Chapter One


The warmth from the cup of mocha in my hands penetrates my gloves and spreads through my body. Inhale— Aluminum, Silicon, Phosphorus. Exhale— Sulfur, Chlorine, Argon. The sweet aroma lingers in my nose as I prepare to repeat my calming exercise, and then a ping from my phone interrupts.

Phoebe: Hey, Sweetie, just checking on how your first week alone in the apartment was.

Zoe: The apartment is… quiet.

Trista: Admit it—you were sadder when I left three months ago.

Phoebe: It definitely got quieter when you flew off to LA. I’ll admit to that.

Zoe: Nuh-uh. You two are not doing this to me right now. I cannot handle it.

Phoebe: Told you she was having a mini-panic attack.

Zoe: Am I that predictable?

Phoebe: You used ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’ so yeah.

Trista: How far into the periodic table did you get?

Zoe: Aragon on the exhale.

There’s a long pause where both Trista and Phoebe type, then stop, then start again, and stop. I sigh, plopping into an empty chair where I can sip on my sweet comfort coffee and panic in peace.

Zoe: That’s number eighteen.

Phoebe: That’s venturing into the major panic attack zone, Zo.

Trista: Where are you? What are you doing? Are you alone? Do I need to get Brian down there?

Zoe: At Brain Juice, drinking my mocha, surrounded by people, and Brian had work to do, so he couldn’t join me.

Trista: Oh. He’s been working a lot lately.

Zoe: He’s fine, Tris. I, on the other hand, can’t seem to step out of the café.

Trista: Hey, I get it. I could barely make it to work and back my first week alone in LA. But people are counting on you, Zo.

I take another sip of strength from my cup and stand.

Zoe: Yeah, you’re right. I’m up, I’m walking, aaaaaaand… I’m out on the quad!

Phoebe: That’s my kickass BFF!

Trista: Go, Dr. Lawrence, go! No, seriously, go to work.

Phoebe: Speaking of work, I need to get back to doing mine.

Zoe: Happy hour video chat tomorrow? East Coast time this week, right?

Phoebe: Yes! I need a drink after the week I’ve had, and I need to see your faces.

Trista: Ditto. Love you guys <3

I reply with a bunch of heart and kiss emojis and slide my phone back into its designated pocket in my tote before taking in the scenery. Piles of yellow, brown, and orange leaves lay under the trees. Some escaped their mound and are dancing in the crisp breeze, which is ruffling the strands of hair that escaped from under my beret. Fall is my absolute favorite.

“Doctor Lawrence,” one of my colleagues greets me as he hurries by to make it to class. I nod with a smile.

I need to get to my own class soon. Up until last week, I’d always get sucked into lengthy conversations with my friends during our weekly coffee date, causing me to run to make it on time. But I’m the only one still in Boston. Except for my cousin, Brian, but he’s going through a thing and didn’t want to leave his self-imposed pity bubble just to have coffee with me.

I snort and roll my eyes, pot meet kettle.

So, here I am, hugging a Grande reusable to-go cup, like the good little eco-aware geek that I am, with time to spare for a change.

As I make my way through the community college grounds to my lecture hall, I feel deflated and abandoned.

I’m happy for the girls. They’re chasing their dream careers and making a name for themselves, and it’s not the first time we’ve been apart. Over the course of our twenty-five-year friendship, we’ve lived in different parts of the country, the world, in my case. But we always had a plan to come back together again.

With each passing year and new long-term ambition, my loneliness feels increasingly permanent and ominous. I never realized how much I relied on the girls for my social life until they were gone.

And though I love my academic career, excel in my field, and adore teaching, there’s a sense of stagnation in the romantic aspect of my life. One would even venture to say it’s comatose.

For as long as I can remember, guys have been intimidated by my IQ. It’s all fun and games until they realize I didn’t just skip a grade or two—I’m a legit genius with a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard. Guys my age, at least the ones I’ve dated, struggle with the fact that, on paper, I’m smarter than them, and my diploma is more impressive than theirs. The pressure to prove their intelligence became too much, and they decided to return to dating normal girls.

Their words, not mine.

What does “normal girls” even mean? Trista and Phoebe aren’t geniuses, and they out-crazy me ninety-nine percent of the time.

I’m done, totally over it. At twenty-five, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my intelligence is too much for boys to handle.

I still say boys because, deep down, I hope that somewhere out there there’s a guy man enough to see my brains as a turn-on rather than a relationship kill switch. Like my dad sees my mom. Given, my parents divorced over two decades ago, but that was never about my mom’s intellect.

