Elena’s hands shook as she burst through the front door and scanned the apartment for her roommate. “Reese!”
Reese must still be on campus.
Elena raced into the kitchen and slammed open cupboard doors until she found what she was looking for. She grabbed a metal pot, filled it with water, and placed it on the tile counter across from the fridge—clear away from any potential heat source, like the stove.
It was ridiculous to stare at a pot of water, but to run a true test she needed to repeat what she’d done in class forty-five minutes ago.
A few seconds passed, and then she felt it. The tingling beneath her skin erupted like before, which wasn’t reassuring, though she supposed it was good for experimental purposes. She thought about how water molecules reacted when heated, just as she’d thought about the solution’s properties in class. By instinct—the way she’d done with the class chemicals—she ran her hand over the pot.
The water boiled. With nothing to warm it.
Elena flinched as steam billowed up. Not again. What the hell? She eased back until she bumped into the fridge, her pulse racing. What was happening?
After a second, she grabbed the handle and tossed the pot into the stainless steel sink before it scorched the tile. Or did something else it wasn’t supposed to do.
Leaning forward, she carefully held the back of her hand over the place where the pot had been and sensed the warmth there. She curled her palms around the edge of the counter and gripped hard.
“It’s okay.” She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Everything is going to be okay.”
She’d gone straight home to collect her thoughts after her solution had boiled over in class without heat, but she couldn’t run an experiment in her kitchen. Something wonky must have gone on with the chemicals in class. Maybe a leftover residue had been stuck to the bottom of the beaker. That didn’t explain the water boiling just now, but there had to be a logical reason.
Hurrying into her bedroom, Elena grabbed her laptop. She needed to return to ground zero where the liquid anomalies had begun—in a campus lab. There she could access the right equipment for measuring and calculating every step, every nuance, to determine what was making the liquids boil.
Reese stormed into the room, startling Elena, and plopped down on the bed. “Guess what?”
“Where’d you come from?” Elena said as she continued scrolling through the online campus map for an open lab, but it was no use. All of them were closed, except during class hours.
How the hell was she going to experiment if she couldn’t get inside a lab? Her next class was a week from now, and what if the chemicals did something weird again? She’d managed to hide it from her classmates today. The chances of that a second time were slim.
“I just got home, but listen to this.” The bed squeaked as though Reese had shifted closer. “You’re going to have to cook me meals for the rest of the school year after what I scored for us.”
Reese’s words cut through the fog of Elena’s distress. She glanced over incredulously. “How is me cooking for you everyday any different from what I do now?”
“You know I’m not domestic.”
“And I am?”
The off-campus dorm they lived in offered meal plans on campus, but that required a two-block trek she and Reese rarely managed without strong motivation.
“At least your aunt taught you how to cook,” Reese said. “My mom paid people to do that stuff. How was I supposed to learn?”
Reese had grown up a rich kid in Los Angeles with chefs and cleaning people—Elena wasn’t exactly sure about the extent of their domestic help. Despite the obvious differences in their backgrounds, Elena got lucky in the roommate lottery. Reese had become one of her closest friends in the two months since they’d started their freshman year at Dawson University.
“Fine, you made your point.” Elena might joke about Reese not lifting a finger in the kitchen, but she secretly didn’t mind cooking. Much like creating solutions in her chemistry labs, fussing around with food and experimenting with spices calmed her. Only today’s lab hadn’t calmed her. It had turned her into a frazzled mess. “I’m kind of busy, Reese. What’s up?”
Reese stared at her shiny, cobalt-painted nails. “Oh, nothing. Just that you might want to toss in laundry duty along with meal prep after what I’ve arranged.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.” Elena quit the online map and rifled through her backpack for the piece of paper she’d scribbled her professor’s email address on. She hated going to one of the professors, but who else could get her inside a chemistry lab? “I’m in a rush, Reese. Tell me what it is already.”
Her roommate rose quickly off the bed, excitement pouring off her as she paced the room. “Let’s just say if everything works out, we won’t have any problem getting into bars.”
“The bouncers might disagree. We’re underage.”
“Not if we have IDs that say we’re twenty-one. You said you didn’t like partying at the fraternity houses. This solves the problem.”
Elena shook her head. It really didn’t solve the problem because going to bars wasn’t high on her list either, but that was beside the point. “I’m not even going to ask how you managed to get us fake IDs.”
Reese winked and walked toward the door.
“Wait,” Elena called out. “Before you go, can you help me with something? I need a lab. One that’s open after classes. I…screwed up an experiment today. I have to work it out before the exam or my grade will take a beating.” Which was partially true. Elena was on scholarship; grades mattered. But mostly she needed to make sure she wasn’t losing her ever-lovin’ mind.
Liquids boiling without heat? Not possible. Yet it had happened. Twice.
