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"Sooo? How was your date?"
Drucilla Robichoux froze, her spoonful of lemon yogurt halfway to her mouth. She'd been dreading this question.
Wrinkling her nose, she shot a quick glance around the lab's lunchroom. Sunlight, filtered through typical San Francisco fog, dully lit the empty space. Seeing no escape—and fortunately nobody to overhear—she sighed, licked the tart yogurt from the spoon and prepared to confess.
"I think I'd be better off giving up on men," she admitted to her best friend and fellow scientist, Nikki Hanson. "This is the sixth failed dating experiment this year. And it's only August."
"I can't say I'm surprised. I still can't believe you went on more than one date with Dr. Uptight," Nikki said as she polished off her pastrami sandwich. She meant Bryan Smith-Updike, a physicist from the Lawrence Livermore Lab and Drucilla's companion the last four Saturday nights. The first three, they'd attended the theater, the opera and the California Academy of Sciences. She'd been bored to death, but not nearly as bored as she'd been during the sex that'd marked their fourth weekend.
"It wasn't much of a date," Dru admitted. "The guy was a gasper."
"That's even worse than the wheezer. What was his name? Mad-scientist Maxwell?"
"No, he was the counter. You know, in-two-three. Out-two-three. The wheezer was that biochemist I dated last year."
"Maybe gasping is a step up?" Nikki asked, her doubtful wince making her dimples flash. "But at least Uptight finally dropped drawers, right?"
"Unfortunately," Drucilla confirmed with a grimace. She puffed out her cheeks, contemplated the last few bites of yogurt, then shoved it aside and opened her bag of cut vegetables.
She lamented the sad truth.… Her love life was in an unending downward spiral of suckiness.
Drucilla wanted to love sex. Better yet, she wanted a sex life worth loving. She was a firm believer in maintaining a healthy balance between mind and body. Her mind was top-notch and she worked to keep her body the same. Good food, regular exercise. And sex, dammit. She'd read plenty of studies that claimed that regular, satisfying sex was important to good health. And she was missing out.
Maybe self-gratification would be enough if she increased her beta-carotene intake?
"So the date didn't go well?" Nikki nudged, obviously wanting all the dirty details.
Drucilla popped a cherry tomato in her mouth and debated blowing off the question. Then, realizing it couldn't sound any worse than the wheezer confession—always nice to have a rock bottom—she shrugged.
"Oh, sure, it went well for him," she said after she'd swallowed. "Peachy, in fact. Remember how I told you that Bryan's been frustrated with the calculations he's been working on?" Drucilla waited for Nikki's confused nod before continuing.
"Well, he's had a breakthrough. Mid, shall we say, thrust, he yelled 'Eureka!' rolled over and scrambled for his pants, where he apparently always carries a notepad and pen."
Dru smirked at the shocked, slack-jawed look on Nikki's face. "Yep, he was so thrilled to have broken that mathematical code, he didn't even grumble when I shoved him out the door before he could finish zipping his pants."
Mouth still agape, Nikki shook her head in pitying shock. "How on earth do you find these guys?"
"It's a gift," Dru mused.
"I think this guy's worse than that Nobel laureate you went out with who carried a picture of Einstein in his pocket along with a condom."
"And insisted on both during sex," Dru agreed, wrinkling her nose at the memory. "The condom was welcome, but sadly, the only one of the three of us to end up with wild-sex hair was ole Al."
And only to Nikki would Dru confess such a thing. Years of moving from town to town—her parents usually on the run from creditors—on top of Dru's own innate shyness, had made it difficult for her to make friends. Even college, or colleges since she'd attended four, had been spent on the move, with Dru having to hold down three jobs to pay for school and living at home to cut expenses.
But when she'd come to work at Trifecta, Nikki had taken Dru under her wing. Now Nikki was her best friend and one of the few people she worked with whom she also saw socially. The lab, National Physics Trifecta, was a brain trust that specialized in the three branches of physics: astro, nuclear and quantum. While Dru was all about the astro, Nikki— despite her sweet dimples and luxurious black curls—was nicknamed the ball breaker of the quantum physics lab.
Not only was she in a different department from Dru, Nikki was almost a different species. Optimistic, upbeat and outgoing, with a curvy figure that turned men's heads, the brunette was Dru's polar opposite.
