"I'm telling you, online dating is a game changer." Nick shifted in his seat, leaning forward to make his point. Several members of the group nodded, but Claire could see frowns deepening on a number of faces. "You can meet the exact perfect person without spending a lot of time and money on wasted dates wondering if you're compatible."
Claire mentally edited "exact perfect" to "perfect," then mentally chastised herself for editing the casual conversation of a well-meaning participant expressing himself in a roomful of peers. She'd been working too hard on her presentation.
"And with a picture," Mike put in with a smirk, "you can make sure you're compatible in the ways that really count. Eye color, bra size, hair color—hell, whether or not she has hair." A few people laughed, but most of the women looked exasperated or uncomfortable. Or both. One of these days she was going to have a private talk with Mike; he was a good-hearted guy but until he stopped looking for every opportunity to make the obvious and usually sexist joke, he'd never get past his long series of first-but-never-second dates.
"As long as you believe that picture really is the person behind the account," Tina said. "I tried soulmates.com, and found one guy who seemed perfect, but I have a hard time believing Brad Pitt's doppelganger is a pharmacist in Skokie."
From his usual spot in the back of the room, perched on a barstool so he could oversee the group without putting himself in the middle of it, Trevor cleared his throat. "Do you have something to say?" Claire asked him.
"Oh, no, not really." He raised an eyebrow, though, so he could aim the thing he most certainly did have to say right at her. "I'm merely wondering if this kind of thing is going to put you out of business."
"I doubt that." Claire sat back, aiming her rebuttal at the group as a whole. Little by little, she was teaching them how to find lifelong companions. This was another opportunity to remind them of what really mattered. "Pixels are no substitute for face-to-face human connection."
"And the dream of Brad Pitt dies again," Tina sighed.
Claire shot her a sympathetic grin before she went on. "Without body language, eye contact, and all the thousands of variables that combine to signal interest, availability, and compatibility, you're as much in the dark trying to read a screen as you would be on any first date, if not more so. I understand wanting to use the internet as a screening tool, but if you're not careful it can lead to expectations that will crush a relationship before it even begins." A satisfying number of heads nodded. Maybe they were learning from her after all. Then again, most of them also turned to Trevor, expecting a response. Claire was a little surprised he hadn't claimed to have invented online dating; seemed like it would fit nicely into his delusion of omnipotence.
He jumped down from his perch on the stool and wandered around the room, punctuating the speech that followed with expansive arm-waving. As usual. "For once I agree with Dr. Allen. Not about variables, obviously, but come on, people! Falling in love is about the fizz-bang-pow moment when you see someone and know you're meant to be together. The only fizz you're going to get at an online dating site is when your modem conks out in a desperate attempt to save you from life with a dishonest pharmacist. For all you know he's not even from Skokie!" He gave Tina a chummy pat on the shoulder while he waited for the group's chuckles to die down. "You have a much better chance of meeting the guy or girl of your dreams at, oh, say, Air Guitar Night at Taggerty's. To which you're all invited, starting--" He made a show of looking down at his watch. "—now!"
"You're better at plugging the bar than Dr. Allen is at plugging her new book," Mike said.
Claire glanced sheepishly at the bag where she'd stowed her advance copy. The publisher had a marketing plan, and she was all for making as much money as she could, but it felt a little exploitive to begin the first push with these people. She'd known most of them for years, and some were closer to being her friends than her clients. "It won't be in stores for another week," she said. "We can talk about it then."
"Yeah, and meanwhile, your air guitar moves will land you more dates than that book ever will." Trevor half-skipped to the exit and clapped his hands. "Come on, people, let's do this."
Claire didn't protest. They were over time and the barista over at the coffee bar was shutting down the machines. As everyone reached for coats, she said, "Remember, no meeting next week. Instead, get out there and meet someone. Even if it's at Air Guitar night. Consider it homework."
