Vanessa E. Howard

Lana swiveled the Bioreader microscope back to her colleague. “You’re right. The cells have multiplied. This could be huge, Dax.”

Excitement flared, but her training kept her calm. Joyous jumping was not advised in a space research laboratory full of potentially unstable samples.

Dax grinned wide inside his helmet. “I can already see the news: ‘Two St. Louis bacteriologists discover life on Callisto!’”

Lana smiled back, but quickly turned her attention to the experiments on the steel table. His grin did things to her.

She’d been in Missouri for over a year now, working with Dax on the samples the rovers had sent back from Jupiter’s moon, Callisto. At first, the thrill of studying such rare specimens had overshadowed everything. But lately, just being near Dax was more electrifying than even the prospect of making a grand discovery.

She was almost embarrassed by the amount of research she’d gathered on him: he kept his hair short, but if he missed his haircut by even a couple of weeks it would curl. The scar on his elbow was from falling off his air scooter when he was nine. He volunteered at a tutoring center helping kids with science, and he called his mother every Friday. His dad had died of an infectious disorder, which had led him into this field. Most weeks, he played wallball with engineers from the second floor. And of course, the most vital bit of information: he was still single.

But between his just-friends demeanor and her don’t-risk-it shyness, they remained colleagues and colleagues only. No dates. No deep emotional conversations. Not even a companionable coffee after work.

Mentally shaking herself, she reached for the reagent to move it from the centrifuge back to its container and her arm bumped the cellular sample on its stand. The solution splashed out onto her protective coveralls.

Her eyes snapped to Dax. Faster than she’d seen anyone move in a science lab, he grabbed her off her stool. Half-carrying her, he rushed them into the decontamination chamber. He slapped the button to alert the safety team and lock them in the chamber. It automatically switched on, misting them with antiviral and antibacterial chemicals. Even though she couldn’t feel the mist through her coveralls, chills rose on her arms.

Dax wasted no time. As soon as the mist stopped, he ran the diagnostic. The blue light blinked on, showing no immediate threat. He peeled his suit off in seconds and then unzipped hers. Holding her by the waist, he helped free her feet from it.

Lana held her breath. She’d dreamed of being in his arms, but NOT like this. Not being spritzed and sprayed and tested because she’d been so distracted and clumsy she’d endangered them both.

He pushed the suits into a stainless-steel locker in the corner. “Sorry, this might be cold,” he said and flicked another switch. Again, the chamber misted them from head to toe. Tiny droplets clung to Dax’s hair and eyelashes. The mist seeped into her clothing, and she shivered, wiping a hand over her face, wondering how bedraggled she looked.

This was mortifying.

He ran the diagnostic a second time, and again, it blinked blue. “Looks like we’re okay,” he said.

“Dax, I am so, so sorry.”

“It can happen. That’s why we train.”

“It was careless of me. I can’t believe I did that.”

What if it had gone bad? What if they hadn’t made spare samples? What if she’d gotten him fired? What if he’d been harmed? Tears filled her eyes, and she tried to blink them back before he saw.

He stepped close and took her face in his hands. “Hey, hey. It’s all right. I’m just thankful you’re safe.”

Lana swallowed. What was happening? Was he really standing here, inches from her soggy, awkward self, tenderly holding her face? Was it possible he liked her as much as she liked him?

“You sure you’re okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine. Embarrassed, but fine.”

His hands shifted into her damp hair.

She cleared her throat. “We still have to isolate for twenty-four hours and be tested again,” she whispered.

“Yes. And fill out a laboratory incident report,” he whispered back.

“And face the lab directors.”

He leaned closer. “And do post-event counseling.”

Was he about to kiss her right here in the decontamination chamber? That was probably frowned on.

“I propose we meet in twenty-four hours and finish this conversation,” he said and grinned.

That grin really did things to her. She flung caution to the wind, grabbed him by the shirt, and pulled him into a kiss.

A kiss that got interrupted by the safety team bursting onto the scene.

A kiss that got them banned from the lab until their hearing with the directors.

A kiss that got them both disciplined by the department.

A kiss that was categorically worth it.

Vanessa Howard
Vanessa E. Howard writes primarily fantasy for middle grade and young adult. She has been a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and college composition teacher. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers and the Flash Fiction Magic writing community, she is also a homeschool mom and co-op teacher. Ms. Howard lives with her family in Central Texas.

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