I hook my thumb through the strap of my tote with conviction. The girls are out living life, chasing dreams, getting laid. God, I need to get laid. I have to take chances as well, meet new people, put myself out there, or I’m going to end up pathetic and alone while everyone else around me moves on with their life.

As I approach my lecture hall, I hear Professor Ned Thorne wrap up his engineering design class. I decide to wait at the faculty entrance, where I can observe. He notices me standing there and winks.

Taking on the teaching gig at the community college was an ego-driven whim, fueled mostly by the guy I was dating at the time calling me boring and predictable. I tried to disprove him by applying for a job teaching night class when my schedule didn’t permit it.

In retrospect, I can see how absurd and downright sad it was to assume this would cause him to see me as something more than a big-brained academic.

The sheer joy I experience every semester when I get to meet new people from all walks of life with a passion for learning was worth a few months of dating a jackass.

I should make spur-of-the-moment decisions more often. Or so I keep saying.

The shuffle of laptops and pens being packed is my cue to walk up to the podium and set up my presentation. I stop to give Ned an affectionate arm squeeze and receive a fond pat on my shoulder, the wrinkles around his kind blue eyes deepen with his smile.

“When are we sitting for coffee?” he asks. “I want to hear all about that new polymer you’re working on.”

“Anytime you want, Ned, just say the word.”

“A beautiful young lady such as yourself should have a full dance card.” He shakes a finger at me with a tssk. “My grandson, Matthew, is visiting us next weekend. I know you went on a date with him a few months ago, but he was fresh out of a bad breakup. Try again. Maybe it will be different this time around.”

I force a polite smile, hoping to hide my discomfort.

“Matthew is nice, and we had a pleasant time.” During which I felt zero chemistry. “We remained friends. I even referred him to that job with my best friend’s older brothers, remember?”

 “Alright. I’ll stop pressing the matter.” Ned shakes his head at me in amusement. “He’ll show up eventually, Zoe, the man who’ll sweep you off your feet.”

His words hit every nerve I’ve exposed in the past fifteen minutes with my spiraling thoughts. I give Ned a tight nod and hurry to the podium, where I start setting up my presentation.

As I stare at the screen, a movement catches the corner of my eye. I glance up absentmindedly, only to do a double take. A gorgeous young man I’ve never seen before is taking a seat in the front row. His full lips stretch into a broad smile when he catches my gaze. With a single glance from his emerald-green eyes, I’m hooked, drawn to the mischievous sparkle that promises dirty secrets only we would share.

In a feeble attempt to stop my overt glaring at his on-display abs flexing under a tight-fitted gray T-shirt and brown leather jacket, I force my gaze up.

Not fucking helpful! Because with all due respect to what is undeniably a firm hard body packed in straight-legged jeans, those soft waves of shockingly black hair casually falling over his forehead are practically begging my fingers to tangle in them. And that is just a whole new level of erotic daydreams I should not be having about one of my students.

Clearing my throat, I turn my gaze back to the computer screen, away from the soft features of his face pulled perfectly together by a firm square jaw and tall forehead.

My fingers go through the motions, pulling up files and clicking links. I greet my students with a smile as they walk in and take a seat, but I can feel his gaze on me, intense and full of desire, making me blush.

My golden rule is to never socially engage with my students, let alone get romantically involved with them. It’s unprofessional at best and blatant abuse of power at worst.

Shaking the embarrassment off, I take a sip of my mocha. The sweet beverage is a stark reminder of my loneliness and unfulfilled resolution to take more risks in life.

My eyes are drawn to the man in the front row. He’s looking at me as if he’s gradually peeling every garment off my body in his head. I’m definitely returning the favor later tonight. His lips curve into a slow, suggestive smile when he sees me staring. And there go the panties.

I smile back with the most curt, uninterested smile I can muster under the circumstances. It must have been a poor effort, because his panty-melting grin just broadens, heat sparking those dazzling green eyes. It’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.

Not that it matters. A guy like that, who could have any girl he wants, would never take a second look at me once he realizes what I am. Which will happen in ten seconds when I start my lecture. I take a deep breath and steel myself towards the inevitable disappointment before taking a step forward to greet my students, telling myself it’s for the best since I can’t have him, anyway.


Two nights a week. That’s all I get.

Six hours of reprieve to pretend I’m just your average twenty-six-year-old whose only care in the world is getting his college graduate. When they’re over, it’s back to the burdens of life outside these walls. I don’t usually entertain these pointless thoughts, but today, they won’t go away.

My phone vibrates with an incoming message. Work. Someone called in sick and Lenny, my boss, is asking if I can pick up their Friday shift tomorrow. I answer with two thumbs up. It’s not like I have anywhere better to be.

