens for a while, but I think wild animals got them and we just never got more.”

“Speaking of food, I was thinking we could try to share, if you want,” Ana said. “I mean, I like to cook, so I’m happy to share meals. But no pressure,” she added quickly.

“I’m okay with that, yeah. I cook, too, and it’s been a while since I’ve been in a real kitchen. I have a weird schedule, though, so I don’t know if we’ll be home at the same times.”

“Trust me.” Ana laughed. “It can’t be weirder than mine. I’m at Singer a few days a week to teach biochem courses, and I do some of my research there. And sometimes I’m up in the middle of the night working on…things.” Ana caught herself before she gave away more than she should. She saw Jolie’s eyes widen in interest, or perhaps admiration.

“Wow, so you’re a professor? Will it be weird living with a student?” Jolie shifted slightly with discomfort.

“God, no. I’m only a lecturer, and that’s not my real job anyway,” Ana said, dismissing the idea with a wave of her hand. She wondered at how it was so easy to play down her role as liaison between the biochemistry department and their biggest donor, the Hammer Corporation. That part wasn’t entirely secret. Usually, she had to use her clout to convince the corporation stakeholders of their investment’s worth.

A low bell startled the women. “Ana, Martine would like to speak with you. Would you like me to take a message?” Cassiopeia’s voice reminded Ana that there was, and would always be, a third person in the room, watching.

“I’ll call her back later, Cass.” Ana turned away from the wall displaying a picture of Martine, dressed to the nines in Paris.

“She’s really pretty. Who is she?” Jolie asked.

“One of my best friends in the world.” Ana smiled. Martine was gorgeous and brilliant, and if she hadn’t already found her soul mate in Liv, the mission specialist from Antarctica, Ana may have been interested. “Anyway, back to us.” Ana cringed at her suggestion that they were an “us.”

“Do you still keep in touch with your old roommates?” Jolie asked.

Ana looked down at her hands. Would Jolie think it was weird that she hadn’t lived with anybody in thirteen years, didn’t even have friends who came over, and really just wanted a roommate to spite her mother, among other things? If she were in a meeting with stakeholders, or talking to her mother, she would have simply evaded the question. But as Jolie sat intimately next to her, upsetting her equilibrium in what seemed to be a pleasant way, the truth tumbled out without censorship.

“I’ve never had a roommate. I’ve never lived with anyone besides my mother, and I’ve been alone here for over a decade.” She looked carefully at Jolie to gauge her reaction. When she was met with curiosity, she continued. “Actually, the reason that I want one now is that I need someone to take care of the place when I’m not here. I’m going to be gone a lot over the next few months, and then I’ll be gone permanently.”

Before she could continue, a horrified Jolie grabbed her wrist and whispered, “Oh my God, are you dying?”

“What? No, I’m just leaving.”

“Just…leaving?” Jolie asked, confused.

“I can’t actually say much more about it, but that’s the basics. I probably won’t ever come back here, even if I technically could someday.” Ana felt a surge of sadness saying it aloud, but quickly steeled her emotions as she had been practicing for years. “It’s not that nobody will know where I’m going. I just can’t say more about it now.”

Jolie looked at her, still puzzled, and glanced back at the wall where Martine’s picture had been. “Okay, well, it’s cute, the price is right, and you seem nice enough. I’m in, even with all the weird secretive stuff.”

As Jolie’s declaration sank in, Ana sobered. Jolie’s hand still rested on her arm, and the sensation was distracting. She shifted uncomfortably and Jolie seemed to realize where her hand was, quickly drawing it away. Ana was sorry she did.

Maybe having a roommate was a bad idea after all. Ana was sure she wanted to get to know Jolie, but she worried that her training and preparation might suffer from the distraction. It was no wonder that Dr. Mitchell kept her isolated. If having friends of her own, friends she saw on a regular basis, friends who casually touched her arm, was going to be like this, there was no chance that she’d be able to invest all of her attention in the mission. When she flicked her eyes back in front of her, she noticed a hint of amusement play across Jolie’s lips, and it made her insides crumble. For someone who had so carefully planned out her life, the uncontrollable magnetism of the woman across from her was strangely irresistible.

“Okay,” Ana said. “You’re hired. As my new roommate.”

Jolie beamed. “That’s wonderful. Anyway, I feel like I’m already halfway moved in, wearing your clothes and all. Speaking of which, I left mine on the floor in the—my room, I guess. Where’s your dryer?”

“I’ll take care of it,” Ana said. She needed a moment to catch her breath. She’d committed, fully, to the unexpectedly enchanting woman sitting on her couch. In the room, she bent to pick up Jolie’s clothing, holding it carefully in her hands for a moment as she imagined the room occupied, for once. It was an odd thought. For thirteen years, she’d walked by the door, almost never going in except to clean. There was so much she’d have to get used to, but especially the closeness of another body. She looked down at the damp clothing, very aware of how it had spent the earlier part of the day covering Jolie’s fair skin.