She gathered up her things, half-listening to Trevor's exhortations as the group filed out. "Get over there now! Sign up, Tex, I know you have it in you. Nick, you've got 'Welcome to the Jungle' in your soul, I can feel it. Let me mix you a drink or two and you'll be Slash-ing it up in no time. And you, Tina, I'm sensing a very Bangles vibe under that sweater. Better get your name on the list before it fills up."
Funny thing was, for all his urgency, by the time Claire had packed her bag and buttoned her own coat, she and Trevor were the only ones left. They stood staring at each other across the rows of empty chairs for a split second before she asked, "Don't you have a contest to run?"
"Why aren't we meeting next week? Isn't that when your book hits the stands?" The question was casual enough, but there was an edge in his tone.
"I'm presenting at a conference." It wasn't exactly a state secret, but she hadn't wanted to promote it like it was a book signing at Borders.
"Oooo, going out of town to rub brains with the cultural elite?"
She made a face at the thought of rubbing up against anyone's brains, elite or otherwise. "Hardly. It's over at the convention center in Rosemont. And before you get any ideas, it's an academic conference for members of the North American Association of Psychology and Psychiatry. Professors, researchers, practitioners, and a few grad students."
He waggled his eyebrows. "You think I'm not interested in grad students? Girls with glasses and all that?"
She snorted. "A good chunk of them are men, Trevor, and they are very committed to their research. They'd love to pick you apart and fit you into one of their theories."
"Present company included?"
"No, not at all." She'd given up trying to write a book about Trevor eight months ago, about the same time she and Alex had broken up. For completely unrelated reasons, of course. Trevor was happy in his delusion, he wasn't hurting anyone, and as fascinating as he thought he was, there wasn't much of a theoretical argument to make about him. Certainly not a book-length one. She had her ideas about what was going on in his head, but until he broke down and divulged something—anything—about his past and what had triggered his belief that he was an exiled Greek god, he was a research dead end.
The thing was, he was also a friend. As evidenced by the fact that he stood there staring at her with a goofy grin. She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Shouldn't you be over at Taggerty's tuning up air guitars?"
"Probably. You coming?"
She shook her head. "I need to work on my presentation." Which was true. Something was missing; she just hadn't figured out what.
"You sure you don't want me to come to the conference with you? Moral support?"
"I don't need moral support. I know these people, and besides, I'm the expert in the attraction theory. No one else is studying this area as extensively as I am."
His laugh was equally warm and teasing. A year ago she might have bristled, but now it was familiar. "You are nervous about this presentation, aren't you? Here's a tip: imagine everyone in their underwear—but!—not their own. Switch it around a little. Guys in bras, gals in boxers, and maybe a little--"
"Trevor! Fear of public speaking is common, but I don’t have it." Fear of the approval, or lack of it, from people she knew and respected professionally, that was a different animal, but she wasn't about to admit that to Trevor. "I'm not as prepared as I'd like to be for my presentation, which is why I need to get home and practice."
"Claire." He'd crossed the distance between them, and now they were a little too close, her head tilted up so she could look him in the eye. "Come on, you can tell me. What's the title of your book?"
She took a deep breath. She'd been avoiding this not because of some embargo from her publisher, but because she knew he'd find a way to make fun of it. "It's no big deal, Trevor, I swear."
"It's about me, isn't it?" Weird, she thought, how his cockiness was such a transparent affectation. Up close like this, she could see right through it. Unlike Mike, he could turn it off like a switch with one blink, and all of a sudden he seemed a little vulnerable, a little worried.
"I thought I could build a theory around you, once upon a time," she told him. "Not now. I found something more interesting than the president of the Lonely Hearts Club to write about."
Was that blink a tiny flinch? Whatever it was, it put his mask right back in place. "Give."
"Tell me, or I'll unleash the full power of my imaginary Stratocaster on this empty coffee shop."
He posed as if with an electric guitar and thrust his hips toward her. "So you're ready for my 'Freebird'?"
"No one is ready for your—ugh!" She shuddered; she'd walked right into that one. "Fine. But remember, I wasn't the only one with input into the title. There are editors, the publisher, and the peer reviewers, not to mention the sales team."
