Authors: Nicky Penttila
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Short Stories, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Single Authors
Cover Artist: Sour Cherry Designs
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WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
THE SCIENCE OF SECOND CHANCES
Romance on the Go
Copyright © 2013
the email flashed into her inbox that Tuesday, Samantha Dobler had no way of knowing the trouble it was about to cause. If she'd recognized the sender's name, she would never have opened it.
“MGreen” sounded like the
leader's name of a protest against tidal channel monitoring that her department had funded. She opened it without thinking, without girding her heart.
Matthew Greenleaf. Even after
eighteen years, just reading his name made her eyes sting. Middle name Barry, for his grandfather. Likes chocolate, baseball, and statistics (see: baseball). Could not keep his fly zipped even after proposing to his high-school sweetheart.
The words on the screen blurred. Sam stood up to clear her head, but too fast – she swayed and nearly fainted.
Stupid low blood pressure
. She gripped the edge of her desk and cast her gaze around the room, a book-strewn middle manager’s cubby high up in the maze of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in Washington, DC. Doctoral certificate from William & Mary. Photos of her diving with fellow marine biologists off Mexico, off Australia, off places she couldn’t name anymore. She knew who she was; she knew what she stood for. She was saving the world, starting with its biggest, wettest part.
Her heart stopped pounding; her breaths stopped rushing past her inner ears. It was just an email, not a stingray. It could
n't hurt her. She should stop drinking so much coffee.
Gingerly, she sat
down again in the regulation swivel chair and leaned over to pick up her little fleecy blanket. The air conditioning here was so frigid she often needed to put on a sweater, tuck the blanket around her legs, wear fingerless gloves to type. Quite a contrast to the steamy April heat wave outside. Surprising it didn’t rain in the building’s entryway, the two atmospheres colliding.
She realized she was
dwelling on the weather to avoid reading the email. She hated procrastination. People should just decide and do a thing.
Like me, now.
Settling her shoulders back and taking a deep breath, she looked at the screen.
I’m in your town for a couple of days this week. Meet me at the
Natural History Museum tomorrow noon?”
She pushed back from the screen, rolling the chair off the plastic carpet-protector. No, twenty-four
hours’ notice wouldn't prepare her to slice open a wound that had been neatly sutured eighteen years ago. Besides, she had a meeting scheduled for lunch tomorrow. It would be rude to the other researchers to reschedule it. Who was he to drop her an email and expect her to jump?
unfolded her arms from around her chest and shook her head. The question wasn’t whether she’d jump, but how high. She could never say no to him.
Well, except for the one time, and hadn’t that gone well?
eld a power over her she'd never been able to define. Pheromones? Voodoo? Even when she’d been eighteen and thought she knew everything. Now at thirty-six, she realized nothing had changed.
he dashed off a reply.
“Noon by the elephant? How will I recognize you? I’ll be wearing a paisley skirt.”
The reply came almost immediately.
“Sounds good. You won’t be able to miss us.”
Us? He wasn’t alone? Sam smacked her forehead hard with the base of her palm.
Always ask the follow-up question
. Now she would have to see the wife, too.
He'd always done
this to her, leading her to believe one thing and then flipping the chessboard. “Scientific thinking, it gets you in trouble every time,” he’d tell her, but really it was him. He avoided confrontation by simply not mentioning the fine detail, like the potentially explosive device for physics class he’d had in the trunk of the car when they went to the drive-in one summer night.
He hadn’t changed.
Well, neither had she. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, ready to recant. She hit reply and started to compose the sentence in her head.
“I regret that something has come up.” “My dog died.” “I refuse to stand in the same room as your baby-mama.”
She canceled the message. What was the use of making up your mind to do a thing if you changed it ten seconds later?
He had her again.
That night, her dreams were all Matt. She was eighteen again, a stick of a girl, athletic and hard. Even her breasts were hard. And he was always wet, from playing ball, from swimming in the pool or the river, or fresh from the shower like that night they discovered oral sex could work on girls, too.
In his parents’ basement, he had her cutoffs down, her bikini bottoms too, and she could not stop moving under his hand. Finally, he clamped both hands on her butt and held her tight. He blew on her overheated folds, and she bucked; he just squeezed harder.
“I read something. Wanna try it?”
While “Cribs” played on MTV, he laved her, there, her honey-brown-haired boyfriend with the bobbing Adam’s apple. She’d thought she’d lost her virginity right there.
In real life, he’d given her one quick lick, a flick, really, and she’d gone wet. Embarrassing. Then the sound of the garage door opening and a car entering – his mom! – had them scooting away from each other, scrambling into their clothes.
now in her dreams, he simply licked his lips and plunged on. Her hands lifted from deep in his so-fine hair to over her head, over the back of the couch, anything to push herself deeper into his mouth, deeper into him.
And this time, he brought her right to the edge, shivering at the brink, before rising to claim her mouth, and settling himself to claim her core.
And claim it he did, again and again, all that night.
woke late, and spent, making her morning rush-around all the more frantic. She’d set her outfit out on the chair like always before bed, but now she didn’t like the blouse. And those shoes? What if they walked all over the museum? Wouldn’t the espadrilles that tied around her ankle be more practical? They were way less sexy than the Grecian sandals, but she wasn’t going for sexy. Was she?
