So you’ve seen the cover for Star Dust. It’s gorgeous and it’s about astronauts and so far so good–but what does a space-race romance really look like? Well, I’ve got the prologue and part of the opening chapter for you.
Be advised that there are a couple of adult words, a Soviet satellite, and a dangerous level of chemistry between a pair of unlikely neighbors.
Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland
October 5, 1957
“Thinking about setting a new altitude record?”
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Campbell—Kit to everyone who didn’t call him Campbell—grinned as he unwrapped a stick of Juicy Fruit. “I was thinking about it,” he told the mechanic.
He was more than thinking about it—he was going to do it.
Wind whipped through the hangar, plastered his clothes against his body for a moment, and then calmed again.
“How is she today?” he asked.
She was the X-15, a test plane designed to go as high as possible. More rocket than plane, really, with her long, cylindrical body and short stubby wings. She handled like a drunk pig, but she didn’t need the grace of a dancer. She only needed to take him to the edge of the atmosphere, where the blue of the sky bled into the black of space.
If she took him fifty miles up, he’d be the first man in space.
That was the record Kit was aiming for. One that could never be broken.
“She’s looking good,” the mechanic said, wiping his hands on a rag. “You ought to think about leaving some of those altitude records for the other pilots to grab.”
Fat chance of that. Aviators were the most competitive bastards out there. Always jockeying to see who flew the fastest, the highest, won the most dogfights. A test pilot didn’t step aside for others to go first—he raced them all to be the first.
Kit was first—at the moment—and he meant to stay there.
“Let’s get her ready,” he said. “See how high we can go today.” He had a good feeling, a sense that something momentous was about to be shattered.
He went to the locker room to put on his flight suit, clearing his mind of everything but his plane, the feel of the controls in his hand, the response of the X-15 to his motions—a flight like this required every bit of concentration.
He was reaching for his helmet, the oxygen tube snaking from it like an elephant’s trunk, when Lieutenant Commander Reynolds burst in.
“They’re calling muster.” Reynolds didn’t even enter the room, just hung on the doorframe, eyes wide. “Everything’s grounded today.” A little rushed, his words, but not really panicked.
Huh. Kit chewed his gum slowly. Something big must have happened.
“All right. I’m coming.”
As Reynolds dashed off, Kit’s heart began to pound. He peeled out of the flight suit, his hands steady, his skin cool even in humid Indian summer of Maryland.
When he reached the muster room, all of the Pax River test pilots had assembled, even the off-duty aviators.
Whatever it was, it was serious. Kit eased into a metal folding chair and glanced around, but there was nothing in the pilots’ faces to suggest they knew what was happening either.
Captain Watson paced the front of the room. A radio next to him was transmitting an odd pulse—a strange kind of chirping, like a robotic canary, about three pulses per second.
What the hell was that?
Kit wasn’t the only puzzled one, judging by the furrowed brows and pinched mouths, but the aviators’ postures were loosely alert. Like Kit, most of them had flown in Korea—it took more than a general muster and a weird radio signal to rattle them.
No point getting excited until the enemy was sighted. And Kit didn’t see one here.
Captain Watson paused and took a look around with his hands behind his back. “You’ve all been called here today because of that”—he gestured to the radio—“because of that noise.”
They all waited for him to go on. Kit chewed his Juicy Fruit, the taste almost gone now. But he still kept working at it, if only to keep himself steady.
“It’s an artificial satellite,” the captain said. “Transmitting from an Earth orbit.”
Every man in the room became a little more alert, a little brighter. An object orbiting Earth, a man-made thing touching space—the possibilities of it electrified all of them.
It looked like the Naval Research Facility had finally figured out how to keep their rockets from exploding on the pad. Go Navy.
“It’s not ours,” Captain Watson finished heavily.
Their eager anticipation turned into chilled anxiety.
“The Soviets beat us?” Reynolds asked, channeling the incredulity of every man in the room.
“Are we scrambling fighters?” another man asked.
Jesus, a Soviet satellite, hovering overhead… Who knew what it might do? The enemy was here, just miles above them.