He threw back his head. "If I staaayyyyyy here tomorrrrrroooowwww…"
She took a deep breath and spewed the whole thing out in a rush. "Love Is Not a Math Problem: Mapping the Unquantifiable Variables of Romantic Attraction."
His grin turned positively feral. "Honey, you're playing my song."
* * *
Claire's presentation wasn't until two, but she skipped lunch to check out the room she'd been assigned and make sure the projector would work with her laptop. She scrolled through her Power Point slides and mouthed the accompanying explanations, reminding herself that the book was already written, edited, and printed, not to mention heavily pre-ordered; that she had done more thinking, researching, and theorizing about the topic than anyone who would attend; that she was no longer one of the graduate students and therefore she shouldn't be hungry for the approval of professors, no matter how well-known they were; and that no one else was actually in her brain, so they wouldn't miss whatever it was that was missing, whether or not she ever managed to put her finger on it.
She was staring at her final slide, a reiteration of her conclusion in text accompanied by a picture of a smiling elderly couple, when a familiar voice in the precisely wrong place made her jump out of her heels.
"'In the end, though the forces of attraction in human relationships remain as mysterious as those of magnetism itself, we can decidedly say that emotional compatibility and willingness to grow and bend are far more important than initial physical attractors in the establishment of mutually satisfying long-term relationships.' Ugh. That is a mouthful of b—"
"Trevor." She spun on him before he could finish the thought. "What the hell are you doing here? This is a private conference." And why was she even the least bit surprised he'd shown up? The suit, though, that was new. She couldn't remember seeing him wearing anything more formal than a sweater.
He held up the conference registration badge dangling from his lanyard. "University of Athens."
She leaned in, squinting at the name printed on the badge. "Dr. Theodosios Stavropoulos?"
"Secret identity." He shrugged, not quite meeting her eyes. "You made it sound like so much fun. Like a high school reunion for all the nerds who kept coming back for more education after they graduated. Thought I'd cruise a few workshops, see how the people who've been trying to figure out how I tick for the past year or so tick themselves. Gotta say, Claire, it's pretty disappointing."
She slipped back into her shoes. "Disappointing how?"
"Well, for one thing, nobody has faction t-shirts."
"Faction t-shirts?" She moved to the front again, switched off the projector, and refilled her water glass from the pitcher on the table.
"Yeah, you know, Freudians vs. Jungians."
"Those stopped being sides years ago, Trevor."
"Behaviorists vs. med-happy fiends. Sharks vs. Jets. I can't wait for the dance off."
"There actually is one, you know."
He held up his program. "I see that. 'Music and mingling in the ballroom, complete with cash bar, from nine to eleven.' You shrinks really know how to party."
"Don't use that word here. You'll blow your cover."
"What word, 'party'?" He put his hands in his pockets and strolled along the perimeter of the room. In the suit, he almost looked like he belonged. She might have believed it, if she hadn't known him so well. "How do you know this name's a cover?"
"I guess I don't." When she'd first met him, after all, she'd thought he was an ex-professor who'd reinvented himself as a god after an affair with a student.
He stopped in front of the table and waggled his hand at her paraphernalia: her laptop, the projector, the copy of Love Is Not a Math Problem. "So how much of this is about me?"
There it was: the real reason he'd tracked her down, found a suit—one that fit him quite nicely, she had to admit—and forged or stolen a badge. "Trevor, believe me, none of this is about you. You're only mentioned once in my book, and not at all in this presentation."
"Really?" He looked genuinely confused. "But you wrote whole chapters about my charisma, my ability to bring people together, my delusional yet strangely compelling mindset."
"How did you know that?" she asked sharply.
"I—uh—I'm a god, remember?" He was really off his game, but he'd thrown her, too. She'd thought she'd kept the first version of her book a secret all this time.
"Did you spy on me, Trevor? Because that would be a huge violation of doctor-patient privilege."
"So is writing a public account about someone who's in full possession of his faculties without his permission!"
"I didn't think you were in full possession of your faculties, for one thing, and for another, I would have run it by you before I published it, but then I changed my mind."