As she brought the clothes to the dryer in the hallway, she glanced into the main room. Jolie had picked up her creased and faded paperback and was reading a passage with amusement. Ten or so years ago, Ana had sat on that very couch, cheap romance novel in hand, engrossed in some erotic passage, when her mother came over to check on her. Cassiopeia must have been installed the year afterward because there was nobody to alert her to her visitor. She was reclined while one hand lazily stroked the skin just below her belly button. Before she even registered what was happening, the book was snatched out of her hands. She shivered as she remembered standing, fists clenched, not quite comprehending her mother’s anger. It had been so out of the ordinary to have her mother in the same room that it seemed as if she watched her mother yell at her from afar.

“This is what you read in your free time? I’m disappointed, Ana. I thought you were better than this. The world will be watching and you’ll have more important things to worry about, like survival.” Ana had simply nodded as her mother continued her tirade. “Besides, it doesn’t work like that. Nobody can keep up with you, and it will distract you from your work. Don’t even think about having a relationship until you are settled in your new home, or at least on board the ship.” Up until that point, Ana hadn’t really thought much about relationships or romance as anything other than abstract activities that other people participated in. They had never really fit into her life, and frankly, she hadn’t seen how they could. Ten years later, her mother’s words still rang in her head like a warning.

Standing there, absentmindedly feeding the clothes into the dryer, she regarded Jolie, and knew her mother was right. It would be a distraction, a huge one. But if it felt even a little like the adrenaline rush she was getting thinking about sharing a space with Jolie, she wanted more. Besides, what was a little harmless flirting, as long as she kept her emotions in check?

She returned to the main room just as Jolie was hailing a taxi with her bracelet.

“Are you sure it’s okay to drive in this?” Ana nodded toward the window, which framed an ongoing torrent of rain.

“Technically, a computer’s driving, so I would probably leave that decision to It.”

Ana ran her fingers through her shoulder length chestnut hair and chuckled. “Okay, well do you want to ride in this?” She hoped she didn’t sound too desperate to get Jolie to stay.

“Depends. I’m getting hungry. Are you making dinner?” Jolie asked with a gleam in her eye.

“Only if you’re staying for it,” Ana said.

“I’m starving.”

“Well, okay then. Dinner coming up.” Ana busied herself in the kitchenette, while Jolie sat patiently on the couch, reading the paperback. So far, so good. They seemed to be able to exist in the same space with ease. She’d never been so immediately comfortable with anyone, certainly not the rest of the crew. Their first meeting had been strange, a group of awkward teenagers sitting around a boardroom table, weighing their choices to commit the rest of their lives to a plan that wouldn’t be realized for years. Dr. Mitchell had said to them, “This is your family. You will learn to love each other, work together, and you will carry out the second greatest mission of this century as a cohesive, mentally fit unit. We’re doing it right this time.” Ana had signed the contract as a formality, since she didn’t have a choice. As the daughter of the mission director, she’d been born into this role.

“What are you cooking?” Jolie asked.

Ana jumped, pulled from her thoughts. She hadn’t noticed Jolie settling herself on her elbows on the other side of the island. Jolie was effortlessly attractive, her hair just beginning to dry, a mixture of dark orange clumps framed by wild, wiry strands that danced with static. Ana felt the urge to smooth them and thank her for suddenly making her life more interesting. Her pulse raced as she caught the gingery scent of Jolie’s perfume, or maybe her shampoo. Unexpected heat rose in her cheeks and she dropped her knife in the pile of red pepper she was dicing.

“I, uh—will you excuse me for a minute?” She wiped her hands on her jeans and walked quickly to her room, gently shutting the door behind her. After a few deep, meditative breaths, Ana felt like she might be able to continue making dinner without imagining touching Jolie. But she’d have to send her far, far away from the island.

She returned to the kitchen, avoiding Jolie’s questioning gaze. “Sorry, I just needed a minute. Really weird. Got dizzy for a second.”

“Okay.” Jolie looked concerned. “Are you sure you want me to stay? I can definitely just eat when I’m back, if you don’t feel like cooking.”

Ana shook her head. “No, no need.” The thought of Jolie leaving so soon was worse than her inability to stay focused and the creeping nervousness that churned her stomach. “Besides, I’ve already cut way too many vegetables just for myself, and I’d hate to have to eat the same thing twice in a row.” It was a lie, since she often cooked in large batches to save time. She forced a smile at Jolie, who settled contentedly on the couch with the book, snacking on the cherry tomatoes Ana had left out.