Blond, cool and contained, Dru knew she put off a don't-touch-me air. She didn't mean to, but couldn't seem to change it. So she'd had to find a way to make it work for her. She'd finally figured that if she held her head high and remembered to make at least one friendly comment a day, she was fine. Now everyone at the lab thought she was just reserved, offering respect and a level of deference she knew was rare, given her age and nonleadership position.
And to keep that respect, it was vital that any and all details of her miserable love life remain private.
It helped that the lab had very stringent interpersonal-relationship rules. Friendships were fine, but dating was frowned on. Not that Dru would ever date anyone she actually had to work with. She'd seen too many relationships crash and burn. And somehow, while the guy managed to waltz away with his career intact, the woman always paid a price.
Because nothing, not even her bashfulness or a lack of partner-generated orgasms, would get in the way of her career security. She couldn't afford to let it. And so far, that strategy was working quite well.
Now to figure out how to make her love life work, too.
After years of bad dates, she'd finally decided to approach dating as a hypothesis. She carefully chose men who were her intellectual equal based on the premise that all men had the same basic equipment and drive. Given that the brain was the largest erogenous zone, she was sure intellectual stimulation was just as vital as clitoral stimulation in achieving sexual satisfaction.
At least, she'd been pretty sure. It was damn hard to test a theory if all the guys she dated had the sexual skills of a ninth-grade nerd with a National Geographic fetish.
It was enough to make a woman question her hypothesis. To say nothing of her ability to ever have a decent sex life.
"Okay, so the sex has been a little, well, lousy. But don't give up on men," Nikki said, breaking through Dru's dismal realizations with forced cheer. "What about Kyle, that new guy in the lab? He's cute, in a horn-rimmed sort of way."
Dru was shaking her head before Nikki even finished the sentence.
"He's also a coworker. You know how Dr. Shelby feels about fraternization. If I started dating, or worse, having lousy sex, with the guys here, word would get around. It'd haunt me. My private life would be fodder for the water cooler chitchat. And any success I have, people would wonder who I slept with to get there."
Nikki gave her a long look, trying to poke a hole in that excuse. Finally she shrugged and said, "We don't have water coolers."
Dru rolled her eyes.
"Look, why don't you quit the geeks and go for a hottie?" Nikki suggested, wiping her mouth before opening a bag of corn chips. Dru's mouth watered. Whether it was over the chips or the visual of hottie-sex, she didn't know.
Ignoring the drool collecting in the corners of her lips, she reminded herself of the five pounds she'd been trying to lose since New Year's and said, "Because boredom makes for poor foreplay?"
Which she knew firsthand, since the last three guys she'd dated had almost foreplayed her to sleep. And God knew she'd be the ultimate snoozefest to some poor guy who didn't talk science. It went back to that shyness thing. If she was talking shop, she was fine. Social chitchat? Zzzz.
"Oh, my God, Dru. What does a guy have to do? Discuss the theory of relativity while going down on you? You need to disconnect your brain from your—"
"Okay," Dru interrupted before Nikki could start naming parts of her anatomy. "I get your point. But I don't agree. I really believe that unless we have common interests, there's no point in dating or having sex—albeit lousy sex—with a guy."
"There are other things to talk about than science, you know," Nikki snapped, the frustration creasing her brow echoed in her tone.
Dru wasn't about to open the door to another conversation about her social skills. The last time she'd cracked it open by mentioning that she didn't know how to dance, Nikki had forced her to spend twelve Saturdays at dance clubs. Talk about misery squared.
"Look, even if I wanted to research alternate dating pools, when do I have time? " she protested, her tone making it clear she'd rather be staked naked to the astronomy tower during a public meteor-shower tour.
"You know I'm already working fifty hours a week. I help my mom on weekends. The cosmic string project starts next month and as soon as—" not if, she refused to consider failure "—I get the grant, I'll be so busy I won't have time to masturbate, let alone date."
"A woman always has time to masturbate," Nikki intoned.
Dru shrugged, waving her carrot stick in surrender before snapping off a bite.
"Sooo…" Nikki drew the word out as she carefully wiped her fingers on a napkin.
"So… What?" Dru asked, not liking the glint in her friend's chocolate-brown eyes.
"So, I have an idea."
Just as she would if a student was about to pitch a half-baked astrological theory, Dru folded her hands on the table, arched her brow and gave Nikki a patient, you-are-probably-insane look.
"Take a vacation."
The knots in Dru's shoulders unwound. Well, that wasn't too crazy.
"Someplace totally away from here, completely relaxing and extremely decadent."
