Home > The Barbarian's Owned (Celestial Mates #1)

The Barbarian's Owned (Celestial Mates #1)
Author: Marla Therron



Chapter One

 

 

It was a normal Saturday for the rest of the world, but it was supposed to be the most important day in Rae’s life. Not her final most-important day, of course, but one in a series of most-important days, each bigger than the one before.

The last was six months ago when she’d graduated with Ph.D.s in genetics and astrophysics; before that, it was the day she left for university, and before that, the day she dosed Cory Wilson’s Gatorade and turned his urine green, thus establishing her reputation in junior high as “that girl.” The girl who took no B.S. from Cory Wilson, yes, but also who knew the kinds of science her teachers worried about.

To Rae, if science couldn’t be used to turn an obnoxious junior’s urine an alarming shade of neon, it wasn’t worth doing.

She mentally walked through her day in the shower, dressed, ordered a cab to the Chicago conference center, and checked her word of the day.

Conjuncture.

No matter how many peer-reviewed journals she published in, Rae could never shake the last remnant of her Midwestern faith in a universe without coincidences. That word of the day seemed inauspicious. Recalling her earliest research lectures, a favorite professor taught her that the foundation of science was in understanding the word “conjuncture.”

There were only two types of thing in all existence. The first was the domain of science. These were the built-in things, the normal patterns in the universe. The software and GPS churning out her location to a cab driver, the locomotion of his engine, even the day’s typical weather: Chicago wind rippled her open jacket as she exited her hotel.

The jacket’s closely patterned white-and-black colors would smudge and appear gray from a distance, offsetting the dark of her slacks and blouse. From engineering to optics, all those variables could be understood. They were… reliable.

Rae was good at these variables. She had them figured; she always had. But conjunctures were the second type of thing in the universe. The one-offs. The strange combination of circumstances that couldn’t be anticipated, accounted for in a model, that by their very definition existed outside the normal order—and therefore, outside the reach of her discipline. They could be described, but never predicted.

Rae did not want any conjunctures today.

Her presentation was at 2 p.m., which was primetime. Even astrophysicists liked a drink on Friday night, but 2 p.m. on Saturday was late enough that the last straggler had kicked their hangover. It was far enough from lunch that no one was in a food coma, and not yet so late that it bled over into the cocktail hour.

If anything had surprised Dr. Rae Ashburn about her discipline, it was how much alcohol fueled the whole social end of the enterprise. Put a thousand egotistical nerds into a room and more than a glass or two of wine was needed to lubricate those rusted social gears.

By a quarter till, she’d set up her PowerPoint and was patiently waiting as the room filled. They’d headlined the day with her paper, whose subject had made a splash. It made the newspapers, and science and tech journalists were jockeying for a position at front.

She did a summary check of her discussant panel, whose job it was to say useful things about the working paper. There were three. She guessed, based on age and tenure, that maybe one of them had read it ahead of time.

The normal thing was to shred through it fifteen minutes before; she could guess what each would say based on their research areas. There was no sign of her dreaded conjuncture, and Rae breathed easier.

“What are you thinking?” asked her former advisor, Dr. Ravi, seated to her left.

“That Midwestern superstition loses again,” Rae said with a grin.

“Pardon?”

But it was too late to explain. The moderator introduced her paper topic to the audience: “Defending the Earth from Extra-Solar Threats: Lessons from the K-T Extinction Event.” It was an awful title, but Dr. Ravi had insisted and Rae had finally acquiesced.

She’d wanted to title it, “Were the Dinosaurs Killed? Or Murdered?” She’d discovered, after all, that materials she’d collected near the Chicxulub crater—the impact site of the asteroid that zapped the dinosaurs—had residue from ancient, foreign materials that didn’t exist in nature.

Talking about aliens in astrophysics was dicey. It brought press attention, but not much professional esteem. A lot of Rae’s graduate colleagues snickered behind her back—including Reese, who she noticed in the audience, a possible conjuncture that knotted her stomach.

He was picking at lint on his tweed jacket, a young man with a boyish face who liked to dress up like the real professor he planned to become one day. The disdain in the gesture was obvious. He picked at it the same way he’d picked at Rae every time they’d talked since their break-up.

The competition for tenure-track slots was fierce, and Reese too professionally jealous for their relationship to work. Since then, he’d mocked Rae’s research as either “methodologically flawed” or “kooky.”

Rae shut down her fear instinct and focused, instead, on how good it would feel if he finally mocked her to her face. If, instead of sniping, he attacked her theories in a public forum, she could finally have it out with him.

The moderator signaled her. Time to talk. She stood, took to the microphone, cleared her throat, and began: “I’ll level with you. There are two types of people in this room right now. One, the journalists, who get to write a punchy story about aliens killing the dinosaurs.” Rae’s aside had them in the palm of her hand, and she gave them every watt of her smile.

“The others, of course, are the scientists who hate the fact that the public only cares about space when it’s full of aliens who we imagine to be hilariously like us.”

Just then, her eye caught someone strange. He stood at the room’s edge, a head taller than the professors and scientists around him. He wore what looked like a black kurta, a sort of long jacket that hit knee-level, and white pants beneath that.

Black-eyed with charcoal hair, he seemed to project a bubble of space in the crowd on all sides. Though he had his hands in his pockets, there was something dangerous in his stance. She couldn’t put her finger on what, but the intensity of his stare set her fine hairs on end.

She fumbled her next line and her words stalled.

For two heartbeats, she tried to breathe. The man hadn’t moved. There was no logical reason for him to even draw her gaze, other than his size and that unrelenting, fiery-eyed stare.

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