Nerds Are From Mars
Darcie Ingram was Nolan Bradbury’s secret high school crush,
but back then he was a short, skinny nerd and Darcie ran with the
popular crowd. He’s no longer short or skinny, and billionaire Fagan
Harcourt has tapped the talented astrophysicist to head up a
ten-year-project to colonize Mars. Nolan’s at the top of his game, yet
when Darcie shows up for his Mars lecture at an LA Space Expo, he
reverts to his old awkward self.
A professional astrologer and intuitive, Darcie
discovers that Nolan’s a hot geek with serious sex appeal and his
nervousness with her makes him even more adorable. She admired him in
high school for daring to be himself, while she hid her metaphysical
abilities for fear of being ridiculed. When she senses Nolan’s in
danger from a jealous colleague, she offers her intuitive skills to
help him. Nolan’s not into “woo-woo stuff,” but unless he can accept
views different from his own, he’ll put himself at risk . . . and the
woman he loves.
Nostalgia swamped Nolan Bradbury as he navigated a conference hallway filled with super heroes, Wookies, and Klingons. Combining fantasy and reality for this year’s Space Expo in L.A. had been a stroke of genius. Attendance was through the roof. He spotted a famous astronaut posing for a picture with a Star Trek cast member, and a well-known astronomer was in deep discussion with a woman wearing a Princess Leia costume.
Nolan almost wished he could be an anonymous attendee at this event instead of a main speaker. His Captain Kirk outfit was stuffed in the back of his closet and he’d briefly considered hauling it out, at least for the banquet. But he’d nixed the idea. He wasn’t here to dress up and relive his nerdy Comic-Con days. Fagan Harcourt expected him to dazzle attendees with Harcourt’s Mars colonization project, which meant adopting the serious persona of Dr. Nolan Bradbury, research team leader and brilliant astrophysicist.
But that didn’t keep him from spreading his fingers and returning a Vulcan greeting from someone in a Spock costume. Every scientist on the planet knew that hand signal. He grinned as he remembered the old days. He was no Chris Pine, but when he took off his glasses, he looked enough like a young William Shatner to pull off a decent James T. Kirk impersonation.
When he walked into his assigned lecture room five minutes before starting time, every seat was filled. The ratio was about half costumed and half not, but he’d planned for that. With luck, his talk would appeal to those who’d come for the science and those who’d come for the movie stars.
He recognized one of his team members, Bill Jenson, and stopped to thank him for showing up to support him. Short and stocky with thick glasses, Bill was a devoted family man and a crackerjack aerospace engineer. Harcourt had wooed him away from Jet Propulsion Labs by doubling his JPL salary, and the guy was worth every penny.
The college student who’d volunteered to moderate the session stood near the podium talking with an attendee in a wrinkled-forehead Klingon mask. Their body language suggested the Klingon was her boyfriend. As Nolan absorbed the sounds of a room humming with conversation and occasional laughter, he compared it with other years when the atmosphere had been more scholarly and subdued. Sometimes boring, too, although he hated to admit that. The mixed venue had definitely spiced things up.
Nolan mounted the podium and walked over to the lectern. He’d checked the room thirty minutes ago to make sure his laptop was synced to the projector, the lapel mike worked, and the PowerPoint was running okay. Once he’d convinced himself there would be no glitches, he’d asked the moderator to keep an eye on things so he could grab a quick cup of coffee.
Last night he’d sat in the bar with Harcourt until two in the morning even though they’d both known he had this presentation at nine a.m. Harcourt didn’t like to drink alone, and Nolan had been perfectly willing to hang out with him. The billionaire had given him the chance of a lifetime by hiring him for the Mars project. Besides, Harcourt had a fascinating mind and a thirst for knowledge in a dozen fields. Nolan was never bored in his company.
Feeling much better after his caffeine run, he checked to make sure everything was in place. It was, but someone had left a folded note on the lectern with his name on it. Maybe the organizers had some last-minute instructions. He unfolded the note.
The typed message had to be a joke. Terminate the Mars project or be vaporized. Nolan didn’t find that particularly funny, but somewhere in the audience a nerd was probably cracking up. He scanned the room looking for someone dressed in a villain costume. Darth Vader would be a good guess, or maybe Khan. Even the Klingon boyfriend talking to the moderator might have done it.
