Project NSA by Alexa Day

CHAPTER ONE

Don’t be afraid to make him wait a few minutes.

Grace Foley didn’t like to call it a rule. Rules were no fun. This was more of a guideline, a helpful hint for surviving and thriving in the world of men.

John would probably call it something else. Every time she thought she’d come up with a way to handle the male species, he would say her supposedly new strategy had actually been around as long as Adam and Eve. Only John could tell her what was going on in a man’s brain and back it up with science. Apparently, neurobiology had more to do with the mating game than she’d ever imagined possible.

Good thing he was such a good friend. Not that they’d ever be more than that. John knew her too well. He’d want the sort of woman who had cookie recipes memorized and invited people to tea, not the kind who was on a first-name basis with every takeout place within ten miles of home.

Grace hurried up the busy sidewalk to the imposing brick building that housed Bank. She took the marble steps to her favorite bar two at a time, no simple task in her barely businesslike shoes. It might be okay to make a man wait a few minutes, but she was more than a few minutes late.

As the name suggested, Bank occupied a converted bank building. The heavy doors that shut behind Grace enclosed her in a cavernous space, beneath lofty ceilings that had once sheltered an expansive lobby. Austere marble floors and columns made the place noisy during happy hour, despite the bright artwork on the walls. Young professionals stood three deep at the bar, their ties loosened and voices raised as they watched the television mounted above harried-looking bartenders.

She scanned the bustling room, looking for John. Her pathologically punctual friend wouldn’t choose a spot this close to the door; he knew how much she hated the chill that washed in every time new patrons arrived. The wintry weather and happy hour crowds had forced them to move their weekly ritual of drinks and people-watching from the bar, which dominated the center of the room. Now they usually met at the tables near the back, where they’d be away from most of the traffic until the downstairs dance club opened in a few hours.

Where was he? She continued her search around the corners of the room, where still more of the business crowd had gathered in parties of three or four around the small tables. A dark-suited gentleman emerged from his group of drinking buddies and approached her, his hands in his pockets, his gait almost sheepish.

“Looking for me?” he asked. “I’m right over there.” He nodded toward his friends at their table, all of them trying a little too hard not to watch.

Grace smiled at him. At least he hadn’t used one of those worn-out lines, and he wasn’t hard on the eyes. She looked over his shoulder, trying to come up with a response that wouldn’t discourage him too much, and caught a glimpse of John, waving coyly at her from the other corner of the room.

“Looking for him,” Grace said. She pointed at John, who looked for all the world as if he were enjoying the show. “Sorry.”

The businessman snapped his fingers in mock disappointment and returned to his companions. Grace made her way to the corner, where John rose and removed his coat from the chair he’d saved for her. “Should I hug you?” he asked.

Grace slid her coat from her shoulders and arranged it on the back of her chair. “Of course you can hug me.” She laughed and slipped her arm around his waist before quickly tucking her head beneath his chin. “I told that guy I was looking for you.”

He released her and they both took their seats. “You did?”

Grace nodded. “Yeah. I was looking for you, wasn’t I?”

“Yeah, it’s just … that guy started checking you out the minute you came in.” John gazed deeply into his drink. “I don’t want to be in the way, you know.”

Grace couldn’t help laughing. He might be Mr. Genius Research Scientist, but sometimes John didn’t have a clue. “You’re not cockblocking. I’m not looking, remember? And even if I were, how am I going to choose some dude in a bar over my best friend?” She flagged down a waitress, ordered an Irish coffee and turned back to John. “This place gets more crowded every week.”

“Yeah, I think every lawyer and banker within a five-block radius has discovered it.” He took a quick drink from his glass. “Maybe we should start coming in on Fridays after work instead.”

Grace ran her finger along the edge of the frame holding the happy hour menu. “Friday’s no good. I’m usually doing something on Friday.”

John raised an eyebrow. “Really? You and your boyfriend must be getting pretty serious.”