"You decided I was in full possession of my faculties?"
"I decided to change the focus of my book. Because," she snapped before he could ask why, "my publisher was chomping at the bit to get something on the shelves and you're not a completed case yet."
His shoulders slumped. "Yeah, you got that right, lady. If I were, I'd be home. You know what happened this week? Three beads, back to the starting side. Zeus was right; people don't know how to make relationships last anymore. I mean, look at you and that Pulitzer chaser." Still pacing, he didn't see Claire's flinch, and she turned it into a raised eyebrow before he could look back at her. "I give these couples the shove they need to get started, but holding on, that seems to be the toughest part of all this. You got any wisdom to impart about that?"
Actually, she did. She'd written a whole book about it. "I keep telling you, lasting relationships are based on friendship, on really knowing your partner. Those fireworks you're so fond of are great at the beginning, but unless couples can build real foundations their relationships burn out."
"Like you and Alex?"
He was always bringing Alex up, as if the end of that relationship was a personal affront to him, and not the broken heart it had been for her. Usually she brushed it off, but not this time. "Not. Fair."
He glanced at the photo on the screen. "It's a little fair."
It might have been, but she wasn't going to give him a win on this one, especially not when people were starting to drift in and look for seats. "It's almost two o'clock, Trevor. Get out of my room."
* * *
She pulled off the presentation, though afterward she was never sure if being peeved at Trevor made it harder or carried her through. There were plenty of questions about the ties between research, the development of her theoretical model, and "boots on the ground" counseling, as one of the professors insisted on calling it. As if talking to living, breathing people with very real problems required military strategies.
Afterward she moved into the exhibit hall, where her publisher set her up at a booth to sign and sell books. An hour later, she'd sold a few dozen copies. Not New York Times bestseller numbers, but respectable for an academic conference. Plus, she'd enjoyed the conversations her presentation sparked. "I do think there has to be room for what lay people call fireworks or even magic," she told a pair of grad students who had lingered to discuss the book. "We all need that in our lives, whether we can quantify it or not. But it's what we do with the spark once it starts to get a little dim that matters in the long term."
"I think it's fascinating, Dr. Allen." The young woman looked over to her companion. "And for what it's worth, I do believe in that kind of magic." Claire wasn't sure which one of them blushed more as they strolled away together.
She was taking a long pull at her water glass, eyes closed in relief at the bliss of icy liquid on her overworked throat, when someone took a book off the stack at her left and plopped it on the table in front of her. She blinked at the dangling registration badge.
"Dr. Stavropoulos, how nice to see you again," she ground out between her teeth.
Trevor beamed down at her. "Gotta keep up to date with the latest research. Can you personalize this one for me? Make it out to your favorite bartender."
"Not to the god of love?"
"Yeah, well." He looked away, hands in his pockets, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a child. "I obviously didn't do so well in that department where you were concerned." He leaned in, elbows on the table. "Can I make an observation?"
"Can I stop you?"
"Nope. You know why you and Alex didn't last, don't you?"
"Because he moved away."
"Because you didn't follow him. Because it wasn't real. Whatever you felt that first night was just bland recognizing bland. You never had any big spark. You didn't have that beautiful train wreck everyone longs for, even if it's only one time."
"Of course there was a spark! There were sparks a-plenty, and if you think we didn't--are you calling me bland?" She looked around to make sure no one had overheard her sputtering. She supposed she should count herself lucky that the crowd had dissipated as the new round of presentations started up.
"I'm saying you have the potential for bland in you, yes, but you also have the potential for so much more." Trevor's voice took on the coach-y tone he used on the singles group. "For sparks and messes and fire. Alex never brought that out in you. It was too easy with him. I know you, Claire, and you want the whole package."
Somehow she was on her feet, leaning across the table toward Trevor so that their heads nearly touched. "The whole package includes the foundation. We had that. And the friendship. If you'd heard my presentation—"
"You kicked me out, remember? I don't need to hear it, Claire. I've been around you long enough to know what's missing in your theory, even if you clearly don't."
"And what is that?"