“No.” Captain Watson regained a touch of his composure. “The threat level is raised for the moment, but what can we do about a satellite? We can’t shoot it down.”
“Fuck,” Kit muttered under his breath. He knew better than most how futile such a thing would be. He’d imagined heading fifty miles up today—and that satellite was probably a hundred and fifty miles up.
A satellite launched into space, and America wasn’t the one who’d done it. What was next?
A man in orbit. That was next.
And then? Then the moon.
The Soviets could conquer space.
His jaw clenched tight, the Juicy Fruit clamped between his molars. He stared at the radio, chirping out that never-ending loop. It had been odd before he knew what it was, but now it was alien, unsettling. A warning that the Soviets had won.
At least this battle. There was still time to put a man in orbit. To put a man on the moon.
Kit had sworn to defend this country at home and abroad. The Soviets wanted to take this fight to space? Well, Kit was ready.
He’d been ready since he was a boy, really. Dreaming of the stars…
But this wasn’t a time for dreams. It was time to act. America was up to the task. They’d beat the Soviets—and Kit would be part of that effort.
He wasn’t sure how, but he would be.
Kit was going to the stars.
Anne-Marie Smith took in the crates strewn across the floor of her new dining room. She nudged the biggest one with her toe and the contents jingled. Well, she’d never liked the Crown Derby. If the past year and a half had taught her anything, it was that there was no use in crying over spilt milk, broken china, or shattered marriages.
She looked up at the movers, four large men who lifted everything as easily as dollhouse furniture—and dropped it just as easily too. “Can you put those”—she gestured at the crates—“over there, please? I’ll deal with them later. And move the table into the middle of the room?”
Doug had picked the china and the table, a huge mahogany thing with a dozen ornate chairs for entertaining all his legal partners and their wives. It was dark and Victorian and didn’t fit the new house—though of course neither did Doug.
When the movers had finished, she said, “Let’s talk about the sitting room.”
Here at least were things she’d chosen: a sleek couch and several chairs covered in a subtle floral pattern. They were crammed in front of the picture window that looked out over the woodsy front yard.
“Lake Glade is the neighborhood, darling. All the astronauts live there,” her mother had cooed as she’d explained the gift she’d bought Anne-Marie.
“It’s a house, Mom! A house I haven’t seen!” she’d snapped in response.
It was also a way out of Dallas. So she’d done what anyone would have: She’d taken it and moved her kids to Houston.
“I want the couch there,” she told the movers. “And those chairs and the drop-leaf table by the fireplace.”
“What about the television?”
There it was, though she specifically remembered giving different instructions. “I’m sorry, but it’s not going in this room. I want it in the den.”
One of them made a face. “Is that what your husband wants?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, purposefully shielding her left hand. “Yes.” She said it as if it weren’t a lie. Thank goodness Judge Harper had finally, agonizingly settled the question. All she felt about the divorce—all she wanted to feel anyway—was relief. But no one would let her, because genus Divorcee was too strange.
They’d known what to do with her when she’d been Doug’s wife and, before she’d married, Larry McCann’s daughter. She’d even been recognizable as a woman who’d kicked her unfaithful husband out. Whose husband hasn’t strayed? she’d been told more than once. But when you became the woman who hadn’t gotten over it, the sympathy turned into hard stares and leers, gossip and silence.
She squared her shoulders and smiled in what she hoped was a fair approximation of her mother’s style, all flies and honey and strong Southern womanhood.
The foreman was tall and burly. Looking up at him, she felt her inches’ deficit, and the fact she hadn’t set her curly red hair in days and needed a shower and was even—horror of horrors—wearing trousers. But this was her house. These were her things. They should go where she wanted them.
After a pause, the movers made some ambiguous noises but did what they’d been told.
A half hour later one of them asked, “What room is your husband going to use as an office? Or do you want us to do the kitchen next?”
Yes, because the kitchen was her office. Anne-Marie clenched her hands into fists and shoved them into her pockets. “You know? I’ll finish. With my husband.” So she’d be on her own for the unpacking, then, but that suited her fine. “You’ve been so… helpful.”