She tried to smile. She’d led them into this minefield, and if she now had to tread carefully, she had no one else to blame. “Tal is not my boyfriend, and I wouldn’t say we were serious. He just wants to get together on Friday nights, too.”

“From one night to two sounds serious to me.”

“Actually, it’s two nights to three. Not that I’m counting.” Her drink arrived, and she wrapped her hands around the glass, letting the warmth and the fragrance settle her nerves.

“Three nights definitely sounds serious,” he said.

Grace inhaled deeply, careful to keep it from looking like a sigh. “It’s not serious because Tal’s not interested in a long-term relationship. He just wants to see where this goes. I told you all that.”

John took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. She didn’t know anyone under the age of fifty who still wore glasses, but she couldn’t imagine John without them. On another man, they’d scream “computer dork,” but on him … they made him look like the hot professor on every college campus who always had a huge class filled with blushing girls. They also drew attention to his warm brown eyes, soft and bright and intense, all at the same time.

One night, a lifetime ago, he had led her, swaying and tipsy, to her door, and in the hallway, she’d stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his. The world twirled away beneath her feet, and she’d had to steady herself against him, her hands on shoulders that were stronger than she’d imagined. He’d started to return her kiss, his long fingers stroking the small of her back, drawing her closer. Then his hands were on her hips, pushing her away. He’d been so gentle, touching her as if she were a priceless antique when he kissed her forehead and said goodnight.

They’d both been drinking, he’d said the next night. Taking the next step would have been a bad idea, he’d said. And he was right. Something about him still captured her imagination, but he was right.

Good thing they were still friends.

John was quiet next to her, studying the melting ice in his drink. Grace patted his hand and smiled. “You know, Tal’s not as patient with my tardiness as you are.”

“I was late today, too,” he admitted. “I only got here a couple of minutes ago.”

Grace took a sip from her glass mug, savoring the slow burn of the mingled coffee and spirits. So this wasn’t about Tal, at least not entirely. “What happened? Trouble at work?”

“It’s the project I’m working on.” He put his glasses back on and sighed. “It’s going to kill me or get me fired, and I can’t decide which one would be worse.”

“The secret project? I thought that was done already.”

“Just the initial trials. This part’s harder.” He knit his fingers together and rubbed one thumb against the other. “I wanted to talk to you about that, actually. I need a favor.”

From anyone else, those four words would have sent her defenses into overdrive, ready to deflect requests for money or a place to stay or a ride around the block that would stretch on for hours. But this was John. Even if he did have issues with her personal life — specifically, the part of her personal life who now wanted to see her three times a week — John was still her friend. The friend who had stayed when the others disappeared with her last “real” boyfriend.

“Anything for you,” she said. “Name it.”

***

The cool scientific detachment John March had spent a career building melted into a spreading pool of unease. He’d practiced making this request over and over on his way here, and while he waited for Grace, he’d done it a few more times. Now his heart thundered against his ribs, and icy sweat moistened his palms, just like the first time he’d met her.

She’d stolen his breath then, the woman introduced to him as “Brian’s girlfriend.” Glossy black hair, eyes like the rarest and darkest of chocolates, and lush lips that inspired a host of fantasies. And her skin. In all the time he’d known her, from the party where they’d met, through the dark time after Brian, up to now, he still couldn’t find the right word to describe the rich, vital, warm color of her dark skin.

Easy. You’re friends now. Just ask her.

John took a deep breath and as he exhaled, said, “I need you to help me with the testing on the secret project.”

Now that he’d gotten it out of his mouth, what would she say? Grace’s genuine curiosity about his work had always set her apart from other women; her engaging questions had put him at ease the night they’d met. But would Grace want to be involved in the research herself? There was, after all, a world of difference between enjoying a good steak and wanting to work in the slaughterhouse.

Might not want to put it to her that way, March.

Grace leaned toward him, her brown eyes growing wide. Her lips curved up in a smile. “You want me to help you?” she asked.