"Same thing you missed with Alex. The spark that illuminates the potential for that foundation in the first place. It's more than sex, Claire. I know that was good with him, but there's more. You gotta start with magic."
"What you call magic, I call chemistry." Just because she couldn't quantify it yet didn't mean it didn't exist.
"Oh, yeah, you need chemistry all right. But you have to understand what that means. Real love is based on more than just baking soda and vinegar. It's—it's green stuff bubbling in beakers and turning purple and exploding!" He waved his arms around like a mad scientist. "The kind of reaction that'd blow Marie Curie right out of her lab booties."
Why had this become all about her love life the moment he realized she wasn't writing about him? "What the hell are lab booties? And what makes you think Marie Curie wore them?"
"I'm a god, remember? I saw it all go down."
"Sure you did."
"That was a great love story. One of my best."
"And then he was hit by a car and she mourned him for the rest of her life! "
"That's how you know it was real love! It's what you do with the time between the explosion and the final curtain that really counts."
She cocked her head. "Wouldn't you be more at home at the sci-fi convention over at the Best Western?"
"My home is—" Trevor cut off whatever delusion he was about to spew and pulled back when another man stopped behind him and cleared his throat.
"Dr. Hanover!" His slightly curly hair was going grey, and he'd shaved the mustache, but Claire would have recognized him anywhere. She'd spent too many hours discussing her dissertation with him to forget. She shifted gears, turning slightly to get Trevor out of her line of sight, and held out her hand.
"It's James now." He moved to the side of the table and pulled her into a hug instead. Apparently that was okay when the student became a colleague, but she didn't like how his hand lingered on the small of her back when she tried to step away. "My Claire. Always were the brightest student in the room, and today you proved it. Who would have thought you could turn such bare-bones research into a lucrative career? First the newspaper column, now a book? Before you know it, you'll have your own talk show."
Claire risked a glance at Trevor, who stood to the side with his hands in his pockets. She doubted he would read the backhandedness in Hanover's words. When one wasn't looking down from the lofty perch of academia, it was easy to miss the fact that to a tenured professor at Columbia, interacting with the public qualified as dumbing down research and theory. He certainly didn't intend the comparison with Oprah to be a compliment.
"Oh, I doubt that," she said with a light laugh. If she didn't acknowledge the blow, it wasn't really a blow, was it?
"You could always come back to Columbia." Dr. Hanover blinked down at her owlishly, the way he always had when he was assigning her tasks for her assistantship. "Jeff Emerson is retiring at the end of the semester. Ever thought about teaching?"
There it was. The golden ring. The thing she had thought she wanted, that she had let Dr. Hanover talk her into believing she wanted in all those conversations in his office. To most of the people at this conference, a tenure track position at Columbia was the ultimate goal. She could research whatever she wanted, assign grad students to do her grunt work, and write to her heart's content.
"You could be a name, Claire," he went on. "With your writing ability, you could translate so much for the masses."
"The people who eat this kind of thing up," he said with a dismissive wave at her stack of books. "Our students are getting dimmer and dimmer. Someone like you would be a real pull to bring our numbers up."
"Someone like me?"
"Young. Female. One foot in pop culture."
"I see." Claire stepped back behind her table. "You know what, Dr. Hanover, I meant what I said in my presentation. Practicing in the real world is satisfying in a way that academia isn't. It's been a huge asset to my research."
"Of course it is." His smile was tiny, guarded, and condescending as hell. "Good to see you again, Claire." He walked away without ever even reading the flap copy of her book. Without ever calling her Dr. Allen.
It was only when she looked over and found Trevor staring at her from across the table, meeting her gaze with a befuddled expression, that she realized Dr. Hanover had never once looked her in the eye, either.
"Was that as rude as it seemed to be?"
"Probably," she muttered. Of course it was, and of course Trevor had been there to witness her humiliation.
"Do you want me to go after him? Defend your honor?"
"Absolutely not!" Anyone else would have been joking, but with Trevor, she never knew. "People get weird at these things. We're all supposed to be on our best behavior, but it's a liminal space. Somewhere in between our day-to-day lives and our professional aspirations."