Ana finished cooking and brought the food over to the couch. Jolie’s eyes lit up with the first bite. “This food is amazing, Ana,” she said. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve eaten a meal without any synthetics.”

“Thanks.” Ana blushed. “I’m happy to have someone to cook for. It gets pretty boring cooking for one all the time.”

Jolie breathed in the scent of the food on her plate. “Is that rosemary? It smells incredible.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s my favorite. I put it in practically everything, which I’m sure would be frowned upon in culinary circles.”

“Well, I’m not a culinary circle, so you’re safe.” Jolie smirked. “So, you grew all of this?”

Ana’s heart swelled with pride. “All of it. I’ve got the garden outside, and a terrarium that I’ll show you some other time. Lots of it comes from there, and I store a lot of the extras in my cold storage.” She gestured toward the island.

“That’s a kitchen island,” Jolie said, confused.

“Almost everything in here is more than it seems.” Ana smiled and glanced around the room.

Jolie didn’t miss a beat. Her eyes pierced Ana’s as a devilish grin spread across her face. “I get that impression,” she said. Ana almost choked on a piece of lettuce.

The storm blew over as soon as they’d finished. Ana didn’t realize she was having so much fun until Jolie stood to retrieve her own clothes. She felt a hint of regret as the taxi crept up her gravel driveway.

“So, I’ll be here Thursday to move in. Let me know if something changes and I’ll come another day,” Jolie said as she moved toward the door.

“Thursday is fine.” Ana thought for a moment. “Actually, I’m going to be teaching a class in the morning, so if you need help getting your stuff together after that, give me a call.” She found herself willing to make any excuse to spend time with Jolie, the sooner the better.

“That would actually be great, if you don’t mind. I don’t have much stuff, so it won’t take long. My best friend, Nova, will probably be there helping, and I know she wants to meet you.”

Ana blushed. “I didn’t realize I was so famous,” she said.

“She dared me—I mean, she wanted me to come out here and look at this place. She saw your ad, too.”

“Wow, I’ve never been a dare before,” Ana said, amused at Jolie’s attempt to cover up her words.

Jolie winced. “Sorry, that’s not what I meant to say.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind. I understand that the whole thing is a little weird.” Ana shrugged. “Anyway, I’ll be there. Send me the details.”

“You got it. Better go. These storms don’t like to wait too long for you before they start up again,” Jolie said almost apologetically as she gestured toward the driveway. They both walked to the door and stood facing each other. “Well, bye. Really, really nice to meet you, Ana. Thanks for everything.”

“Of course,” Ana said.

Jolie stuck out her hand and Ana melted as their fingers touched. Before she knew it, Jolie was out the door.

“Cassiopeia,” she said a few moments after the door closed. “What the hell just happened?”

“I believe you know what just happened, Ana.”

She covered her face and groaned in frustration, then flopped down on the couch with a ridiculous smile and replayed the afternoon in her mind.

Chapter Five

“I can’t believe I’ve barely said two words to you this whole week.” Jolie threw a pile of shirts into an open box and tucked in the flaps. They’d been packing her room for ten minutes, and she was already over it.

“Sorry, girl, I’ve barely said two words to myself. Pledging all week. And all next week. I can’t believe how busy I’ve been.” Nova sighed heavily as she dumped the contents of a drawer into another box.

“See? This is why I can’t be in your sorority.” Jolie emptied the rest of her clothing in a third box. “No me time. I already have no time to go to the studio, then you add pledging, all the parties.”

“Understood, understood. So? Are you going to tell me about crazy inventor chick?” Nova yawned and sat on the bed in a patch of sunshine.

Jolie gave up packing and joined her, running her hands over the colorful quilt that her mother had made her as a high school graduation present. “You’d better start calling her Ana, or else she’ll think we’ve been talking about her.”

“Well, we have. And sure, if I ever meet her, I’ll use her given name. So, was she as hot in person as she was in that photo?”

“Really? You thought that was attractive?” Jolie scoffed. “For your information, she’s a lot hotter in person.” She elbowed Nova in the ribs. “And you’ll get the chance to confirm that in…” She looked at the time on her bracelet. “Fifteen minutes.”

“What? She’s coming over here? She leaves her house?” Nova snorted as Jolie punched her in the arm.

“You’re the worst. She works here as some kind of professor, but I’ve definitely never seen her around.” I would have noticed, Jolie thought. “Anyway, she offered to help me move since she’s already here today. And judging by the amount of progress we’ve made so far, we need it.”

“That’s nice of her. So, tell me how the roommate interview went. You’ve got fourteen minutes.” Nova lay on her side and used an elbow to prop herself up.

