Title: Beyond the Ivory Tower
Author: Jill Blake
Release Date: November 11, 2015
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
If there’s one thing math professor Anna Lazarev believes in, it’s the value of higher education. So when her younger sister announces she’s dropping out of college, Anna places the blame squarely on the man who inspired her sister’s rebellion.
Venture capitalist Ethan Talbot claims the US academic system is broken. His solution? Pay top students to “opt out” and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams without wasting time and money on a university degree.
In a passionate battle for the hearts and minds of a new generation, Anna will do whatever it takes to prove Ethan wrong. But when his demands take a more personal turn, will she sacrifice her principles to come out on top?
Ethan ignored the first few emails. Likewise the faxed letter, the phone message slips, and the envelope delivered by registered mail.
Ever since his usual assistant, Margaret, went on medical leave, he’d been saddled with a series of temps who had neither the wits nor the will to guard his inner sanctum. What he really needed was someone who not only knew how to organize his schedule and take dictation, but could also screen out and deflect all the noise of the outside world. There were simply too many people asking for money, or looking for a job, or hoping for an interview or sound bite, or just eager for the opportunity to rub elbows with the man of the moment.
Frankly, he was tired of it. But until Margaret returned from getting her hip replaced, he was unlikely to catch a break.
Maybe, after this weekend’s summit, he’d take some time off. Fly down to Belize and do some diving. Or visit his parents in upstate New York. He hadn’t seen them since Christmas. And even then he’d spent most of his time taking meetings by Skype and reviewing business plan executive summaries, financial projections, and capitalization tables.
When was the last time he’d taken a real vacation? Gone away somewhere, leaving behind the constant demands on his time and attention, the perpetual buzzing of his phone and jabbering of a hundred different voices, the endless stream of requests and offers—most of which held about as much appeal as a root canal done without anesthesia?
Sighing, he turned away from his contemplation of San Francisco’s skyline, the high-rise towers of the financial district limned by late afternoon sun. He needed to make one more pass through his PowerPoint presentation for tomorrow’s keynote address.
He was nearly halfway through the slides when the door burst open and he found himself facing an interruption he couldn’t ignore.
She was five foot five—if he was being generous. But that was the only average thing about her. She swept into the room with rapid, angry strides, dark brows drawn together over almond shaped eyes, nostrils flaring. Her hair was caught in a casual twist from which glossy black strands escaped to tumble past high cheekbones and bare neck. A V-cut T-shirt that stopped just short of displaying any cleavage was tucked into a pair of close-fitting jeans.
Ethan’s latest assistant—Tina? Trisha? something with a T—scurried in after her. “Dr. Lazarev—”
The woman shook off the restraining hand and continued to advance.
“Ma’am, please.” The assistant cast Ethan a nervous glance. “I’m sure we can schedule you in for an appointment. If you’ll just come with me…”
Ethan pushed back his Aeron chair. The woman faltered and ground to a halt as he rose to his full height. Then she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin.
The assistant fluttered nearby, wringing her hands. “I’m sorry, Mr. Talbot. I tried to stop her—”
He waved a dismissive hand without taking his eyes off of his unexpected guest. “It’s okay, Tina.”
“Trisha,” the assistant whispered.
“My name’s Trisha,” she repeated. “Should I call security?”
That would be the smart thing. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t hesitate. But something about this woman stopped him. Physically, she was no threat. He had at least eight inches on her, and easily outweighed her by sixty pounds. Of course, she could be packing a weapon. He eyed her sleek silhouette. No purse, no tell-tale bulges. His gaze paused briefly on the inscription over her breasts: Decimals have a point. She must have noticed him looking, because she crossed her arms over her chest. Blunt unpolished nails. No rings. He smiled. He’d take his chances.
“I’ll handle this, Trisha.” He slowly rounded the desk. “Would you mind closing the door on your way out?”
“It’s after five, Mr. Talbot. I was about to leave for the day. Unless you need me to stay…?”
“No.” He stopped in front of his desk and leaned against the edge, palms braced on the polished mahogany. “You’re free to go, Trisha. Enjoy your evening.”
The door closed. Silence descended.
Ethan cleared his throat. “Dr. Lazarev, is it?”
“Yes.” She glanced around, as if suddenly uneasy at the idea of being alone with him.
“I’m Ethan Talbot. But I guess you already know that.”
Her eyes came back to him and stayed. The color of moss, with a darker rim of green, and surrounded by a thick fringe of lashes.
For a moment, he forgot to breathe. Then the lashes lowered, and he felt the rush of oxygen returning to his lungs and brain.
“Yes, Mr. Talbot,” she said. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for the last two weeks.”
He gestured toward the visitors’ chairs before his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat and tell me what this is all about.”
She dropped her arms to her sides, and Ethan had to force himself not to look down. He was no stranger to women’s anatomy. Was, in fact, accustomed to seeing considerably more flesh on display, whether it was framed by business attire, or evening couture, or a tangle of sheets. But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such an immediate, irresistible attraction. Particularly to a woman who clearly hadn’t gone out of her way to entice—no jewelry, no discernible makeup, wearing an outfit that looked like it might have been acquired second-hand a couple of decades ago.
