Newly promoted associate professor Meghan Marshall had two conservative dresses that she alternated for university functions. Working day and night on a research proposal, however, had distracted her, and she’d failed to realize that she needed to drop the dresses off at the dry cleaner’s. So what was she going to wear to the night’s event?
Her closet was quite full—of empty hangers. She really needed to do laundry. In the very back she found a collection of dresses in plastic. Several of them were old bridesmaid’s dresses. For heaven’s sake. She definitely needed to discard or donate those.
There was one dress that might do for the evening. It was red with a square collar and cream accents. She’d worn it to a Christmas party when she’d been dating her ex-fiancé. She felt a slight pang. No, she was not going to think about him. It wasn’t that she particularly missed him. The pang had come on because she was lonely. It had been nice to be in a relationship. Still, she had plenty to keep her busy. Like her work. And lately, her work functions. She frowned. That brought her thinking full circle.
A form-fitting red dress might be a bit much for the event, but tonight’s party was for the alumni, so no one would be especially interested in talking with her. Her plan would be to find an out-of-the-way corner to sample the food and to drink a glass of wine. The dress wouldn’t feel like too much if she stood behind a large potted plant. She was sure she would manage to keep a low profile. After all, most people would be distracted by the function’s main attractions.
The faculty, staff, alumni, and donors at the gathering would all be trying to get face time with the two ‘Deans,’ the dean of the university and the head coach of the football team, Dean Ulrich.
Mr. Ulrich had been the coach for a little over a year. He had taken their team, which had had three losing seasons in a row before him, to one of those prestigious bowl games his first year as coach. Winning teams brought in alumni dollars like nothing else. Rumor had it that he’d also squelched a player scandal, which put the university dean squarely in his debt on two counts.
The tall, handsome coach with the intense stare had appeared on the front page of the university newspaper often, and with increasing frequency, in the local papers as well. It made her want to roll her eyes. Never mind that one of the faculty members in the biochemistry department had patented a compound that might revolutionize dementia treatment. Never mind that her department had gotten a quarter of a million dollars in grants for the university over the past year. Football fever was upon them.
Meghan had never had cause to talk to Coach Ulrich, but she was predisposed to dislike him. He never smiled in pictures, obviously taking his ‘work’ too seriously to make light of it. Also, he put all his energy into a game that, in her opinion, men were paid entirely too much to coach and to play.
She took down the dress and tried it on. She had to hold her breath to get it zipped. Good grief. She’d been a size twelve when she’d bought it, but now she was likely closer to a fourteen. The dress was lined and well cut, so although it was snug, it wasn’t so tight that it was unflattering. The front, however, was a problem. The square cut had showcased her full breasts a little too well when the dress had first been purchased. With the ten pounds she’d gained, they threatened to push up and over the fabric. She must have a bra that could help. She’d find it.
“Wow. How would you like to take a bite out of that?” Lamar Berry, the defensive coach, asked.
Dean glanced toward the open double doors where there was a woman who looked like she’d stepped straight out of Mad Men, wearing a tight red dress that hugged her unbelievable curves.
She turned, and her round ass nearly brought him to his knees.
“Damn. That’s what I’m talking about,” Lamar said. “That’s a mansion with a three-car garage right there.”
Dean smirked, then sobered. “Taleeza inbound on your six.”
Taleeza was Lamar’s sometime girlfriend, and Dean took it from things Lamar had said that she was likely on the way out. The alumni reception, however, wasn’t a good place for the breakup to happen.
At Dean’s warning, Lamar straightened and shifted his gaze to the grandfather clock where a group of the players were huddled together, eating from plates piled high with appetizers.
“I hope they’re makin’ some more food. Our boys brought their post-practice appetites with ‘em tonight,” Lamar observed.
“If you invite the army, you better have the supply lines running,” Dean said, his gaze flicking briefly to his players before returning to the red dress as she made her way to the buffet. She seemed to be alone.
Though Dean wouldn’t say so in the middle of the reception, he did very much want to take a bite out of her. Unfortunately, the opportunity to introduce himself might not come up since he spotted the dean waving him over. “Keep an eye on the guys, Lamar. Don’t let them overrun the place.”
Meghan had been unexpectedly cornered by a trio of very large young men who were not inclined to make way for her to return to the dessert table or to go anywhere else.
“So what do you teach?” a handsome boy in a black suit and coral shirt asked. There was a diamond stud in his ear. He didn’t look like a student. He looked like a rap mogul.
“Physics,” she said with a polite smile.
The young man in the coral shirt wasn’t as tall as his wingmen. He was probably an inch or two shy of six feet. He was, however, clearly the leader.
“Physics, that’s the study of gravity’s effect on heavenly bodies, right? Speaking of heavenly bodies, your body’s bangin’ in that dress.”