Reese had crafty ways of getting what she needed on campus—case in point, the fake IDs—and it often involved something not altogether legal. But Elena was past caring about stuff like that. This was an emergency.
Reese rested her hand on the doorknob. “Try our neighbor. He’s a chem geek like you, only way better looking than the students you hang out with.”
Elena rolled her eyes. She and her chemistry friends might be geeks, but Reese was one of the biggest geeks she knew—just in a pretty, less socially awkward package. She was a double major in political science and philosophy. Elena had learned the first week of school to never debate with Reese unless she wanted her ass handed to her.
“He seems connected in the department,” Reese continued. “He could be a good resource.”
“How do you even know these things?”
She blinked innocently. “Did you not hear my reference to his hotness? Need I say more?”
Elena closed her eyes and gave her head a shake. “No. No, you don’t.”
Even if the only reason her roommate knew about this guy was because she’d scouted out all the attractive coeds by major and place of residence, this was a good lead. The best Elena had that didn’t involve speaking to a professor. She preferred begging their neighbor to help her find a lab over hiding the truth from someone who could get her kicked out of the chemistry department.
Who made liquids boil by waving their hands? No one, that’s who. Which was why she needed to find the scientific cause.
Elena slid on her leather bomber. The jacket had been her late father’s, and now she wore it, along with the amethyst necklace her mother had left behind. Her parents had been gone a long time, but holding on to their things made her feel less alone. If ever there was a time she needed a piece of them near, it was now.
“Don’t come home too late,” Reese said. “You just turned eighteen; we have cake to devour. I queued up She’s All That on Netflix. And if I can convince you to go, there’s a party on A Street. We need to celebrate.”
Elena had almost forgotten it was her birthday. She’d woken not feeling well, and the day had deteriorated from there.
Reese didn’t say the party was at a fraternity, but most of the parties she went to were. If Elena had wanted to hang out in a place that smelled like men’s gym socks and stale beer, she could have invited her cousin Mateo to stay for a few days. No offense to the fraternity party, but a calm night with trashy food and a nineties movie worked.
She grabbed her backpack and followed her roommate out. “Cake and a movie sounds perfect. I’ll see you a little later.”
With any luck, her neighbor could help her gain access to a lab and she’d find a reasonable explanation for why crap was boiling. She prayed it was that simple.
But life had never been simple.
* * *
Elena rapped twice at the house next door. Her street was a mix of off-campus dorms, like the one she and Reese lived in, and regular student housing.
After a moment, the door opened, and the sharp scent of pot smoke billowed out. A boy with a long knobbed nose, whose head came to her shoulders, stood on the other side. He leaned against the doorjamb and raked his gaze down her body.
Elena groaned internally. Most bizarre thing ever. At five foot ten, she never failed to attract guys she towered over. But she’d stopped trying to figure out the opposite sex ages ago. Her boyfriends were her beaker and the periodic table—two things in life that never failed her.
Well, until they had. That’s why she was standing on her stoner neighbor’s doorstep. Her beaker boyfriend had just dropped her on her ass.
“Which one of you is a chem major?” Wow, smooth. Simmer down already and show some social skills. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Sorry, I’m Elena, your neighbor. I heard one of you studies chemistry. I could use some advice.”
Okay, not advice, per se, but no need to get into the dirty details until she was talking to the right person.
The guy in front of her banged a fist against an interior wall. “Derek!” he yelled, and sauntered toward a living room on the left. Another stoner sat on a couch there, zoned out with a psychedelic-swirled bong in his hand.
Excellent. So far, neither of these guys looked like they could hold a pencil, let alone measure the pH of an acid.
Footsteps thundered down the stairs and a third person emerged, causing Elena’s stomach to hitch. This guy must be Derek. And yes, she got why Reese had noticed him. Elena was antisocial, not dead.
Reese was right. Derek wasn’t like the other students in her department. His clothes were normal, if a bit baggy, and his golden-brown hair was a rumpled mess, as if he’d risen from his bed and hadn’t even bothered to run his fingers through it. But with a square jawline, heavy brow, and sensual lips, he was rather intimidating in the holy-hotness department. And tall.
Because Elena was the height of an average man, taller men turned her head. If she was paying attention.
Derek took in her face, his eyes widening. For a moment, it seemed as though he recognized her, which was odd, because he didn’t look familiar. He peered down on her from a good half a foot, but she would have noticed him even if he didn’t have the height to make her insides gooey. Derek lived in the house next door—an entire lawn away. And that might explain why she’d never seen him before. Elena was observant in class, not so much with her fellow students.
“You’re a chemistry major?” she asked.
He blinked but otherwise made no response.
Okayyy. She took that to mean yes.
She glanced at the two characters on the couch, their eyes rimmed with red, glassy, and half-lidded. They weren’t paying attention, but she wanted privacy. “Can we talk somewhere?”