"I know what a liminal space is, for Zeus's sake. Where do you think I've been living for over a year?"
Claire only half-registered what he'd said. She was working out the cause of Dr. Hanover's behavior. "At these conferences we're confronted with the distance between the careers we wanted when we started out and the reality of our lives now. It can make people…well, you witnessed it." She blinked over at Trevor, who looked like he was waiting for her to catch up to him instead of the other way around. "Sorry. Just thinking out loud."
"I like knowing what you're thinking. And I don't like what that guy was implying, but if you say to leave it be, I will." Trevor picked up the book she hadn't finished signing.
"Please," Claire said fervently. "I'm not excusing him, but you're not going to change him by making trouble."
"Whatever you say, Dr. Allen. After all, I always go by the expert's advice."
"Sure you do."
* * *
The conference would trickle into early Sunday afternoon, but the unofficial closing was always the Saturday night party, where the giants of the field drank watered-down Mai Tais and danced—or tried to—to the Macarena.
Claire went straight for the bar. She waved a ten in the direction of the bartender, who was flirting with a couple of women barely old enough to drink. Maybe he was checking their IDs. "I need a glass of wine," she called.
"You're not kidding." The bartender turned around and flashed her a wicked, but somehow enigmatic, grin. "Look at you, you're wound tighter than my dad used to get after the Greeks lost a battle."
Trevor wasn't wrong, though she wasn't sure she wanted to know how he was able—and cared enough—to read her so quickly and so correctly. "What are you doing here?" Maybe if she asked the question enough, she'd eventually get an answer.
Trevor poured a generous glass of merlot, the same label she usually ordered at Taggerty's, and pushed it to her. "Guy's gotta make a living somehow."
"Yeah, right." She downed half the wine in one gulp.
He held up his hands. "You got me. I'm really here to drug all these drinks and conduct a social experiment. I'm calling it, 'The Effects of Fermented Fruit on the Mating Habits of Nerds.'"
"Catchy title, but I suspect your methodology needs work." Unlike Taggerty's, there weren't any stools at this bar, so she leaned against it, wishing she'd brought a pair of flats.
"No, seriously. You struck a blow, calling me the president of the Lonely Hearts Club. I've been taking it easy too long, watching those beads slide back and forth. And I thought, where am I going to find more lost and lonely people who think they don't have time for love than among a bunch of glasses-wearing geeks who don't connect with their soulmates even when they're standing right in front of them because they're too busy analyzing whether the color of each other's eyes are correlated to their Rorschach Test results? Take those two for example." He pointed to Jason McCoy and Michelle Hardy, two of the most prominent researchers in the field of memory retention, who were attempting an awkward swing dance to the strains of "Stray Cat Strut."
Claire snorted into her wine. "They aren't soulmates, Trevor, at least not the way you mean it."
"How would you know?"
"Dr. McCoy is gay."
"Well, okay, then, those two." His pointing finger shifted to a man and woman who were ignoring the music completely, swaying together as if Barry White were oozing from the speakers. "Clearly into each other." His voice deepened. "The mating patterns of the common academic are displayed here in the lingering touch of the male's hand on the female's posterior, aka her ass, and in the way she takes little nips of his ear as she whispers sweet research results. All they need is a little push from me, and they'll be making sweet statistics for years to come."
"Nope." Claire finished off her wine and held out her glass for more. "They're married."
Trevor leaned past her, squinting. "I don't see rings. You think they're role playing? Pretending they've just met when they're already committed to each other?" He shook his head. "This time you're the one who's wrong. I know from role playing, and these two are not faking it. That is heat. Sparkling fizz-booms, just like you write about in your book—oh, wait, I'm sorry, initial attractors. No two people who've known each other that long have this kind of chemistry."
"You think they'd blow Marie Curie out of her booties?"