On to the bathroom. The makeup terror was even worse than usual. Every five years, Sam took herself to the local department store with the biggest makeup counters and
had a stylist “update her look.” Then she stuck to that regimen until the next visit. No one wanted to think about makeup at six in the morning.
But here she was, digging out a blue eye shadow that was already two stylists out of date. Matt had liked blue. But who knew what he liked now?
And who cares what he likes?
What if the baby-mama was wearing blue, too?
She barely got out of her condo in time to catch the bus, even with skipping breakfast and not reading the news. The day promised to be dripping hot
. The bus’s fans barely counteracted the heat of the standing-room crowd. She grabbed an unwise croissant with chocolate and a triple latte from the coffee shop and sat down at her desk to count the minutes.
All these years, and
you’re still a fool for him.
-forty, she got up, took off her gloves, folded her fleecy, and left for the museum. It should take only fifteen minutes, but she wanted to move slow and minimize sweating. The day was lovely: hot, yes, but with one of those surprising breezes off the Potomac. Her spirits lifted. For a moment she considered going to the American History museum instead, saying she got confused.
But that would be wrong
She was right about how crowded the Science galleries were, though. The spring migration of high
schoolers to the nation’s capital was in full swing. Cadres of chirpy, chattering or muttering teenage girls and boys wearing headphones, all in matching T-shirts, ping-ponged around the vaulted entryway. Orange, red, blue shirts of all sizes, even a gaggle of kids and adults in tie-dye off to the side near the dinosaur hall.
Sam hadn’t seen so much psychedelic color collected in one place since
her school days. She smiled in spite of herself. Little Littletown High was still flying its freak flag, even after the rest of the world had moved on. That must have been what he meant: Matt must be a teacher now, or a chaperone. She did the math—the timing was right.
made her way through ricocheting kids toward the group. She couldn’t tell which were the counselors, so many of the boys were so tall, until one stepped in front of her, gray in his sideburns. “Matt?” she said.
He hadn’t changed. Everything about him had changed. His hair, such a fair brown, was now a little lighter. He’d filled out, not fat but solid. His wrists weren’t the girly ones they used to tease him about. His smile was small, and tentative.
She stared. She couldn’t help it. Something about him fed her,
nourished some part of her that she’d thought had withered and died long ago. Surprised she was still breathing, Sam struggled for something to say. “Still with the tie-dye.”
“We’re so behind the times we’re retro, the kids say.” He hadn’t moved, hadn’t stopped staring at her. Then he stepped forward, quickly kissing her at the top of her cheek. She barely had time to blink
; her lashes touched his lips. Not only did she not move away, her hips rocked forward.
. Before she could properly react, he took her hand and turned away from her.
“These are this year’s seniors. Well, half of them. The other half
are at American History.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be there?”
He turned back, that shy smile still on his too-wide, too-rich lips. “You remember.”
She’d have to be an idiot not to. She tried to huff impatiently, but what came out sounded more like Marilyn Monroe in
Some Like it Hot
. She bit her lip to stop herself from rolling her eyes. Reverting to high school, in the space of thirty seconds. He didn’t seem to hear in all the cacophony, thank heavens.
“No, I’m just a chaperone. My boy, there, wanted to see this.” He gestured toward a gawky tow-headed teenager who could have been Matt if Sam had traveled through a time machine. Her heart lurched,
but quickly settled. Something was wrong. This kid didn’t attract her.
hat if he had?
She shook the thought out of her head. “We never had iPods blaring in our ears and phone screens in front of our faces on a field trip. How can they learn anything like that?”
Matt chuckled, which drew his son’s attention. Now she could see the differences
: the boy’s tight mouth, his half-lidded eyes, the tenseness in his back. He belonged to the new breed, the young. “They’re not here to learn science. I mean, did you, on our trip?”
He shook his head. “They’re here to learn how to be on their own, without parents, without structure.”
“Seems to me they have plenty of structure. And more than a few parents.”
“But even we managed to sneak beer into our hotel rooms, do you remember?”
“We were idiots.”
“All teenagers are. From time to time.”
The son had heard that, she saw from his grimace. She also heard Matt’s resulting sigh. He looked at her, and she saw a new weariness in his eyes. “Where should we start? Dinosaurs?”
She shook her head. “Skip it
. It’s way out-of-date. Do Human Origins first.” Matt rounded up three tie-dyed girls and three boys, all with bangs hanging into their eyes, and shepherded them across the hall toward that exhibit.
The boy who belonged to Matt bumped him on the side and glared at her. Matt didn’t see the glare
, and Sam shook it off. She understood the possessive impulse among the young of the species; she’d seen it enough in the oceans.
At least the mother isn’t here
Matt parked his crew in front of the first video kiosk, an overview of gene sequencing. She’d hung back, and he stepped back to join her.
“Is it safe to take your eyes off them?” she said.
“Relatively. We have to
give them a little freedom, and they know not to go outside.” He fell silent, watching the video but sneaking side-looks at her every three seconds. Not that she was counting.
Sam knew plenty about gene sequencing, so her attention was the first to wane. Especially since
Mr. Long-Lost Love stood there on her left. He had gone dumb, it appeared. Those beautiful lips, without words to form.
“So?” she finally said.
He turned full face to her. “It’s so great to see you, Sam. You look, um, spectacular.”
“It’s nice to see you, too, Matt.” Rather formal, but with a question mark at the end.