Ten minutes and some paperwork later, the movers drove away and she walked through the house again. Her house. All right, a house that her parents had bought, that was filled with her husband’s furniture. Details.
She fingered the boxes spread over the counter in the kitchen. After she unpacked, she was going to put up wallpaper. She was going to make all the catalog recipes she wanted, including for weeknight suppers when no one was coming over, just because it would be fun. And—she leaned into the back room—she was going to paint. It was so dark and masculine now. She wanted it to look like her home. Hers and the kids’.
But first, she had to get all the ingredients for their home out of the boxes.
She started in the kids’ rooms. She wanted to make things as normal for them as she could. When this was over—when they’d adjusted to the new house and school, when she’d gotten used to working, when she was able to go through a day without the dread of unresolved legal haggling hanging over her—Anne-Marie would never take normal for granted again. She was going to wrap herself up in normal like a rain slicker to protect her from the world.
It took some shifting, but at last she found the box labeled linens. Enough tape to plug a leak in the Hoover Dam helpfully slathered it. She pulled on a corner, managing to get a tab free, but when she leaned back, the little piece ripped clean off.
Why had she sent the movers away? They hadn’t been too bad… Okay, yes, they had been, but she should have made them open more things first. She didn’t have a knife—silly, practical men and their tools—but she did have a nail file. Maybe it would do?
Anne-Marie levered the blade into the corner of the box and began sawing through the tape. One inch. Two. Jeez, she’d made an error not starting with a box with knives in it because this was going to take forever.
As she progressed, the box began to rock. She slapped her left hand onto the top to steady it.
“Hold still, almost done,” she ordered it between grunts. But before she could get too excited, the nail file shot forward. It sliced through the last few inches of tape and lodged itself into her hand.
For a long second, she blinked at the gash shining garnet on her finger. Then she pulled the blade out and wrapped her finger in her blouse to staunch the bleeding.
“Damn,” she whispered, permitting herself a rare obscenity. She blew the hair that had fallen into her eyes off her face. She truly was a wreck.
She stumbled back to the kitchen and nudged her pocketbook open with her elbow. She didn’t have so much as a tissue. What kind of a mother didn’t have an adhesive bandage or two?
She didn’t want to answer that. She also didn’t want to meet her neighbors bleeding and disheveled. She’d intended to make something for them, to wear a dress, anything that might negate her marital status. See: I’m not threatening! I brought a quiche.
Divorce might be a problem beyond quiche. But so was the cut on her finger.
She took her hand out of her shirt. Blood immediately welled and began to drip. She wrapped her finger up again and, muttering all the way, she pushed the front door open and went in search of help.
Lake Glade wasn’t a neighborhood yet—it was mostly open lots. Her and her neighbor’s houses sat at the end of a cul-de-sac called Harbor View. They did not in fact have a harbor view; there wasn’t a harbor at all, only a big pond. The developer was an awfully good salesman.
A bright white Thunderbird stood in the neighbor’s driveway. At least someone was there. She knocked as best she could with her elbow. After several long beats, she knocked again. Inside the house, something thumped and then someone cursed.
A male someone.
Before she could figure out what a man might be doing home on a Monday morning, the door opened and a chest confronted her. A muscular, hair-dusted chest. She swallowed and blinked at the flat, pink nipple inches from her nose.
Anne-Marie tried to process it, the pink nipple and the tawny skin and the golden hair, but before she could, she looked up into the face that went with the chest. The same face stared out from the cover of the Life Magazine currently sitting on the coffee table in her mother’s house across town.
“Commander Christopher Campbell?” Her voice came out high and breathless.
She’d learned a lot about herself in the past eighteen months: she couldn’t abide unfaithfulness; the comforts of her marriage didn’t make the rest of it worth it; she could take care of her children on her own; and in fact, she liked being alone.
Most of these facts had been good. But that she got flustered and star-struck when confronted with a shirtless, albeit famous, man? Not welcome.
She focused on his eyes, which were big and blue. Then she dug around for the last bit of her poise. Finding it, she did not allow herself to react as he smiled. Slowly. As if he knew all the things she’d just thought about. Which was, thank goodness, quite impossible.
He spoke. “Usually the women who show up on my doorstep call me Kit.”