He didn’t see any likely costumed suspects in the audience, but he did see a person who gave him a jolt of adrenaline he hadn’t felt since high school. It couldn’t be her, though. He glanced away, not wanting to stare, but then he allowed his attention to drift back casually to the third row, fifth seat from the center aisle.
His pulse leaped again. Damn. If it wasn’t Darcie Ingram, then her doppelganger had bought a ticket to Space Expo. Same long brown hair, straight and silky, same adorable chin, same full lips, same electric blue eyes.
She met his gaze and lifted her hand in a subtle wave. He almost choked on his own spit. The crazy note left by some jokester no longer mattered. Darcie Ingram, his high school crush, was in the building.
And just like that, his self-confidence evaporated exactly the way it used to when he’d pass her in the hall or end up behind her in the cafeteria line. And that was stupid, because he wasn’t a short, skinny nerd anymore.
Well, okay, he was still a nerd, but he’d shot up and filled out. He was an award-winning astronomer who’d earned a Ph.D in astrophysics and landed a prestigious job working for Fagan Harcourt. He was a goddamn main speaker at Space Expo, an event held at one of L.A.’s swankiest resorts, an event that featured Hollywood A-list dudes.
None of that seemed to matter at the moment. Apparently Darcie Ingram had the power to rocket him straight back to the days when he’d been a pathetic loser who’d lusted after the coolest girl in school. Painful memories surfaced, times when he’d made visual contact and she’d rolled her eyes before turning away. She’d left his psychic blood on the floor of the cafeteria more times than he could count.
Yet here she was, attending his presentation. He couldn’t imagine why. Surely she wouldn’t have paid the hefty conference fee in order to mock his ass, especially after fourteen years. But even though he told himself that, his insides quivered in a sickeningly familiar way. Just by being here, she’d thrown him off his game.
He glanced to his right and discovered his young moderator standing next to him. “Yes?”
“It’s three minutes past nine. Shall we get started?”
“Of course.” Late. Maybe it was only three minutes, but he prided himself on his timing. He snatched the lapel mike from the lectern and stepped away to allow the moderator to introduce him. He fumbled the job of securing the mike, and because it was on, the noise of his fumbling interfered with the introduction. Shit. He’d given dozens of lectures without freaking out. Darcie Ingram shouldn’t affect him this way.
She did, though. Fortunately applause drowned out his tortured breathing as he stepped up to the lectern. As a kid he’d practiced a kind of Ninja breath control, and he used it now out of desperation. He hadn’t needed to rely on that trick since . . . twelfth grade.
Standing in front of the room full of expectant conference goers, a room which happened to include Darcie Ingram, he struggled to remember the joke he’d planned to tell, the joke he hadn’t written into his notes because he hadn’t thought it necessary. His brain went on autopilot. “Black holes,” he said. “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t enjoy a good supernova without ‘em.”
It wasn’t a great line, but the audience tittered. He refused to look at Darcie. He had another joke that started out with Three Martians walk into a bar, but he didn’t have the nerve to use it and risk blowing the punch line. He’d be better off getting on with his presentation for which he had copious notes.
“If men are from Mars,” he said, “and women are from Venus, then the guys got the better end of the deal, because men . . . and women . . . have a really good shot at inhabiting Mars, whereas nobody’s gonna live happily ever after on Venus. Let me explain why.”
He felt the attendees settle in, ready to be educated and entertained. Okay. He could do this, even with Darcie Ingram sitting in the third row, fifth seat from the center aisle. Using his PowerPoint slides, he illustrated Fagan Harcourt’s dream through artistic renderings and some plausible science.
Bottom line, human beings needed an alternative planet in case Earth was compromised or invaded. Mars was the obvious choice, and Fagan Harcourt had a viable colonization plan and the money to back up his theories. Some sizable technical issues remained, and those would be solved by Nolan and his team within the next ten years, if not sooner. Nolan was betting his scientific reputation on that.
The prospect of colonizing outer space captured his imagination as it always had and temporarily muted the jangling mental noise created by Darcie Ingram’s presence. By the time he’d finished his presentation and started answering questions, he’d reclaimed his moxie. He was Dr. Nolan Bradbury, Mars pioneer.