“Um, thank you. That’s not really something you should say to a professor though.”
“Well, technically you’re not our professor, right? I mean none of us are in your class. Though I would love for you to teach me something. Anywhere. Anytime.”
A throat cleared. “Gentleman,” a low, slightly menacing voice said.
The boys immediately straightened up and turned. The leader of the group spoke quickly. “Hey, Coach. We were just talking to Ms. Marshall about the prerequisites for her class. Sean’s thinking of changing majors.”
“Uh huh,” Coach Ulrich said, staring them down.
There were a few other things said casually before they moved off. The leader in the coral shirt winked at her as he walked away, making her shake her head with a small smile.
Meghan tucked her hair behind her ear. The coach continued to stare at her, which made her self-conscious and also a little warm all over. Up close, he was even more handsome than his pictures.
“They’re very, um, confident young men. That must be an asset on the playing field.”
“Were they aggressive?”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d use that word,” she said. They had been a little aggressive, of course, but she didn’t want to get them in trouble.
“Did they scare you?”
“Oh, no, definitely not.” She glanced through the plant fronds toward the players. “Are they—should I have been scared?”
“No, and I’m glad you weren’t.”
She turned her attention back to the coach. Dean Ulrich had light brown hair with streaks of gold, a tan that should have faded by now, and indecently long dark eyelashes. Men should not have been allowed to be born with lashes like those. She, a natural redhead who darkened her hair, had blond lashes that completely disappeared without makeup.
“Congratulations on your grant award.”
Her eyes widened. The football coach knew about her grant funding? How? Why?
“Thank you. It’s a start.” She fidgeted. It was a grant award to fund a single project and therefore not very large.
Why did he continue to look at her in that intent way? No wonder his players were afraid of him.
“And congratulations to you on your last season. You went to a playoff game, right? The Bowl of Sugar one?” she asked.
The coach smiled, and her breath caught. He had a really beautiful smile, with even white teeth and a little cleft that magically appeared in his left cheek. Was the entire Ebert football program full of beautiful men? Where did they do their recruiting? Casting agencies? Honestly.
“Thank you. It’s a start,” he said mildly, adopting her casual statement and manner from earlier.
She laughed, glancing down at her shoes for a moment and then back up. “I got the name wrong, didn’t I?”
“The descriptor goes before the word bowl. The Sugar Bowl. The Cotton Bowl.”
“Sorry. I should have paid closer attention. I was quite bogged down in work at the end of the year. The holidays always disrupt my workflow. Offices are closed, and the support staff are constantly traveling or distracted.”
He nodded. “Holidays should be banned. Thanksgiving is all about turkey and cranberry sauce, meanwhile the paperwork piles up. Then it’s all downhill till Christmas.”
She burst out laughing, but quickly covered her mouth to muffle the sound as several heads turned. “I should not have had that second glass of wine. I had no idea there would be entertainment.”
“Or that the party would find you, even though you were hiding.”
“I wasn’t hiding. I was staying out of the way.”
“Uh huh. Out of whose way? The human race’s?”
“I wanted to avoid the stampede of people trying to get to the main attraction,” she said, inclining her head at him.
“If you expected someone else to be the main attraction you should have chosen a different dress.”
Her cheeks warmed, and the blush spread to her neck and chest. Damn her redheaded genes. They never failed to embarrass her.
He studied her, his gaze starting at her face and traveling all the way down to her ankles, then back up.
“I wouldn’t normally have worn such a—”
“But I realized at the last minute that I didn’t have anything to wear, and the head of my department has made it very clear that it would be in my best interest to attend any functions sent as a priority invitation from the dean’s office. It’s—a fact of life in academics. It shouldn’t be. I’m far more valuable in my lab.” She ran a hand over her hair to be sure it hadn’t pulled loose of the pins. It seemed to still be in place. Thankfully. “You must have it worse than I do though. Someone always seems to want to interview you. That must be exhausting.”
He shook his head. “I’m used to it.”
“Well, I’m not. I wish they’d allow faculty who are early in their careers to focus on the work that’s likely to gain the university the appropriate type of recognition. This is an institution of higher learning. Do they want us to be known only for frivolous pursuits?”
She flushed again, even more hotly. He seemed nicer than she’d expected. She didn’t want to insult him.
“The athletic programs are obviously helpful to the school,” she said, trying to be polite and diplomatic. “When they’re run successfully they provide a revenue stream that supports the university’s real mission.” She shifted her weight. The shoes had been pinching her feet for much too long. She’d worn them because they went with the dress, but honestly! So uncomfortable. “I apologize. I really have to go. It was nice talking with you, Mr. Ulrich.”
The man stepped aside to let her pass. “Good night, Dr. Marshall.”
“Men, power-down talk in ten minutes,” Dean said.