"Sorry. They are married, Trevor, but not to each other." Claire had met Joan Carson at last year's conference, along with Joan's husband and teenage son; the rumor mill around U Chicago had informed her that Richard Nelson was currently on his third wife. "Do you really want to promote infidelity?" Of course he didn't. Of course he slumped back, even though he looked as crestfallen as Claire had felt after Dr. Hanover's backhanded offer. For all his horndog act, Trevor was a decent guy who believed in true love.
He handed her the refill, fingers lingering on the stem of the glass as she took it, studying her with that careful, calculating look he got sometimes. Not quite the one where he was editing the perfect zinger in his head; not quite the one where he was deciding how far he could go in an argument. This was different. "What?" she asked.
He pulled his hand from the glass with a shake of his head, blinking away that new, indecipherable look. "I was wrong. This is worse than a high school reunion. Worse than an Olympus party. I can't tell who's already together, who shouldn't be, or who's looking for something more than a quick roll on those clean hotel sheets upstairs."
"They're not all that bad."
"Why are you defending them?"
"They're my colleagues." The wine had gone to her head, and she added, "My intellectual equals. My peers."
A split second too late, she realized what a snob she sounded like, and wished she could take it back. She wasn't sure if the perplexed look that crossed Trevor's face was because she'd just insulted him, or because he was wondering why none of her peers seemed interested in talking to her, or because of something else, something she was in no condition to read. "I'm sorry, Trevor. I didn't mean—it's just, they get me so flummoxed, you know? Dr. Hanover's offer wasn't sincere, but it did make me wonder where my place really is, and this setting is—well, it certainly isn't Taggerty's," she finished with what she hoped was an endearingly wry grin.
"Liminal spaces," he muttered.
"Hey." He reached under the bar and took out his copy of her book. He'd only had it for a few hours, but it flopped open easily to the acknowledgements page. "Did you mean what you wrote here?"
"You've read it already?" He'd read it at all?
"You said my name was in it. I took that as a challenge. He pushed the book toward her, finger stabbing one line on the page like an accusation. "Did you mean this?"
Claire didn't need to read the line again. She'd listed him among a handful of people who had supported her, provided friendship and inspiration. "I did at the time. Watching how you interact with the people you're trying to bring together changed the way I thought about relationships. I even made room for your fizz-bang in my theoretical model. Something wrong with calling you my friend?"
"Depends on what you mean by it." He stood up straight with a sudden frown. "Hello, James."
Dr. Hanover was standing right behind her. He shot Trevor a perplexed glance, then turned his attention on Claire. "I came to apologize for what I said this afternoon." When he lectured, Hanover had always maintained a clipped, firm diction; now he was nearly mumbling. "I meant no offense."
"None taken," Claire said airily, and finished off her second glass of wine. "We're not always on our best behavior at these things."
"I certainly wasn't. But no matter how I couched it, my offer was sincere." The DJ switched up the music, changing from the B-52s to Nat King Cole, and Hanover smiled. "Let's dance and talk about it."
Claire had her reservations about even dancing with the guy, and she certainly wasn't going back to Columbia any time soon, but it seemed almost as rude as he'd been earlier in the day to refuse. She set the wine glass on the bar, ignored the disgusted set of Trevor's mouth, and followed Dr. Hanover out to the dance floor. At some point she'd probably have to learn to call him James, but it wasn't going to be tonight.
Especially not when he steered the conversation from teaching to her personal life by the time the song ended and another one, Sinatra this time, started up. "I'm curious, on a strictly professional level, of course, about your romantic history, Claire. How has that informed your research?" He grinned at her with all Trevor's lasciviousness and none of his warmth. Was it her imagination, or was he tightening his arm around her waist?
She wasn't supposed to be here. She should have been over at the bar, laughing at this guy with Trevor, but when she looked that way, someone else was pouring drinks. She scanned the dance floor, hoping he was on his way to cut in on this farce with a snarky comment, her knight in sarcastic armor, but he wasn't anywhere to be found.
"Claire?" Hanover prompted. "Your romantic life and your research? Any intersection?"
She stopped swaying to the music and stepped out of his hold. "You'd be surprised," she snapped, and marched off the dance floor.