Oh, that helped. She was less flustered already. Nothing snapped her back to reality faster than the arrogance of the highly sexed man.
From the way he’d said the line, she suspected there were a lot more of them. He may have—he did have—an impressive physique, but that was why she didn’t believe in that sort of thing. Doug may not have been so… earthy, but he was plenty good-looking. And that had gotten her nowhere.
If she ever did settle down again, it would be with an absolutely regular-looking man, and preferably not one who answered the door only partially dressed in order to flirt with strange women.
At least Commander Campbell—that was, Kit—could probably give her a bandage and a knife. So what if his trousers did cling to his… No, she was not going to think about his hips.
Utterly composed, she said, “I’m your new neighbor. Next door. Anne-Marie Smith.”
His smile broadened. “I saw the truck. Welcome.”
“I, well…” She looked down. The blood on her blouse resembled a gruesome poppy.
Kit inhaled sharply, evidently noticing her injury for the first time. “Come in.”
He slid a hand around her elbow, and with all the skin on display and the blood loss, she felt a bit of a jolt at the contact. This type of man infuriates you, she reminded herself.
“We’ll get that cleaned up,” he was saying, “but my house is, uh, a bit of a mess.”
She gasped as she stepped over the threshold. Saying his house was a mess was ridiculous—a horde of toddlers may as well have rioted there.
A chair had been overturned and pillows streamed across the floor. A lamp rested on its side, the shade gone. Food and debris littered the carpeting. Overarching the room was the strong scent of stale alcohol.
Kit gently but firmly led her around the scene of destruction. “The kitchen’s through here.”
She tried to ignore the crunching every step generated. It sounded as if someone had sprinkled crackers over the floor and then danced on them. Maybe it was some sort of astronaut game.
Luckily, the kitchen was cleaner. Evidently most of the party had been focused elsewhere. Kit propped her against the cabinets and released her. Her arm suddenly felt colder, and she shivered.
“Do you get squeamish at the sight of blood?” he asked as he produced a first aid kit from a drawer and popped it open.
“No.” Nearly a decade of motherhood had cured her of that—but she omitted the detail. For some completely silly reason, she was uncomfortable with the idea of him thinking of her as a mother, but of course he’d know soon enough.
“What’d you cut yourself on?” he asked.
He grimaced appreciatively and poured rubbing alcohol onto a cotton ball.
“This is going to hurt.”
She was tempted to say something saucy, but more than she wanted to snap at him, she wanted him to wrap her wound so she could unpack. Sniping at him would have to wait.
With a deep breath, she pulled her hand from her shirt and set it in his. His palm was warm and surprisingly soft. He immediately pressed the cotton ball down on the cut and her eyes watered. She bit the inside of her lip to avoid crying out.
“Shh,” he whispered, rubbing her wrist with slightly callused fingers. “It’ll be better in a second.”
She nodded and closed her eyes. He kept running his fingers over her. She could feel it in her toes—which must have been her body’s way of distracting her from the stinging.
His fingertips caught on the bones of her wrist, grazed over the side of her hand, and then back again. She inhaled, hoping sense might enter her lungs with the air. He was a man: a pretty, vain playboy of a man. This wasn’t the time to become attracted.
He lifted the cotton and then reapplied it, pressing harder. “You really cut yourself.”
“Yup.” She sure had.
The silence stretched out between them. He kept up the rubbing, and her heartbeat fell into rhythm with it.
“You been in the neighborhood long?” She needed to blot out the sensation.
His voice was low, and she felt something pool in her stomach. A frisson of… interest. No! She didn’t want to name it; that would make it real.
“Do you like Lake Glade?” It was much safer to talk about real estate.
“It’s quiet. I…” He trailed off and then said, “You should know I don’t typically hold rowdy parties. I don’t want you to think I’ll be waking you and your family up.”
The last bit sounded like a statement, but she suspected it was a question. Not a prurient one, but curious. He wanted to know about her. He was, after all, patching her up, and they were going to be living next to each other—it was natural he’d want to know.