He lowered his voice and tried to ignore the faint scent of her, minty and herbal and wild. “I need you to help me.”

Excitement brightened her face. “Okay,” she said in a near-whisper. “What’s the secret?”

John reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the pills, eight plump red gelcaps in a blister pack. They shuddered a little in their packaging when he laid them on the table, as if they were the winning hand in a game of poker. Grace stared at them.

“They look like cold medicine,” she said.

“This is the world’s first oxytocin suppressant.”

She frowned. “Why would you want to suppress a painkiller?”

John chuckled. “You’re thinking of oxycodone. Oxytocin’s a hormone. It’s released in a woman’s brain at the moment of orgasm.”

“Really?” She shifted in her chair and crossed her long legs. “That doesn’t sound like something I want to suppress.” She poked the blister pack with a manicured finger. “So what does oxytocin do?”

“Well,” he said, “in pregnant women, it causes the uterus to contract. In lactating mothers, it causes the letdown reflex, when the –”

Grace stopped nudging the pills. “We weren’t talking about pregnancy, and we weren’t talking about lactation.” She pointed at him. “You were telling me about the woman’s brain at the moment of orgasm.”

Heat prickled over his face. Was he blushing? What an absurd response — it wasn’t as if they’d never discussed the female orgasm before. “Right, right. In the female brain, it creates feelings of attachment.”

“Attachment to what?”

“To her sex partner. Oxytocin is one of the reasons women find it harder to have one-night stands.”

Some women.”

“More women than not,” he said, and before he could stop himself, he added, “It’s probably happened to you, too.”

“Oh, no, no.” She shook her head emphatically. “Not me.”

“Grace. Are you saying that you have never, ever made more out of a sexual relationship than your sex partner did?”

Slowly, she straightened in her chair, and he wished he could pull the question back. He’d opened his mouth to apologize for it when she spoke.

“Okay. Okay, let’s say I have done it once or twice.” She bit her full lower lip and wrapped her hands around her glass. “How are these pills supposed to help?”

“Basically, the pills prevent oxytocin from being released, but only inside the brain.” John grinned, trying to contain his excitement. “Outside the brain, oxytocin can still do the stuff I was talking about before.”

“But if it’s not inside my brain, attachment never forms?”

He nodded. “Attachment never forms. You could have a weekend fling or a vacation affair or even …”

“Even a fuck buddy?” She met his gaze with a satisfied smirk.

John’s scientific detachment returned, just in time to keep him from rising to the bait. “That’s right. You could always decide if you want it to be more than just sex, but your hormones wouldn’t make that decision for you.”

“Thinking between your ears and not between your legs, as my grandma would say.”

He smiled. “That’s a colorful way of putting it, but yes, that’s the idea.”

Grace picked up the blister pack and stared at it for several long seconds as John watched her. “You know, I think I like this idea. Women would have the same freedom as men. It would level the playing field.”

John nodded but said nothing. So far, he’d come damned close to pissing her off by mentioning her un-boyfriend — twice. Tough to get into trouble by saying too little.

Grace turned to him. “You must have plenty of people to test that.”

“Not really. I mean, we did the initial trials, so we know it actually blocks oxytocin and that it won’t kill you. The testing we’re doing now requires a little more.”

“How so?”

“If we can’t prove that these pills do everything our marketing department claims, we open ourselves up to huge legal consequences. We really need to know that attachment is not forming in the way that we say it’s not.”

He’d understated the risks. The legal consequences wouldn’t just be huge. They’d be catastrophic. They’d destroy corporate reputations and bankrupt the company. His career would go up in flames, and once the fire died down, the lawyers would mix salt with the ashes.

Grace had turned her attention back to the pills, stroking the surface of the pack with her thumb. “Where do I come in?” she asked.

“The subjects we’re working with now … we’re not getting the right quality of information from them. They’re not supposed to be in relationships, but a lot of them are, so there’s no way to track whether attachment is forming or if it was already there.” He sat back in the chair and pushed his glasses up before rubbing his eyes. “And a lot of them don’t like to talk about it.”