That last thought leaves a sour taste in my mouth. With a sigh, I collect my laptop and pull the protective sleeve out of my backpack, which results in the whole thing tipping over. I curse under my breath as I quickly catch it, but not before a bunch of random stuff falls out. Crouching low, I retrieve my phone’s power pack and an assortment of restaurant wet wipes, wondering how long they’ve been in my bag and if they’re still wet or if all they have left in them is the wipe.

I realize I’m the last one in the lecture hall as sounds of people pouring into the next class start to fill the space, signaling it’s time for me to leave. Just as I sling my backpack over my shoulder, I notice Professor Thorne stop and greet a young woman.

A timid little thing that seems to be doing her best to hide anything remotely feminine about herself. Her short, latte-brown hair frames her oval face. She’s wearing a simple tan sweater that seems to swallow her frame, dark brown slacks, and run-of-the-mill heeled brown boots. Everything about her appears small and monotonous, except for the vibrant purple streaks in her hair.

Color me intrigued.

At first glance, she isn’t really my taste. I prefer a woman with a bit of danger in her eyes, the kind that doesn’t carry any expectations aside from a good time, but something here warrants a second look.

Settling into the front row, I examine the newcomer more closely as she approaches the podium to hook up a laptop.

At first, she doesn’t register my presence. Then her gaze snaps up. Her large brown eyes widen as she examines me, and a pinkish hue creeps up her neck and to her cheeks. I wonder where else I’d find that enticing blush when I have her naked.

I try to picture what she looks like under all her brown, baggy clothes. She must realize what’s going on in my head because her doe eyes grow wider and her curvy rose-hued lips part on a silent gasp—hot—before her gaze jerks back to the screen, cheeks burning a deep shade of pink. Hotter.

I keep my eyes trained on her, wondering who she is. She’s young, so I assume she’s from administration, preparing a presentation for the next lecture. The layered fringe haircut with purple highlights further solidifies my guess about her age.

She’s going through the motions, working on her computer, smiling at the people walking in. But she knows I’m still looking. She shifts under my gaze, and her slender fingers push her short hair behind her ear just to have the brown and purple strands drop back across her face. One such purple streak caresses her cheek and teases the corner of her eye, making my fingers itch to get up on the podium and brush it back.

She looks up at me again, and something in my chest squeezes for a millisecond when, in an unexpected epiphany, I realize what about her is drawing me in. Despite my affinity for women with the need for cheap thrills, something about how her gaze seems to shine with a bright, joyful glimmer captivates me.

Her rosy lips shape into a shy smile, and her chestnut eyes gleam with mystery. I can’t help but smile back, determined more than ever to get to know her. So, I stay put, waiting for her to finish setting up, planning to follow her out and invite her for a drink.

I lose track of how long I sit gawking like an idiot before she walks to the front of the stage. Her level of authority as she opens her mouth to speak surprises me until I hear what she has to say.

“Good evening, everybody. Welcome to Gen Chem Two. Some of you took my Gen Chem One course last year, but for the benefit of the fresh faces, I’m Dr. Zoe Lawrence, and I’ll be the main lecturer for this course.”

She isn’t a secretary, she’s the fucking professor!

“Every Thursday, we’ll have a ninety-minute lecture and then, on Tuesday, two hours in the lab.”

She keeps talking, but I’ve stopped listening.

I am not one to be blindsided, but that curveball hit me right between the eyes. The petite brunette with a shy demeanor and an unhealthy affinity to the color brown has a goddamn fucking Ph.D. in chemistry. This, in complete contrast to her flabbergasted reaction to me, is something she exudes an air of unwavering confidence about.

Sure, this side of her is hot on a volcanic eruption level, but what in the world am I doing even looking at a girl so out of my league I’m not sure we exist on the same astral plane?

My hand runs over my neck, and I scan the room, looking for the easiest way out, when I catch her gaze. I see a flash of acceptance pass through her eyes, and for the smallest second, the joy is gone when she gives me a sad but understanding glance without breaking her lecture pace.

She expected me to leave once I realized what she is.

I mentally slap myself upside the head for her benefit. I’d spent the better part of the last fifteen minutes not so subtly undressing her with my eyes, and now I’m ready to bolt because she’s smarter than average? Something I assume she’s accustomed to judging by her reaction when she understood I was prepared to flee. It’s a dick move, and I’m a dick for considering it.

So, instead of bolting, I make myself comfortable and pull out my laptop. Zoe’s voice falters with a note of surprise, and she clears her throat.

