Ann Arbor, Michigan

Nolan Kilkenny punched the accelerator of the Mercedes ML 320 and piloted the black SUV into a sharp right turn onto the Huron Parkway. The yellow signal switched to red as he passed beneath.

In the passenger seat, Kelsey Newton stripped the towel from her head and began brushing out her shoulder-length mane of blond hair. The still-damp strands clumped together, and beads of water sprang off Kelsey’s brush with each flick of her wrist.

‘Hey, watch it,’ Nolan said as a few errant drops struck his face.

‘You want me beautiful, don’t you?’ Kelsey replied, her face hidden behind a veil of hair.

‘You always are.’

‘Well, thank you, but it doesn’t just happen, you know.’

Kelsey set the brush down on her lap and quickly wove her hair into a French braid. She then put the brush back in her purse and pulled out her mobile phone and began dialing.

The SUV’s speedometer edged over fifty as they passed the large blue-and-white sign that announced their entry onto the grounds of the University of Michigan’s North Campus. A smaller road sign set the speed limit at twenty-five miles per hour.

‘We’ll be there in a few minutes,’ Kelsey said reassuringly as Nolan sped down the winding road that led to the Michigan Applied Research Consortium.

Kelsey set her phone back in her purse. Ahead, nestled deep within a wooded site, stood a glistening ribbon of glass and stainless steel that defined the curvilinear form of the MARC building. The ultramodern structure was the physical embodiment of a vision that Nolan’s father had nurtured throughout his career in international finance: the idea that a bridge needed to be built between cutting-edge academic research and the businesses that fueled the nation’s economy. In operation for less than three years, Sean Kilkenny’s bridge carried a steadily growing flow of valuable technology from the university’s research labs into the world, and an equally impressive flow of money back into the university’s coffers.

Nolan parked in the first spot he found. Kelsey was already out her door and moving at a near run toward the building’s main entry by the time he pulled his briefcase out of the backseat and locked the SUV. After a short sprint, he caught up with her just as she passed through the door. In the lobby, Sean Kilkenny stood waiting for them.

‘Glad you two could make it.’

‘Sorry we cut it so close, Dad. Traffic on US Twenty-three was a bear.’

Kelsey gave Sean a peck on the cheek. ‘Thanks again for letting me borrow Nolan. I really doubt I could have replaced the entire tube array in only two days.’

‘You’re welcome, Kelsey. Anything to advance the cause of science.’

‘Dad, you should see this proton detector experiment. Imagine a sixty-foot cube of water hidden in a salt mine under Lake Erie. It’s pitch black down there, and the walls are lined with a couple of thousand jumbo-sized flood lamps.’

‘Photomultiplier tubes,’ Kelsey corrected.

‘Whatever. Strangest underwater job I’ve ever been on.’

‘I’m just glad I had an experienced diver down there with me,’ Kelsey said as she squeezed Nolan’s hand. ‘The PDE tank can be a little disorienting.’

‘I wouldn’t let anyone dive alone in that thing, especially you,’ Nolan said lovingly.

‘I assume that this project has been put to bed?’ Sean questioned.

Kelsey shot a furtive glance at Nolan, who reddened slightly. ‘We finished our part. The physics department can now handle the rest of the upgrade.’

‘Good, because after Sandstrom makes his pitch to the board, I have a feeling that MARC’s newest project director is going to have his hands full.’

Kelsey brushed a fleck off Nolan’s tweed jacket, causing Sean’s mood to relax slightly as he watched her evaluate his son’s appearance. It reminded him of how his late wife used to fuss over him before an important meeting, and it pleased him to know that his son had someone who cared for him in that same way.

Kelsey and Nolan had known each other since the earliest days of their childhood, when her family moved in to a home just a few doors up the street. They had attended school together, and both had distinguished themselves academically and athletically. They’d been best friends for years, sharing the strong bond of kindred spirits.

At eighteen, their ambitions took them on separate journeys. Kelsey attended the University of Michigan, where she pursued her passion for physics through to a doctorate and a faculty position. Nolan embraced the challenges of the United States Naval Academy, deferred his entry into the navy two years for a graduate degree from MIT, and then surprised his family and friends by joining the Navy SEALs.

Their friendship survived the twelve years of separation through a steady stream of phone calls, letters, and holiday visits. Eighteen months ago, when Nolan left the navy and returned to Ann Arbor, they resumed the comfortable pattern of their platonic relationship.

Both were ready for something more, but neither was willing to risk the security of what they had for the unknown – until they were nearly killed by a group of industrial spies. In the year following that brutal attempt on their lives, the two began enjoying an increasingly amorous relationship.

‘Okay?’ Nolan asked as she straightened his tie.

‘Handsome as ever, dear.’

‘You both look fine,’ Sean said impatiently, checking his watch. ‘The break’s about over. Let’s get inside. Nolan, Sandstrom and Paramo are waiting for you.’

Nolan followed his father and Kelsey into the conference room.

‘Excuse me while I go make sure everything’s ready for Sandstrom’s dog and pony show,’ Sean said before making a beeline for the podium.

From the doorway Nolan and Kelsey surveyed the crowd. The attendees had broken into several small groups, enjoying both the refreshments and the conversation.

‘I see them, Kelsey. Look by the windows. The blond guy with the red beard is Sandstrom. Next to him – the older man, about a foot shorter with white hair and tortoiseshell glasses – that’s Paramo.’

Beside the curved wall of glass that bowed outward into the woods, Kelsey spotted Ted Sandstrom and his mentor, Raphaele Paramo.’

‘Nolan,’ Sandstrom called out as they approached, relief visible on his face. ‘I was afraid you weren’t going to show.’

‘Wouldn’t miss it, Ted,’ he replied, then introduced Kelsey to the two physicists.

‘Professor Newton,’ Paramo said, shaking her hand enthusiastically, ‘this is indeed a pleasure. I’ve read your paper on optical electronics. Very interesting work.’

‘Thank you,’ Kelsey replied, enjoying the admiration of a respected peer.

Sandstrom then clasped her hand warmly. ‘I understand we have you to thank for our being here today.’

‘That may be overstating things a bit,’ she demurred. ‘All I did was look over the report that Notre Dame sent to MARC regarding your research. After I read it a few times – I admit it took more than one pass to really comprehend what you and Professor Paramo have accomplished – I told Nolan’s father that he’d be a fool not to take a closer look.’

‘Well, thank you for your vote of confidence.’

Across the room, Sean Kilkenny began to address those assembled. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ his amplified voice resonated above the murmuring conversations, ‘if you’ll kindly take your seats, we can move on to the next item on our agenda.’

The MARC board of directors, a mix of business executives and university regents, took their places at the conference table. Around the periphery of the room, members of the still-forming Notre Dame Applied Research Consortium (ND-ARC) and important guests of both universities returned to their seats. Sean Kilkenny waited until everyone was ready before proceeding.

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