Then Darcie asked a question, and his house of cards tumbled down. He had to ask her to repeat it, because the sound of her musical voice had short-circuited every brain cell he possessed.
She smiled and graciously repeated her question. “Will you be going to Mars, as well, Dr. Bradbury?”
“Yes.” His voice sounded rusty and he cleared his throat. Still, he absolutely loved that she’d called him Dr. Bradbury. “I can’t imagine not going. But I have a strong sense of self-preservation, so when that rocket launches with the first pioneers, you can bet I’ll make sure the mission will succeed.”
“That sounds very exciting.” Darcie beamed at him.
He had trouble interpreting that because she’d never beamed at him. Any smile he’d noticed back in high school had definitely been meant for someone else. Maybe she’d changed.
She hadn’t changed much on the outside, though. Although she had to be around thirty-two, just like him, she didn’t look it. People told him he didn’t look thirty-two, either, but that wasn’t much of a compliment for a guy. A guy wanted to look mature and sexy, not young and virginal.
He wasn’t virginal, thank God. He’d had some excellent sexual experiences, thank you very much. He’d been told that he was pretty good at sex, probably because of his ability to focus.
Another hand went up, this time from someone in a Chewbacca costume. “Will you need specialized physical training to be a colonist on Mars?”
“Probably some. But Fagan Harcourt wants to reduce the physical stress of space travel and colonizing efforts so anyone interested won’t have to be a trained astronaut. If you want to live on Mars, though, it wouldn’t hurt to be in shape.”
“Guess I’ll wait another eight or nine years before buying a gym membership.” Chewbacca laughed. “Don’t want to peak too soon.”
“I wouldn’t wait that long,” Nolan said. “We plan to launch a rocket the minute we’re ready, and that could be a lot sooner than ten years.”
A tall, gray-haired woman stuck her hand in the air. “Because you’re trying to beat Thaddeus Sterling to the punch?”
Nolan hesitated. The rivalry between the two billionaires was well known, especially among space geeks. Hell, that dumb note might have been from somebody on Sterling’s team who had the mentality of a frat boy, although why they’d send it was a mystery. Judging from the reports coming out of Sterling’s lab, they were closer to a launch date than Harcourt. Harcourt wasn’t happy about that, either.
As a scientist, Nolan preferred cooperation to competition and wished Harcourt and Sterling would ditch the rivalry and work together. Sterling’s team leader, Aaron Blackstone, had graduated from Stanford a year ahead of Nolan. They’d met at several conferences and respected each other’s work, so a joint effort was infinitely doable.
Blackstone was registered for this conference, in fact, but Nolan hadn’t run into him yet. He looked forward to seeing the guy and would have loved to join forces in the quest to colonize Mars. But that wasn’t the way either Sterling or Fagan Harcourt rolled, and Fagan was Nolan’s boss.
Even if his scientific spirit rebelled at the idea, he had to pretend he enjoyed this race. “Let’s just say that Fagan Harcourt doesn’t like to finish second.”
More questions followed, although Darcie didn’t ask any of them. She didn’t leave, though, and Nolan felt her gaze pinned on him through the entire Q and A. Consequently he stumbled on a couple of easy answers.
After the moderator closed the session and the room began to empty, Nolan disconnected his laptop and packed it into a slim carrying case.
Bill Jensen walked up to the podium. “Well done, fearless leader.”
“I was a little slow answering some of the questions.” Nolan stepped down off the platform. He was determined not to glance over toward the spot where Darcie had been sitting.
She’d probably left, but if she hadn’t, he didn’t want her to think he was fixated on her anymore. Apparently in high school he’d telegraphed his obsession by wearing a sad puppy expression most of his senior year. One of his buddies had helpfully mentioned that kids had started impersonating that look to amuse the rest of the class. Yeah, high school had been hell.
Bill chuckled. “I noticed that you weren’t as sharp as usual. Saw you in the bar last night with Harcourt. He kept you up late, didn’t he?”
“Next time just tell him you need your beauty sleep. He’s never understood the requirements of mere mortals like us.”
“Yeah, I know, but he wanted to give me a pep talk about beating Sterling’s team.”
Bill rolled his eyes.
“I know, but besides that highly competitive streak, the guy is fascinating. Did you know he’s headed to Brazil after the banquet Saturday night?”