I open Professor Thorne’s latest assignment, figuring I might as well get a head start while stuck in a class I have zero interest in. Every once in a while, I peek up at Zoe and see she’s looking at me warily. Every time I catch her staring is followed by a futile attempt to tuck her too-short hair behind her ear. I smile at her and wink, though I have to be honest—it’s with false confidence.

“Man up, Eric,” I grumble to myself quietly. “She’s just a girl. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Still, I have a sneaky feeling that I’m in way over my head with this one.

Ninety minutes later, I’ve freed up my Saturday from homework assignments. I wait for Zoe to finish taking questions from her students, admiring how she holds her own with every one of them.

Everyone seems to like her—young and old, male and female—all smiling with a look of admiration as she speaks. They respect her. I acknowledge, again, how far out of my league Zoe is, but I’m too invested at this point to walk away.

When the queue clears, I climb the three stairs to the podium and stand behind her, waiting for her to stop packing her bag and acknowledge my presence. She’s a short one, the top of her head barely meeting me at chest level, and she’s muttering under her breath. I strain my ears to catch her words.

“Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium…” she inhales through her nose and holds the air for three seconds. “Beryllium, Boron, Carbon…” she releases the breath with a long, measured exhale through her mouth. “Nitrogen, Oxygen—”

“That’s an important one.”

Zoe jumps, then spins to stare at me with her brown doe eyes wide in alarm. “What?”

“Oxygen.” I shove a hand into my pocket. “It’s important.”

“You were listening?”

“I overheard.”

“Oh.” Zoe doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself, but then she blinks around the room and, just like that, her professional confidence is back. “What can I do for you, Mister…?”

“Mackenzie. Eric Mackenzie.” I contemplate offering her my hand to shake, but I feel like it would be weird. “But everybody calls me Mac.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Mackenzie?”

“You can start by calling me Mac.” A peachy pink spreads up Zoe’s neck and warms her cheeks. It would have been adorable if it weren’t so damn sexy on her. “And agree to join me for a drink.”

Her gaze travels down to my chest, and the pink in her cheeks deepens, then she turns her eyes back to me.

“I appreciate the offer, Mr. Mackenzie, but I don’t fraternize with my students,” she says while packing up her laptop.

I don’t know why her rejection stings, or why I find it kind of sexy. I’m a firm believer of no means no with zero tolerance for hard-to-get games. Though I suspect that isn’t Zoe’s angle and, for a moment, I wonder how stupid I am for even considering not taking the out she’s offering me.

 Fuck. I rub my neck with a silent groan before dropping my hand in acceptance. At the worst, she’ll send me packing and I’ll never stay behind in class again.

“In that case, Doctor Lawrence,” I start, taking a step closer and waiting for Zoe to turn to look at me, “it’s a good thing I’m not one of your students.”

Zoe blinks at me, innocent wonder reflecting in her eyes. “You’re not?”

“No, um, I take Professor Thorne’s course.” I point in the general direction of my usual seat in the back of the hall. “I got held up, and when you walked in, I thought you were an administrative worker here to set up a presentation for the next professor. Boy, was I wrong.” I bark out an embarrassed laugh, and the corners of Zoe’s lips lift in a small smile. “So, anyways, I just sat through an entire lecture about hydrogen bonding, so I could really use that drink.”

Zoe bursts into laughter, the carefree sound drowning away the bleakness of my earlier thoughts, and I note the dimple at the left corner of her mouth. Her laughter trails off with a sigh.

“Sure, Mac,” she says, sliding her coat on. “I could use a beer.”

“Perfect! How does Stout sound?”

“Choosing the closest pub around so you can cut early?” she asks with a teasing smile.

“No.” I laugh. “I like their selection of local brews, and since it’s right outside campus grounds, I don’t have to move my truck.”

“Truck, you say?” Zoe’s gaze dances down to my chest, her cheeks warming again, but she doesn’t turn away from me this time.

I flash her my famous grin, and her gaze heats along with her cheeks.

“Ladies first.” I gesture to the door, watching Zoe climb down the stairs.

She throws a look over her shoulder once she’s out the door I’m holding open, a curious gaze with a hint of heat in it, and a shy smile curves her heart-shaped lips.

The contradictions in this girl… even the quick glance she gives me holds a million different emotions. I’m captivated by the mystery. My mind is reeling at all the ways I’d draw out her deepest secrets and desires, peel back the layers of shyness and uncertainty until I’ve exposed every part of her.

The feeling is unsettling, unnerving, and most of all—it’s throwing me off balance. And there’s nothing in the world I hate more than feeling like my life is spinning out of my control.

One beer, I promise myself, pay your naughty thought dues and you’ll never have to see her again.