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    one

    NATHAN ELLISON RAYMOND Dunkle couldn’t catch a break.

    He raced out of his lab, late again, his mind a bit foggy from an intense brainstorming session in the pursuit of a groundbreaking physics formula to transform advanced propulsion. He eased his Tesla through crowds of city traffic and tried not to panic. This event could be the turning point in his life, and he refused to miss it. What if his future wife was there right now, meeting some other man because he was stuck at work? Again.

    Ned clamped down on his impatience and moved another few inches. He was tired of his social life revolving around his lab partner, Wayne, and his brother, Connor. Ever since he left NASA to dedicate his time to getting the private sector into space travel, his days had melded together in a long line of formulas and research. The weekly golf trips with his friends fell apart. His dating life, slow to begin with, ground to a big fat zero. Three months ago, he had celebrated his thirty-second birthday and realized he had no one to invite over. A small cake appeared in the lab and after Wayne hummed a few bars of Happy Birthday, they got back to work.

    Pathetic.

    That’s when he made his decision to change.

    Ned pulled into the city limits welcoming visitors to Verily and perused the street for a space. The brightly lit shops lining the sidewalk overlooked the Hudson River and gave off a quaint charm that embraced visitors, bringing them into the fold of the welcoming area. His brother had laughed when he told him about the upcoming speed-dating mixer, but Connor didn’t believe in settling down with one woman. Years of watching his brother date endlessly with no commitment in sight depressed him. The whole catch-and-release repetition just seemed . . . empty.

    Ned craved a real connection with a woman, someone he could share his life with. He had no interest in bar hopping or bed hopping. Marriage equaled all the things he lacked: comfort, sex, and companionship. Once Ned made decisions, he dedicated all of his time and energy into the steps needed to reach his goal, and this newest idea was no exception. After six weeks of intense research, he was ready.

    He pulled into a space and turned off the ignition. Grabbing a pack of breath mints from the glove compartment, he popped one in his mouth, and wiped his hands down his khaki pants. Crap. He’d forgotten to change out of his white coat, and the coffee stain from this morning was prominently placed on his chest. He spit on his finger and tried to scrub the fabric, but the brown splotch only worsened. Could he take the coat off entirely? He yanked one shoulder down and spotted the wrinkled cotton shirt crushed underneath. Nah, leave it on. The hell with it. He didn’t want a woman who only cared about clothes or appearances anyway.

    He pushed his glasses up his nose and peered into the driver’s side mirror. The healthy brown glow he’d hoped to sport had gone horribly wrong. Damn bronzer. Golf season hadn’t started yet, and his white skin had thrown him into a panic this morning. He knew women liked the beachy look, so he bought the self-tanner at lunch and applied it at work. He’d followed the instructions perfectly, but instead of a sun-kissed glow, he got carrot orange. Ned rubbed at his face frantically and tried to move the color around. It wasn’t that bad. Wayne had just glanced over at Nate after lunch, and when pressed, said he looked fine. Of course, he’d been wrapped up in the velocity testing, so maybe he hadn’t really studied him.

    Holding back a groan, he got out of the car and headed toward the restaurant called Cosmos. At least the mixer wasn’t in a bar. He hurried his pace, tripped over the uneven sidewalk, and finally found his destination. The warm air hit him full force, with the delicious scents of garlic, tomato, and fresh bread. The restaurant was decorated in tasteful Tuscan colors, and soft lighting dimly illuminated various tables in the main room. Timers sat on each table, and people mingled with drinks and appetizers in hand.

    Ned froze.

    He fought the urge to turn around and walk back out, but he wasn’t a failure, and he didn’t intend to start now. He’d studied for this. It was his moment.

    “May I help you?”

    He looked down, and a young girl holding a clipboard smiled up at him. “Yes. Ned Dunkle. I signed up.”

    “Of course.” She crossed his name off and gave him a ticket. “Welcome to our speed-dating mixer at Kinnections. You have just enough time to get a drink at the bar. Here’s your number. You’ll be starting with table nine. Five minutes maximum at each table, and here’s a sheet with all the participants. If you like someone, note down the name, and at the end of the mixer, we’ll introduce the people who are interested in each other.”

    “Great.” He took the ticket into his sweaty hand and fought his way to the bar. Laughter and easy conversation drifted around him, along with the musky scent of perfume and something stronger. Was that him? He ducked his head and did a quick sniff. Oh yeah, way too much cologne. He’d liked the scent at home, but now he felt lost in the piney, woodsy tones it promised on the label. Oh, well. No one would notice.

    He scanned his surroundings and got into game mode. That’s when he saw her.

    Perfection.

    The woman moved across the room, practically shimmering with energy and poise. Stopping now and then to chat with different people, she claimed the attention of male and female participants alike. Her whiskey gold eyes dominated her face, and thick, wavy hair tumbled past her shoulders in a deep caramel color. Her hot pink suit matched her nails. But his attention kept getting dragged to her shoes. Four-inch heels, open toe, pink with silver rhinestones. The silver-cuffed toe ring only emphasized her bubblegum-colored toenails.

    She clearly was the type of woman who got any man she desired, owned her sexuality, and called the shots. Her husky laugh vibrated in his ears, dove into his gut, and squeezed. It was a sound full of life and the potential for fun. A wave of longing hit him, and he tamped down a laugh. Yeah, right. Not in this lifetime. Still, if she were involved in the speed-dating event, he’d be able to meet and talk to her for five minutes. That alone would make the whole evening worthwhile.

    Not that he wanted a woman who was just beautiful. He learned that lesson well and didn’t need a repeat. Not in this lifetime.

    A buzzer sounded, and everyone ran to their tables.

    Showtime.

    He headed toward number nine and settled down with a glass of house wine he didn’t like but was easy for the bartender to make. His normal drink usually took too much time to explain. A petite blonde slid into the seat, glanced up, and did a tiny recoil. He tried not to rub his face and make the orange more noticeable.

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