* * *
She found Trevor on the roof of the hotel, standing near its edge and looking toward the towering city lights that seemed to float in the dark. A few feet behind him, she stopped. He didn't turn around when he asked, "How'd you get up here?"
"Same way you did," she said. "Thanks for leaving the doors unlocked."
"What made you think I'd be here?"
Claire didn't have a simple answer for that. She'd known where he'd be, the same way she knew he was waiting to see if she'd come looking for him. She took a stab in the dark, falling back to the technique of going along with his delusion in hopes he'd see how ridiculous it looked to her. "It seemed logical. You're used to Mount Olympus, right? You like being up where you can see everything."
"Sometimes I think they sent me to Chicago because it's so flat." He turned to face her, his grin faint in what passed for dark on a city night. "In a place like this it's hard for me to get any ideas about being better than the human they turned me into."
She may not have been dancing the Macarena, but the wine had definitely gone to her head, because instead of recalibrating what he said, instead of wondering if that meant Trevor had come from somewhere with real hills or mountains and banished himself to the flat plains as a kind of penance for whatever it was he'd been running from, she had a flash of the scene, of gods and goddesses pointing fingers and sending Cupid streaking like a lightning bolt to the shores of Lake Michigan.
"Claire." He held up her book, which she hadn't even realized he had with him. "Did you mean it? Do you really think of me as a friend and not just a damaged mind you need to fix?"
Despite her flashbacks just now, if she was honest with herself she'd stopped thinking of him as a patient a long time ago. Maybe it had been the time she'd watched him put Champ back together after a series of bad auditions. Maybe it had been the time he'd put the screeching brakes on one of his relentless matchmaking schemes because he'd listened to her about the guy involved exhibiting creepy behaviors that had the potential to lead to abuse. Or maybe it had happened when he'd let her cry about Alex one late night at Taggerty's without so much as hinting at an I told you so.
"Of course I meant it. Mean it. We've been more friends than anything else for a long time now." She took a step closer, reached for his hand with a compulsion she didn't bother to analyze.
And something sparked.
It wasn't that she'd never touched Trevor before; they'd bumped elbows, exchanged casual hugs, even danced a time or two. But she'd never felt this charge before. Trevor must have felt it, too, because his eyes widened. "You hold hands like this with all your friends?"
"Not like this." To her shock, saying it out loud didn't make the phenomenon dissipate. If anything, it grew stronger, a sparkling connection between them that sent champagne bubbles rushing through her bloodstream.
"It must be a combination of factors, some kind of—of what? Moonlight?" Trevor's voice took on an almost desperate edge, but he didn't let go of her hand. "Maybe there's something to this liminal space theory of yours, or maybe you've had too much wine. I mean, this is how it's supposed to start, isn't it? With the electricity and the fizz-bang and then you build the foundation after that dies down." He looked down at their hands. "You feel it too, right? Where is this coming from?"
Neural firings. Chemistry. Marie Curie's lab booties, which were definitely dangling from the ceiling by now. Every part of Claire tingled with the urge to get closer, to touch more of him. "Maybe it's magic," she gasped. "Or maybe I've been right all along, and it has to start with the foundation of friendship." That was at least a little disingenuous; she'd written a whole book about building that friendship after the initial spark. But here she was, foundation firmly in place, and only now finding her place in the fizz-bang of it all. It was a heady place to be.
"But Dr. Allen, what about your theory? What about the variables?" There was a hint of panic under the teasing; he was as unsure about this as she was. "What about what happens after the fizz-bang? What about—"
He was never going to do the thing her whole body was crying out for on his own, so she bounced up on her tiptoes and kissed him. And kissed him. And kissed him. Time stopped, the night froze around them, and even though they were going about this backward, even though they were both going to have to give up a lot to make it work, she knew, in that moment, that it would work. They'd already built a foundation that could hold them up in this liminal space.
They broke apart for a moment, for breath, and he grinned at her. "You're going to have to revise that book of yours."
"And you'll have to work on your backstory."
But at the moment, they had other work to do.