Jolie leaned back and smiled, remembering. A warm rush cascaded through her body. “Well, things didn’t quite go as planned. Remember that huge storm on Sunday?” She looked at Nova, who nodded. “Yeah, so I got caught in that. I was soaked when I got there, so she made me tea and let me wear some of her clothes while mine were in the dryer. Oh, and she made me dinner while we waited for the rain to stop.” She smirked at Nova, whose eyebrows seemed to be stuck in a raised position.

“Mmm hmm. And then you made sweet, sweet love?”

“Oh my God, you are such a pervert.” Jolie grabbed a pillow and hit her over the head with it.

Nova was incredulous, even as she deflected the blows. “You are such a prude. Please tell me that doesn’t sound like a date to you.”

“Um, I went to look at her house, and now I’m going to be her roommate. It was most definitely not a date,” Jolie said, though she couldn’t deny the lingering feeling that there had been some kind of attraction between them.

“So you don’t have a thing for her? You did say she was hot.”

“Well, yeah,” she sputtered. “Objectively, she’s attractive. But there’s no thing. Why are you so obsessed with my love life, anyway?”

Nova ignored her. “So, if I asked her out, you would be fine with that.”

“Nova. Do not. Do you realize how awkward that would be? Plus, if her bed is anything like my new bed, there’s no room for that.” Jolie hesitated and Nova waited. “And how do you even know she likes women?”

“I guess we’ll see.” Nova got up and straightened her clothes. She was about to close a half-filled box when a tentative knock came from the door. Jolie scrambled to get off the bed to the door, but Nova beat her.

“Don’t worry. I got this.” Nova winked and opened the door.

Jolie put her hand over her eyes, unable to watch whatever show Nova was putting on.

“Hey, there. You must be Ana. I’m Nova, Jolie’s accomplice. Please come in,” she said in the sweetest voice Jolie had ever heard come out of her mouth.

Jolie shot her a warning look and mouthed, “you’re the worst.”

“Thanks, hi,” Ana said, uncertainly. She stepped into the room in a perfectly fitted suit, her dark hair pulled back in a neat bun. She carefully placed a locked briefcase against the wall, and caught Jolie’s eye as she turned back to the center of the room. “Nice to see you again.” A shy smile crept across Ana’s face.

Jolie couldn’t help but smile back. “You too. Thanks for coming by.” Jolie’s voice came out strained. This put together version of Ana was nothing like the one she’d seen days earlier. This Ana seemed much more mature, with an air of quiet confidence that had Jolie imagining she was somewhat more accomplished than she’d initially let on. She regarded Ana curiously, trying to piece together the little information she knew about her.

Nova cleared her throat to break the silence. “All right, ladies. How about we get this shit done? I love you, but I have stuff to do later,” she said to Jolie.

“Right.” Jolie gestured to the boxes. “So, Ana, we’re just kind of putting things in boxes. Have at it.” Jolie continued to throw items in a box, and felt Ana surveying the progress over her shoulder. She caught a familiar scent as Ana leaned in. Rosemary? She inhaled deeply, very aware of Ana’s closeness, and suddenly felt lightheaded. She retreated to the wall, steadying herself against the door frame, where she had a somewhat better view of Ana in her work clothes. There was something undeniably appealing about the thought of her standing in front of a class and lecturing. Perhaps she just became interested in whatever kind of science Ana taught.

As she tried to melt further into the wall, Nova gave her a funny look. “Jo?”

Jolie shook her head almost imperceptibly, unwilling to let Nova pull her out of her daze.

Ana broke the silence. “Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re both terrible at packing. I bet I could fit everything in this room in the six boxes you already put together.”

Jolie and Nova looked at each other, amused. “Well, we’re not going to win any awards for our packing skills, that’s for sure,” Jolie said.

Nova smirked mischievously. “I’ll bet you dinner that you can’t fit everything. You win, Jolie will take you to dinner. You lose, you take me. Deal?”

Jolie immediately jumped in. “Wait, you can’t just—”

“Deal,” Ana said. She shrugged. “Either way, I win.” She took off her suit jacket, placed it on the bed and rolled up her white shirtsleeves. While her back was turned, Jolie turned to Nova and mouthed, “what the fuck?”

When she was done giving Nova the silent third degree, Jolie returned her gaze to Ana. Her undershirt was visible through the white fabric of her button-up, and Jolie could see the hint of well defined muscles in her shoulders and arms. She was a shoulder person, she’d realized recently. She had a Serena Stone action movie to thank for the epiphany. Serena’s shoulders were nice, well built and able to carry insane numbers of weapons, but Ana’s looked like they could lift all that and do other things she’d never imagined Serena’s doing. Like letting Jolie run her hands over them as she kissed Ana’s clavicle. Like holding her body tightly to Ana’s. Even though this kind of thinking seemed dangerous, she was thoroughly enjoying this iteration of her new roommate, commanding and self assured.


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