A vision of sand, surf and sun filled her imagination. Wouldn't that be glorious?
"Mmm, maybe I'll book a cruise or something this summer," Dru murmured. An entire week filled with strappy sandals, rich food and sarong-covered bikinis while she read by the water. Heaven. "I've always wanted to visit Cancún. Or maybe the Bahamas."
"No. Now. Next week, before your schedule turns crazy with the grant interviews and the guest lecturer and this upcoming project that will bury you in seventy-hour weeks."
Unspoken was Nikki's belief that Dru would make excuses and not take a vacation. But the message was clear in the stubborn set of her jaw.
Before Dru could talk her off the lunatic-ledge, Glenn Shelby, Trifecta's director, bounced into the lunchroom. The older man was the epitome of enthusiasm, always. His nothing-is -impossible attitude was supposed to be an inspiration to his teams. Most of them wanted to spike his morning fruit smoothie with sleeping pills.
Dru's gaze jumped from his face to the stubborn glee on Nikki's, then back to their boss, who was offering his usual chipper lunch greeting.
"No," she mouthed at Nikki, tension wrapping tight over her shoulders. The road to success was not lined with spur-of-the-moment vacation requests or inconveniences to the boss.
Nikki, of course, ignored her.
"Glenn, Dru needs a vacation."
Well, that had certainly punctured his enthusiastic recitation of the joys of fresh-squeezed orange juice. His words all came out in a gulp.
It was all she could do not to drop her face into her hands. With an almost silent hiss of protest, Dru glared at Nikki.
"Don't worry about it, Dr. Shelby. I know we're too busy right now. Nikki knows it, too."
Nikki didn't even have the grace to give Dru an apologetic look before shoving her off the cliff.
"Glenn, you know Dru is leading the cosmic string project that kicks off next month. It's vital that we make a good showing for Trifecta, isn't it?" Nikki didn't wait for his answer, or act as if she saw the glare Dru was trying to melt her with, she just plowed ahead. "But here's the thing. I don't think she's had a vacation in, oh, forever. Weren't you just saying last week that a rested mind is an alert mind?"
The director shot Dru a measuring look through the bifocals he'd perched on his egg-shaped head. From the frown that washed over his face, his X-ray vision found her health deteriorating at a rapid pace.
"Yes, yes, good point. We want everyone in top form next month. All the departments have major projects launching, but yours is the most vital, Robichoux. After all, it's not every year we get such a distinguished guest as A. A. Maddow as a project leader."
Assistant leader, Dru wanted to protest. For the first time, she was project leader. But the road to success wasn't lined with divas, either, so she sucked it up and shot Nikki an icy glare instead. Nikki grinned.
"I highly recommend Los Cabos if you're looking for a beach setting," Dr. Shelby said, taking his Healthy Choice lunch from the microwave and heading for the door. "A.A. himself suggested it to me when we agreed to his contract. He was right, as usual. Los Cabos was both relaxing and rejuvenating. You'll enjoy it."
Then he was gone, the door swinging closed with a loud swoosh.
And that was that. Dru briefly considered chasing him down and voicing her objections over his low-cal chicken à l'orange, but she knew it was pointless. After all, A. A. Maddow was the rock star of the science world. A Wolf Award nominee and brilliant physicist, he was going to be working alongside Drucilla for the next three months. His input was apparently vital, in Glenn's mind, to both clarify her theory and convince the grant committee that a small lab like Trifecta was worthy of huge sums of money.
The director wouldn't want to risk anyone on his staff being less than sparkling for the grand appearance.
"I can't believe you did that," Dru said, gathering her lunch wrappers in tight, efficient moves.
"You can thank me with a nice souvenir," Nikki told her as she sauntered back to the table, her teeth flashing white as she grinned.
"Thank you? I want to beat you with your own corn-chip bag," Dru snapped before she could control herself. She sucked in a deep breath, then said in her most reasonable tone, "I have responsibilities and commitments, Nikki. I don't have time to sip margaritas and hit the beach."
"That's not all I want you to hit," Nikki said with a stern frown. Dru figured that must be the look the woman used to keep her hunky new husband in line.
But Drucilla Antoinette was made of stronger stuff than that. So she just leaned back in her chair and raised a brow.
"You need a man."
"Isn't that where this conversation started?"
"My point exactly. You need a hot man. A hunky, yummy, no-discussion-needed, orgasm-at-first-sight man."