“Good girls don’t,” Grace said. A cynical edge hardened her voice.

“That’s the trouble.” He let his glasses drop back down onto his nose. “If I can’t get enough usable data to make any real headway, we might have to pull the project.”

The project gone. Years of work for nothing. They were so close now, a breath away from a revolutionary product. He couldn’t lose this now.

He couldn’t lose this.

Grace met his gaze. “Tell me what you need me to do.”

His skin heated again. What was wrong with him?

“I need you … to take the pills …”

She lifted a fine eyebrow. “And?”

“And then have sex …”

She grinned then, her teeth very white against the burgundy of her lipstick. “With Tal. Right?”

He shrugged. That was, of course, who he’d had in mind. But what he needed already defied the fundamental tenets of scientific research. He definitely wasn’t going to go farther out of bounds by telling her who to have sex with.

Grace chuckled, a throaty sound that might have been genuine amusement or something a bit less pleasant. “John, I hope you’re not thinking I’ll take these and then my eyes will be opened, and I’ll see Tal doesn’t want to be in a relationship.” She put the pills back on the table next to her glass. “I mean, I know you have some kind of issue with him.”

“Issue” didn’t begin to cover it. Tal only saw her at his place, and only at night. After two years, she’d never mentioned meeting his family or going away for the weekend or celebrating an anniversary. Never mentioned flowers or Christmas gifts. So far as John knew, Tal never even took her to dinner. As happy as Grace said she was, John knew she deserved more than what she had.

You knew that when she kissed you, too, didn’t you? And now you’re the friend, and he’s the fuck buddy, and that’s the way it is.

“Grace, I’m not trying to pull anything. I need someone who’s not in a relationship. I need someone who’s willing to tell me everything. I even need Tal.” He hated the way that felt in his mouth. “Look, I don’t want you to get hurt. That’s no secret. And if these pills make you see things a little differently, then so much the better. But I really just need your help.”

“Good. Because I know Tal doesn’t want a girlfriend. So we’re all on the same page.”

John nodded, lifting both hands in surrender. “Right. I get it.”

“Okay.” Grace pursed her full lips. “If I do this, what would happen after the sex?”

John swallowed, hoping she didn’t sense the sudden rush of discomfort that seemed so painfully obvious to him. “Then you report back.” He cleared his throat. “To me.”

A mischievous giggle bubbled out of her. “You want me to have sex with Tal and then come back and tell you about it.” Coming from her mouth, the idea sounded ridiculous. “I presume you would need this to happen more than once.”

“Well … there are eight pills in a pack.”

Grace picked up the blister pack again and stared at it in silence. As John scrambled to scrape up the last of his persuasive powers, she said, “Deal.”

The tension that had been crushing him released its grip. She’d do it. “Oh, Grace. I owe you big time.”

She tucked the pills into her purse and laughed. “I have a feeling the pleasure’s going to be all mine. Just don’t be too disappointed if nothing changes between me and Tal,” she said. “And don’t be too shocked when you hear about what we do together.”

7 Responses to “Project NSA by Alexa Day”

  1. Amorette January 24, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    I love it! I’m ready to read more! Let’s see what happens with Grace and John and these interesting pills!

    • romancewriterbynight January 29, 2011 at 11:37 am #

      Hey, Amorette!

      I didn’t know you’d left a comment back here — thanks for stopping by!

      Those pills definitely make things interesting for Grace and John … and even for Tal, whose life is already pretty interesting. It’s certainly been an exciting story to work on.

      Thanks again for visiting,
      Lexi

  2. B. Ray January 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    OMG, can a sista get the entire book! Love it 🙂

    • romancewriterbynight January 30, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      Hey there, B!

      I’m glad you enjoyed this little taste of Project NSA! I hope to have the entire book out there someday myself.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Lexi

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