“I heard something about that. Rainforest recovery effort, right?”
“Yep. He has all kinds of ideas about how to save the rainforest. Some of them might even work.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. I think Fagan can do almost anything he sets his mind to, including beat Sterling to Mars.” Bill looked over Nolan’s shoulder. “Hey, I’ll shove off and let you talk to the rest of your fans. See you at lunch?”
“You bet. Thanks for being here.” Nolan shook Bill’s hand before turning to greet whoever else had come up after the lecture. Three people had – the tall gray-haired lady, Chewbacca, and Darcie. Her name tag said she was still Darcie Ingram, so either she didn’t have a husband or she’d kept her maiden name when she got married. Lots of women did that these days.
She hung back behind the other two, as if wanting to be the last to speak with him, so he couldn’t see whether she wore a ring. His heart pounded with the same teenaged frenzy it had fourteen years ago. Vaguely he realized the gray-haired woman was speaking to him, though, and he was ignoring her. Forcing his attention away from Darcie, he tried to catch the gist of what the lady had just said.
“So I think Fagan Harcourt will win.” She smiled at Nolan. “Don’t you?”
“Probably.” Nolan focused on the woman as best he could. “But if anyone succeeds in colonizing Mars, we’ll all win. Establishing a community of human beings on another planet would provide all kinds of benefits and scientific breakthroughs.”
“Is Fagan going up in that rocket?” The woman’s dark eyes sparkled with eagerness.
“I’ll bet he will,” Nolan said. “That’s his style.”
“Oh, yeah, he will.” Chewbacca nodded. “That dude’s intrepid. I love that.”
“Me, too.” The gray-haired woman’s expression grew dreamy.
Nolan realized she was a Fagan Harcourt groupie. At fifty-eight, Harcourt had women of every age fawning over him, and not just because he was wealthy. His silver-haired good looks didn’t hurt, plus he obviously had brains, but the main draw was his show-stopping charisma. He could walk into a room and immediately gain everyone’s attention. Now that he’d split with his fourth wife, the lineup for a replacement was forming quickly.
“How soon will you be selling tickets for the first trip?” Chewbacca asked. “I have some money socked away, but I doubt it’s enough.”
“It’ll be pricey.” Nolan adjusted the shoulder strap of his laptop case. “But Harcourt doesn’t believe in only letting rich people have this kind of opportunity. I’ll ask him if he’ll address the cost question at the banquet Saturday night. I doubt he’ll give an on-sale date for tickets, though. All I can tell you is that you can’t buy one now.”
“I would if I could,” the gray-haired woman said. “I’d sell my house and both cars if I had to.”
And that, Nolan thought, was the kind of excitement and loyalty Fagan Harcourt inspired in people. They’d follow him anywhere. If he ever went into politics, he’d win in a landslide, but he had no interest in government and had never announced his party affiliation. He might not have one.
The room began to fill with people again, which meant the break between sessions was nearly over. Nolan glanced at the three people standing in front of him. “We probably need to take our discussion out in the hall to make way for the next speaker.”
“That’s okay. I have another lecture to attend.” Chewbacca stuck out one hairy paw. “Thanks for your time, Dr. Bradbury.”
“Yes, thank you.” The gray-haired lady also shook hands with him. “It was an informative session.” She walked out behind Chewbacca.
That left Nolan standing face-to-face with Darcie.
Her smile was tentative. “Hi, Nolan.”
“Hey, Darcie.” A trickle of sweat ran down his spine. “It’s good to see you.”
“Same here. It’s been awhile.”
“Yeah, sure has.” His chest hurt from not breathing. “Listen, we should probably –”
“Do you have time for coffee?”
He gulped. “Uh, sure! Sure, I do.”
“There’s a Starbucks in the hotel.”
“I know. I was just . . . I was just thinking about getting some coffee.” Thank God he’d caught himself before admitting he’d been down at Starbucks right before the session had started. And because of that, he had to pee, but he’d worry about that after they’d made the trek to the coffee shop and solidified the coffee date.
Coffee date? Was he really about to have a coffee date with Darcie Ingram? Amazingly, it seemed that he was. “Let’s head on down there,” he said with as much savoir faire as he could muster when he was nervous as hell and had to pee.
It sounded more than good to him. It sounded like a goddamn miracle.