Derek led her to a dingy kitchen and turned a mismatched chair around. He slumped into it, facing her, and draped one long arm across the dining table. His hand was as big as her foot, and she wore size eights. He wasn’t overtly muscled like the athletes at Dawson, but his broad back and shoulders stood out beneath the oversized T-shirt he wore. In some ways he was like a puppy—all limbs and paws—but he carried himself well for such a tall guy.
And why was she focusing on the way this guy looked? She had important things to worry about.
She sat in the seat beside him and smoothed back her wavy hair before reciting the speech she’d prepared on her way over. “My name’s Elena. I live in the complex next door. I’m a chemistry major too.” In a moment of inspiration, she flashed the Rosales smile her cousin Mateo claimed opened doors.
Derek’s hand flexed, but his face remained unmoved.
Gahh. Why did she think she could charm this guy? She’d never had Mateo’s ability with people.
She sat up and came straight to the point. “I was wondering if you know of any campus labs available for private use.”
“Private use?” They were the first words Derek had uttered, and they delivered the same punch to her gut as his entrance in the hallway.
Elena shifted in her seat. The low, warm tone of his voice or the fact that she was asking for something highly unethical—probably both—sent prickles across her shoulders.
His gaze narrowed, and he took more than a cursory glance at her face this time, his look delving, as if he could see inside her head to the secrets she hid.
“My class labs aren’t open after hours,” she hurried on, “but tonight I have to practice.” She nervously rubbed her thigh with the heel of her hand, freezing when his eyes caught the motion.
“Practice.” His tone mocked.
Okay, he was right not to believe her, but still. “Yes. Practice.”
This wasn’t going well. Arrogant men drove her nuts, and there was something inherently superior about Derek’s demeanor. Her frustration rose, and he hadn’t even said yes or no yet. She mentally counted to five…
The liquids shouldn’t have boiled. There had to be a reason, and she’d figure it out with or without this guy’s help.
Should she leave?
Elena shoved a dark curl from her face and huffed out a breath. Derek’s assessing stare rose from her eyes to the curl—and lingered.
Was he passing some sort of judgment based on her looks? And okay, maybe she’d just done the same to him. Elena was lighter due to her mother’s coloring, or so she’d been told—she’d never known her mom. But even with half of her mother’s genes, she looked Latina, according to the white people in her hometown. Did Derek have something against Mexicans?
Discrimination back home was subtle—little things like shop owners being less welcoming to her and her aunt when they entered a store compared to how they greeted white customers. Elena had learned to ignore it, but in this instance, the treatment rankled.
“Forget it.” She stood and reached for her backpack. She might be jumping to conclusions about the prejudice thing, but it was obvious Derek wasn’t going to help her.
“Stop.” Though he’d spoken softly, his voice commanded.
Normally a tone like that would have ticked her off, but for some reason she eased back into the seat.
“I know of a place,” he said carefully. “My mentor’s…out of town. You can use his lab.”
Seriously? She’d hoped for this, but she hadn’t actually believed an undergrad would have access to a private lab.
Before she could second-guess his motives or consider all the reasons why this was a bad idea, she said, “Thank you.”
Derek tapped his finger on the table, his dark blue eyes studying her again.
Her heartbeat spiked, and she broke eye contact. She wasn’t used to attractive guys staring at her, unless they were five foot four and fantasized about dating an Amazon. “So can I go there now? Do I need a key?”
Derek stood, pulled out a cell phone from his pocket, and glanced at the screen. “Give me five minutes. I’ll walk you over.”
He’s going too?
She jumped up and jerked on her backpack, accidentally knocking into Derek’s arm. With her chest.
Not the first time her boobs had collided with an unsuspecting object, just the most embarrassing.
She froze then carefully eased back an inch, only to find that the air between them had changed the way it did before a lightning storm—positive and negative molecules separating, creating the urgency to rush back together. She glared at the empty space between them, as if it, like the liquid anomalies, had betrayed her.
Slowly, Elena scanned up Derek’s broad chest and shoulders, beyond the firm jaw, tangling momentarily with his full lips, and landing on his eyes. He was staring down, his beautiful gaze almost threatening, as though he sensed the crackling and blamed it on her.
And maybe it was her fault. She didn’t know what came from her and what didn’t. Or why strange things kept happening today.
“You don’t have to go with me,” she said. “I can find it. There’s no need to put you out.”
Of course he’d want to go. It was his lab. But she didn’t need a witness. Bad enough her classmates had been around for the incident this afternoon. She’d cleaned it up quickly without anyone noticing, but privacy, a safe place to figure things out—that was what she needed.
Derek’s jaw hardened. “Either I go with you or you can forget about the lab.”
She didn’t like his tone, but how many people had access to a private lab? It was a strange coincidence her neighbor happened to, but Elena wasn’t going to question her good fortune.
Maybe she should have.