She wasn’t sure how to answer, however. She’d lied about her family to the movers—but she was never going to see them again. She couldn’t lie to Kit. He’d find out. Also, he was an astronaut. It would be like lying to G.I. Joe.
“My kids,” she said. It wasn’t precisely what he’d been asking, but it was true, and it clarified that she wasn’t unattached. She wasn’t married, but she also wasn’t precisely alone.
He nodded. “I definitely don’t want to wake up your kids. Also, I’m not a fan of disasters. I try to avoid them, as a rule.”
“You don’t enjoy scrubbing dip out of carpeting?”
“Not on Mondays.”
“But the rest of the week?”
“Wednesday gets boring sometimes.”
In spite of herself, she smiled. An astronaut was flirting with her. He thought she was married and that this was only politeness, but still. Most women in America would give anything to be in her spot—messy hair, sliced finger, and all. So for a moment, she let herself play along.
She shook her head sadly. “I’m surprised Life omitted that bit.”
“Ah, well, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.” He popped his jaw in what sounded like genuine frustration, but it evaporated when he said gently, “I’ll be a good neighbor.”
He removed the cotton, and before the blood could start gushing again he had a bandage around her finger. He pulled it taut and adhered it better than she could have done. He wet another cotton ball and used it to clean her up. His movements were lighting quick. Practiced. Confident.
Pilots probably got banged up a lot. He’d probably done this many times, and all the touching and comforting was clinical and unconscious. She’d been the one imagining anything else.
“Thank you,” she said as she watched him work. “Nothing’s unpacked yet. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“Probably bled to death.” He shot her a lazy grin.
She pulled her hand back and glared at him.
“Do you need a clean shirt?” he asked.
The word shirt called attention to his lack of one. She didn’t permit herself to look at him for more than an instant. She shook her head and trained her eyes past him at his refrigerator—a turquoise Frigidaire that gleamed in the corner and made her covetous. Hers was plenty nice, but that was a beauty.
Still not looking at him, she said, “I’ll pass on the shirt, but I’ll take a knife.”
He produced a folded blade from his pocket. He wasn’t even dressed and he had a knife on him?
“Do you want some scissors too? I’m sure I can find some.”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
He pulled open what appeared to be a junk drawer and fished around inside. He finally located a pair of sewing scissors identical to the ones that were in her mending case in a box somewhere inside her house. He held them out to her, but when she reached for them, she stumbled toward him. Her cheeks heated.
Maybe she wasn’t imagining the flirting—but that was all the more reason to get out of his house.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.
“No, you’ve been very welcoming,” she said through clenched teeth. “Or you will be once you give me those.”
“I’ll have to have your family over for dinner once I, you know, have the carpets cleaned.” He handed the pocketknife and scissors over with a broad, polished smile. He clearly felt as if they’d reached a détente.
All she said was, “Hmm.”
As she followed him out, there was another noise to accompany the crunching of crackers: a door opening. Into the midst of the carnage in Kit’s living room strode a woman wearing a frothy peignoir and nothing else.
The woman was young, blonde, and extremely pretty. Her hair was tangled and her makeup blurred—not particularly surprising, given what had evidently gone on here—but she bounced in all the right places.
If the Life article was to be believed, Kit was unmarried. And indeed he wasn’t wearing a ring. The woman, presumably not his wife, was unmoved by it. All of it. The mess. Anne-Marie’s presence. The blood all over her shirt. Kit’s evident absence from his bed.
The young woman just scratched her head and smiled at them. “Morning.”
Anne-Marie glanced at Kit, who had flushed scarlet. When he didn’t say anything, Anne-Marie offered, “Right. Good morning. I was just going. Thanks for the, uh, bandage. And the knife. And the scissors. I’ll bring them back when I’m done.”
She wrenched the door open before he could respond and strode back across the yard. She’d been hoping for a new start in Lake Glade, but she should have known that men were the same everywhere.
Without feeling even a hint of disappointment, she started opening boxes and putting together her home.
And on October 14, you can see how Kit responds.
Star Dust is available for preorder at Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo. You can also add it to your Goodreads shelves, join the mailing list for the Fly Me to the Moon series, or check out the book’s Pinterest board.
© Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.