BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER
Book 1 of the Lazarev/Kogan Trilogy
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Mature content, 18+. Heat level: 4 (out of 5)
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?
(Please note: while this is book 1 of the Lazarev/Kogan Trilogy, each book can be read as a stand-alone. Book 2 follows Anna’s friends Becca and Leo. Book 3 tells the story of Leo’s brother Vlad and Anna’s sister Klara. Look for these books on Amazon in 2016!)
The phone rang. And rang. And rang.
Anna groaned and rolled over, fumbling for the receiver.
She winced and shut her eyes against the shards of sun coming through the open blinds. Her temples throbbed, and her mouth felt as parched as a dried-out river bed.
“Anna, are you there?”
“Hi, Bec,” she rasped. “Could you dial it down a bit?”
There was a beat of silence, and then Becca’s cautious voice, “Are you alone?”
She risked another glance around the room before closing her eyes again. “Yes.”
“You weren’t answering your cell,” Becca said. “The front desk put me through to your room. Are you all right?”
That was debatable. On a humiliation scale of one to ten, where would she rank getting drunk and throwing herself at a man who looked like the “after” shot in a workout ad?
At least she still had her clothes on. She popped one eye open to double-check. Yep. The dress was a little wrinkled, but definitely intact.
She wondered what Ethan was doing this morning. Probably thanking his lucky stars for his narrow escape. Vague memories of the night before made her cringe. Good thing she was heading back to L.A. today. She didn’t think she could face him in the sober light of day.
Which reminded her of what she’d nearly forgotten: there was a reason she didn’t date. As her sister would say, she sucked at it. Big-time.
“Listen, Bec, can I call you back?”
That was the trouble with best friends: they could tell when you were lying. And they weren’t shy about sticking their noses into your business.
“Fifteen minutes,” Anna promised.
A hot shower, two cups of coffee, and three ibuprofen later, she felt slightly more human and in control.
“You did what?” Becca shrieked, after hearing an abbreviated version of yesterday’s debacle.
“Just a little louder, Bec. I don’t think the citizens of Kansas heard you.”
“Wow. Ethan Talbot. I can’t believe I had to drag it out of you.”
Anna switched to speaker phone and lifted her suitcase atop the bed. “It’s not like I planned it,” she said, gathering discarded items of clothing and tucking them into a laundry bag. “It just happened.”
“Period cramps just happen. Weight gain just happens. Ending a three-year-old dry spell with Ethan Talbot doesn’t just happen.”
“I didn’t exactly end the dry spell.” She shoved the shoes into a different bag. “He dropped me back at the hotel and left. End of story.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. When are you seeing him again?”
“I’m not.” She debated dumping the unused box of condoms. It wasn’t as if she’d need them any time soon.
Then again….She glanced at the expiration date. Two years. A lot could happen in two years.
“Why not?” Becca prodded.
“Because I’m heading home.” What the hell. She tossed the condoms in her suitcase. “Besides, we have nothing in common. And he refused to release Klara from the Fellowship.”
“Anna, sweetie, sorry for pointing out the obvious, but most people view the Talbot Fellowship as something prestigious.”
“It’s not a degree, Bec. It’s not even a certificate.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll still look good on Klara’s CV.”
Anna ducked into the bathroom for her toiletry bag.
Becca’s voice followed her. “You know Klara will do what she wants, regardless of what you say. Which means you’ve got two choices: prolong the battle and risk alienating her completely, or accept what she’s doing and move on.”
Anna returned to the bedroom. “What’s option C?”
“It wouldn’t kill you to be a little more flexible. Klara’s the only family you have. Shame to lose her over something that’s going to be over in two years.”
Anna sighed. “Bec, the problem is, we’re not just talking two years. We’re talking her entire future.”
“Does the word hyperbole mean anything to you?”
Anna ignored her attempt at humor. “If Klara doesn’t finish her education, she’ll end up regretting it. Maybe not now, but someday.” She glanced around to see if there was anything left to pack.
“She can always go back to school,” Becca said. “There are plenty of returning students of all ages.”
“And look on the bright side. Now that Klara’s moved out, you have the whole place to yourself. You can finally have a social life.”
“Is that supposed to cheer me up?” Anna said, zipping the suitcase.
“It’s all in the attitude. Now tell me more about Ethan Talbot.”
“Nothing more to tell.”
“Come on, you have to do better than that.”
“Seriously, Bec. I’m lucky if the guy doesn’t turn around and walk the other way the moment he sees me.”
“I’m sure you’re exaggerating.”
“Okay, so what did you do?”
“I threw myself at him.”
Anna winced and lowered the cell phone volume. “I may have had a little too much to drink.” She waited for Becca’s laughter to taper off. “It’s not that funny.”
“Sorry. I’m just trying to picture it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drunk.”
“Yeah, well don’t hold your breath.” Anna lifted the suitcase off the bed. “I have to go check out.”
Anna sighed. “It’s a long drive, Bec. I’ll talk to you when I get home.”
Two hours later, her phone buzzed. She ignored it. Another hour passed before she pulled into a rest stop to use the facilities and check messages.
She read Ethan’s text while standing in line for coffee.
How are you feeling?
Oh, boy. Mortified would just about cover it. Hung over would work too. And determined to put the entire unfortunate interlude with Ethan behind her.
She dropped the phone back in her bag and stepped up to the counter.
Two and a half hours later, as she unlocked the front door of her Santa Monica apartment, another text came through:
Clearly, the man wasn’t going to let it go until she responded.
She dumped her belongings in the living room and typed:
All good. Back in LA.
His response was immediate:
Didn’t get chance to say goodbye.
She sank down on the couch.
Sorry, she wrote. Goodbye.
And that should have been the end of it. Except for some reason, Ethan seemed determined to go off script.
When are you back in SF?
Was he asking because he wanted to see her again, or because he wanted advance notice so he could avoid running into her? She wouldn’t blame him if it was the latter. She’d never made such a fool of herself before. The only thing that would have been worse was if he’d taken her up on her offer, and then she’d vomited all over him. Or passed out in the middle of things. Or woken up naked and alone and not remembering a damn thing about how she got that way.
Considering all the worst case scenarios that hadn’t happened, she supposed she should be grateful. But that didn’t mean she wanted to see Ethan again. Ignoring the little voice in her head that said liar, liar, she texted back:
Busy with work. Have to stay in LA.
Then she shut off her phone and headed for the bedroom. She squelched any residual guilt by reminding herself that they had nothing in common. If he tried texting or calling her again, she’d simply ignore him. The same way he’d ignored her emails and phone calls when she’d first attempted to contact him.
Of course he hadn’t known her then. He probably got a ton of spam and solicitations, and her messages might have gotten lost in the shuffle—assuming they ever reached him at all. Now that they’d met, the dynamics had changed.
But that was beside the point. She didn’t belong in his world, and he had no place in hers. Best to cut her losses before anyone got hurt. And by anyone, she meant herself. Because she really couldn’t imagine a man like Ethan Talbot getting too hung up on a woman whose IQ far exceeded her bra size.
She toed off her sensible flats, stripped off her clothes, and climbed into the shower. Time to get back to real life.
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.