Instead of sitting down, she rested a hand on the back of one of the armchairs. “Mr. Talbot—”
She ignored the overture. “I’m here about my sister, Klara Lazarev.”
The name didn’t ring a bell. Should it? Or was he about to get snowed? He wished Margaret were back. She’d have known, and run interference for him. Or at the very least vetted Dr. Lazarev before permitting her to cross his threshold.
He wondered what sob story the woman planned to pitch. Or was she paving the way for some sort of extortion scheme? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been threatened with a trumped up charge of sexual harassment or wrongful termination or some other equally spurious accusation of malfeasance. Did the details even matter? The bottom line was always money.
Fine, he’d play the game. “I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“Klara’s one of the twenty Talbot Fellows this year.”
It took a moment for his brain to process: this wasn’t a shakedown. The tension drained from his body. “Congratulations. You must be very proud.”
It made sense now that he hadn’t recognized the name. Though the Talbot Fellowship was his brainchild, his involvement these days was limited to funding the sponsoring foundation, giving the opening speech at the kickoff summit, and doing some occasional PR. He didn’t participate in the selection of Talbot grant recipients or in the administration of the program.
The woman’s expression darkened. “It would have been better,” she said, “for Klara to stay in school.”
Uh-oh. Maybe his relief was a bit premature. Time to do some damage control. “I understand how you might feel that way,” he said. “But the Fellowship offers a unique opportunity for some of the best, most talented students to pursue their dreams in a non-traditional way.”
“Look, Mr. Talbot, I didn’t come here to argue, or to go into all the reasons your program is a bad idea.” Her knuckles whitened on the back of the armchair. “The only reason I’m even here is that some Fellowship administrator referred me to you. She said her office has never dealt with a situation like this, and she’s not comfortable taking any action unless the directive comes from you.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Lazarev. I wasn’t even aware that there was a ‘situation.’”
“Well, there is. My sister just turned nineteen, so technically she’s an adult. But it’s still my job to look out for her best interests. And I can tell you for a fact that dropping out of college to pursue some pipe dream funded by the Talbot Foundation is most definitely not in her best interests.”
“I see.” He ran a hand over the back of his neck, trying to loosen the muscles. “What I don’t understand is why you’re telling me this. Shouldn’t you be discussing this with your sister directly?”
“Believe me, if I could have convinced her to be reasonable, I wouldn’t be here now.” She took a deep breath. “Look, Mr. Talbot, I’m asking for your help. In fact, I’m willing to pay for it.”
His hand stilled. Well, this was something he hadn’t heard before. Someone offering to pay him? Was she talking about money, or some other form of payment? His gaze skimmed over her feminine curves, and he felt the kick of anticipation in his gut—along with a stirring further south.
By the time their eyes met again, she looked flushed. Had she read his mind? Was she even now picturing what it would be like to peel off one item of clothing at a time, until they were both naked and—
“I’m sure the Talbot Fellowship had a slew of applicants,” she said, quashing his fantasy more effectively than a negative quarterly report at a stockholder meeting. “Many of the applicants who were highly qualified probably didn’t receive a grant. Maybe there’s even a waiting list…?”
Ethan dropped his hand back to the desk, keeping his expression blank. He could see where she was heading with this, and wasn’t sure whether to be amused or appalled by her misguided efforts to manipulate her sister.
“Anyway,” she continued, when it became clear he wasn’t going to answer, “I’m sure you could find a dozen young people who’d be thrilled to step into a Fellowship position if one were to suddenly become available. If, for example, one of the current Fellows got disqualified on a technicality.”
He shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint you, Doc, but I’ve got two words for you. Not happening.”
She bit her lip. Funny, until this moment he’d never considered how sexy nude lips could be. He wondered what they would taste like. What they would feel like against his bare skin.
“What if a Fellow doesn’t meet certain expectations?” she said. “Every contract I’ve ever gotten had milestones or deliverables attached to it, and payment was contingent on timely submission of agreed-upon work. I’m sure your people do periodic assessments to see what kind of progress the Fellows are making, right? And after three or four months, if they’re not doing so well, maybe the funding could just…dry up.”
He had to concede one thing. She was certainly persistent. But not in any direction he was willing to go. He glanced at his watch. “Listen, Doc—”
“You can call me Anna.”
He stepped away from his desk. To his amusement, she dropped her death grip on the chair and took a step back.
“Anna,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure. But I’m afraid it’s getting late—”
“And you have plans,” she finished for him. “Of course. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time. Do you have a few minutes this weekend? We could work out the details by phone.”
“Actually—” he glanced at the laptop still open on his desk. Screw it. He’d given practically the same speech three years in a row, since the first Talbot Fellowship summit. And the pile of paperwork that never seemed to get any smaller would still be there even if he took an evening off. “Are you hungry? There’s a pub down the street that serves great burgers. We can continue this conversation over dinner.”
Jill Blake loves chocolate, leisurely walks where she doesn’t break a sweat, and books with a guaranteed happy ending. A native of Philadelphia, Jill now lives in southern California with her husband and three children. During the day, she works as a physician in a busy medical practice. At night, she pens steamy romances.