The guys had put in a grueling practice that had made him proud, but Dean was still getting calls about their off-the-field behavior. That needed to be addressed.
They got to the locker room and turned off their phones. They held them aloft to show the black screens and set them in their lockers. The coaches, including him, powered down too and set their phones in a line on a bench.
“That was a solid practice. You should be proud of that effort,” he said, running down a list of the day’s best plays. “Off-field, though, we’re still jumping off sides.” He stared them down. “You are the biggest, toughest men on this campus, bar none. I hear some of you always travel in packs, like the wolves you are on the field. During games, we are one body. These are your brothers. On campus, though, you will not hunt girls as a pack.”
There were some snickers and exchanged looks.
“You know who you are. You know what I’m talking about. Ask yourself something. Should you need backup to flirt with a hundred-and-fifteen-pound teenage girl? You gotta have the offensive line help you make that play? If you need to corner a woman with two other guys, you’ve got no game.” He could see Lamar grinning out of the corner of his eye.
“Coach is right, and you best listen to the man. He keeps it one hundred. Back in the day, he got more pussy than anyone. The boys called him Hef. He had all the bunnies hopping.”
Dean frowned. Sometimes Lamar tried too hard to remind the guys that they’d once been one of them.
“That true, Coach? For real?” Jameson asked.
“Can we call you Coach Hef?” Darnell called out, causing the locker room to erupt.
“Sure, if you want to run the hill till you puke,” Dean said mildly.
Another round of laughter.
“For real, Coach. How come you got no girl?”
“When I want a woman I have one,” he said coolly.
That caused a third eruption.
“And I don’t need backup. Know why? Because we already have the best advantage there is. Biology. Women are hardwired to want the biggest, strongest guy in the room. Back in the day, in the wild, they needed us to protect them. That’s still in them. You don’t need a gang. She’s already intimidated by you. You’re the alpha male. Start acting like it. And by that, I don’t mean start fights or drag a girl anywhere she’s not inclined to go. The time to impress them with strength is when they’re in trouble. Darnell knows what I’m talking about. He saw a frat boy slip something in a girl’s drink and punched the asshole in the face.”
“And got pulled in to explain himself,” someone said. “Could’ve gotten kicked out.”
“Is he still here? Darnell, did we have your back?”
“Yeah, Coach was there at the closed hearing, talking about if a guy don’t want to get beat down, maybe he best not try to perpetrate a sex crime when a Wolf is in the house.”
“Darnell, tell me something. Did the girl give you her number?”
“Yep. Not only her. I got a whole lotta numbers that night.”
“There endeth the lesson, men,” Dean said, picking up his phone.
“Hey, Coach, we saw you talking to the physics professor. Gonna hit that?”
“Yeah, come on, Coach! We heard she hates football,” Darnell said. “You say we can get anyone we want by biology. School us, man. We need to see how it’s done.”
“See you tomorrow,” Dean said.
“I beg your pardon?” Meghan asked, stepping back from her dry-erase board and looking at the department chair, Jeff Dewey.
“Head Coach Ulrich is here for a tour of the lab. You’re going to be his guide.”
“I don’t understand. Why would a football coach need a tour of our labs?”
“I don’t know, but he asked. Sorry for the short notice, but I need you to be a team player,” Jeff said with a small smile.
She sighed. “This is crazy. I have lectures this afternoon. This morning I was counting on having time to—” She broke off as the gorgeous coach stepped into the doorway.
“Coach Ulrich, great to see you,” Jeff said. “Ready for Ohio State this weekend?”
“We’re ready. They’ve got deep talent on their team, so it should be a great game.”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Here’s Meghan.”
Meghan looked Dean Ulrich over. He wore black trousers and a black polo shirt with the Ebert University logo over his heart. At the fundraiser he’d worn a suit so she hadn’t seen his arms. They were really nice arms with very big muscles. She wondered what he did with them. His playing days were behind him. So these days he what… held a clipboard? He didn’t need muscles like that for everyday use. Did he just use them to lift weights for the fun of it? It was sort of a waste of his time, but if a man was going to waste his time, he could find worse ways. They were really gorgeous muscles.
When she glanced up, he looked amused.
“Do they sell those shirts on campus?” she asked, cursing the blush that had already started to bloom.
“Was it the shirt you were admiring?” he asked with a tone that said he knew it wasn’t.
“What else?” she said lightly as she shuffled her papers into a pile so she could find the keys to her office.
“They probably do sell them somewhere on campus, but we order them from a catalogue.”
“That must be nice, having your wardrobe paid for by the athletics budget and being able to wear comfortable clothes all the time.”
He glanced over her silk blouse and polyester-Lycra blend slacks. She was actually quite comfortable in the pants. Although they clung a little too tightly to her butt. Again, the extra weight was not helpful. She wore plain black clogs on her feet, which were also definitely comfortable, but not attractive. They’d been battered by snow, salt, sun, and rain for three years.
“What are you working on there?” he asked, looking at her white dry-erase board that stood on an easel. It contained a series of equations that were way beyond what anyone like him would understand.
“I don’t really have time to explain it.”
“Sure you do. Your class isn’t until one.”
“No, I don’t. I have a lot of work to do before then. I’m going to give you a ten-minute tour of the lab and then I’m going to get back to work.”
He smiled. “You think so?”
“Yes,” she said tightly.
“You remember how I’m the breadwinner? Me and the frivolous work I do?”
“I-I’m sorry about that. I’d had wine on an empty stomach. Always a mistake. I wanted to be polite, but I missed the mark. Again, sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for being honest. I like it when women tell me the truth about what’s on their minds.”
“Meaning what? That women are more duplicitous than men?”
“Women are more complicated and more guarded than men. You’ve had to be.”
She stared at him. That was a very interesting statement. Did he mean in the workforce? Or elsewhere? “I’m really curious—but no, I don’t have time for this.”
“You should make time for me.”
She drew her brows together. “Why is that?”
He smiled. “You’re supposed to be brilliant. You tell me.”
“Because you’re the dean’s prized possession and he said so?”
“I’m no one’s possession. Try again.”
She sighed and leaned against her desk. “My chairman would not interrupt my day for nothing. You promised him better seats to the game? And if I don’t comply with your whims, he’ll move me to an even smaller office? Down near the chemistry lab that constantly smells like sulfur?”
He shook his head. “You applied for a grant from the Baker Foundation. So did Dr. Sunavasan from the chemistry department. So did a lot of other scientists from around the country. Know who’s a big football fan? George Baker of the Baker Foundation. He really wants to have dinner with me to talk about football. I said sure, but I’d like him to meet a couple of our most promising scientists who have applied for grants from his foundation. Dr. Sunavasan gave me a tour of his lab this morning and told me all about the work he’s doing. Pretty impressive stuff. Of course my degree was in applied mathematics, so normally I’m partial to physicists. Less so today though.”
Oh, my God! She froze and swallowed, her face going scarlet. The Baker Foundation grant was for a significant amount. And also, applied mathematics? Oh. My. God.
“Applied mathematics? I had no idea.”
“It’s in my bio on the school website. It was foolish of you not to find out about me.”
“How was I supposed to know I needed to find out?”
“Because men like me are the ones who have access to guys like Baker, as you so aptly pointed out last night.”
Meghan felt like a complete fool. “I’m very passionate about my work and interferences with it make me impatient. But I’m not—well, anyway, there seems to be no limit to the number of apologies I need to make to you. I’ve behaved really badly.”
“That’s true. Someone needs to take you in hand.”
“Take me in hand? You mean guide me?”
“It’s a conversation for another day. Are you going to show me your lab or not?”
“Yes, of course. If you’d still like to see it?”
“I’m not here to admire your windowless office.”
Meghan nodded. “It’s this way,” she said.
Dean grilled her with questions. He’d stayed up late reading her papers and the descriptions of the research she’d been doing. She was a brilliant scientist, but not a very good communicator. He guessed a lot of physicists weren’t, since her somewhat disorganized manuscripts had been published in peer-reviewed journals.
He had a feeling that her grant application wasn’t going to be as well written as her competitors’ were. She was also several steps away from yielding results that could be translated into real-world applications.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, glancing up at the clock.
“Your work is interesting. I’ll email you the information about drinks with Baker.”
“You weren’t impressed,” she said, tilting her head.
“Not as impressed as I wanted to be.”
She looked instantly crestfallen. It made him want to take her in his arms to comfort her.
“Listen, Sunavasan has a lot more experience presenting his research. He’s a full professor. It stands to reason he’d be good for an impromptu presentation. I caught you off guard today.”
“You don’t think I have a chance?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Baker’s not a scientist. Wear the red dress, and you’ll likely stay in the running.”
She scowled at him. “That is a terrible, sexist thing to say. As if I’d want to get funded for that reason. I’d much rather it go to Dr. Sunavasan if his work and his presentation are better.”
“They are. Skip drinks with Baker and work on your research. You’ve got a brilliant mind. I’m sure you’ll get a lot of funding over the course of your career.”
He stepped out into the hall.
“I appreciate your honesty and that you gave me a chance even though I was rude last night and today.”
“Dr. Marshall, you don’t need to thank me for that. You know how I said guys like me always have access to guys like Baker?”
“Well, women like you always have access to guys like me.”
She stared at him, uncomprehending.
“You could’ve stopped traffic in that dress. Baker gave me an excuse to see you again.”