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Her hot, desperate breaths echoed down the long, dark hallway. Terror coalesced into a black swirl of passion as his mouth slid down the concave silk of her belly. His fingers gripped her butt, lifting her for his pleasure, totally in control. He held complete dominance over her. Damp heat pooled between her legs, making her squirm in silent supplication. His fingers tightened, holding her prisoner, demanding she await his command.
Delaney Conner's own breath puffed out as the words blurred on the page. God, to be that woman! She'd already read this scene three times since she'd gotten Nick Angel's latest erotic thriller, but it still fascinated her. Fascinated, hell. She'd had two orgasms thanks to this chapter alone. Three, if she counted the memory it'd invoked in the shower.
She traced a finger over the face on the back cover. The author's eyes, vivid and piercing, promised an ability to live up to the heat between the pages. She wondered how much of the sexual appeal was the words themselves, and how much was knowing they'd been written by the man with the sexiest face she'd ever seen grace a book jacket.
With a gasp, Delaney tossed the book in her canvas tote as if it had spouted flames. Cheeks on fire, she plastered a look of ingenuous questioning on her face. Hopefully the rapid flutter of her eyelashes conveyed innocence, in addition to cooling off her cheeks.
"Mr. Sims, hello," Delaney said, her tone tight and stiff, as suited a professor at Rosewood.
Women like the heroines in Nick Angel's books, when busted having sex in public places, gave a wicked smile and made you envy their moxie. Her? She couldn't even read sexy books in public without blushing and worrying someone was going to rat her out for ill-advised reading choices.After all, reading was meant to be an educational pursuit, never for tawdry entertainment.
"I just wanted to say how much I got out of today's lecture. The evolution of character archetypes fascinates me."
Her discomfort dissipated as Delaney shifted into teaching mode. The two of them fell into a discussion of the topic, Delaney growing more animated and excited the more they talked. She loved it when a student grasped her concepts, loved even more seeing the spark of excitement in his eyes. Delaney wasn't an easy teacher by any means. She pushed her students, keeping her curriculum dynamic and challenging. But she prided herself on having the lowest failure rate of any other professor in the English department.
And her success would only help in her bid to become assistant head of the Department. A plum promotion, it'd put her in the position to take over as department head within the next ten years. Exactly as she'd planned. And maybe, just maybe, it'd have the added bonus of actually getting her father's attention.
"Excuse me," said a husky voice.
Delaney and Sims moved aside to let a gorgeous brunette pass. Stunning from the top of her perfectly straight hair to the bottom of her sleek black heels, even her little red suit screamed power. Now she was a perfect Nick Angel heroine. Sexy, savvy and confident.
They both watched the woman pass, Delaney envying her sense of presence and Sims obviously admiring her ass. While he gathered his composure, Delaney glanced at her watch.
Damn. Late again. With a quick goodbye to her student, she hurried down the hall to the dean's office.
She flew into the reception area. The tiny blonde at the desk looked like a kewpie doll. Flaxen curls, huge blue eyes and a round dimpled face hid a razor-sharp mind and a wicked sense of humor. She was Delaney's best friend, and the two women had bonded over an obsession with Johnny Depp, eighties rock music and their mutual love for romance novels, a top-secret subject here at the college. Rosewood was that uptight and narrow-minded.
It'd taken Delaney until last year to finally confide in Mindy Adams her deepest, darkest secret. She not only loved to read popular fiction, but unbeknownst to anyone other than Mindy, she also made a tidy income reviewing it for various magazines and newspapers. She'd heard a rumor that two years ago, the college had fired an art history professor when they'd discovered she modeled on the side. That her modeling had been of historical costumes in a magazine layout had seemed to make no difference to the dean. Delaney could only assume that he and the trustees saw it as frivolous and mocking.
So she kept her reviews top secret and used her middle name, Madison. She'd have been crazy not to.
"Am I too late? Is my father still here?" she asked, catching her breath.
"He's still here," Mindy responded slowly.
"What's wrong?" Delaney asked, still panting slightly.
"I just thought you might want to know, um" Mindy hesitated, then sighed. "Did you notice that brunette leaving a few minutes ago?"
"She had a great laptop bag, with plenty of room for books and papers." She glanced at her own canvas bag, ratty and worn. She hated shopping, but she lusted after practical totes, especially in leather. Maybe after she got the promotion she'd treat herself to one like that.
"She was here about the position in your department."
Brow furrowed in confusion, Delaney stared. "My position?"
She hadn't ever considered there would be competition for it. She tilted her head in silent question and Mindy nudged a paper toward her. Delaney scanned the woman's resume.
"Nice, but not as strong as mine."
"I'd heard talk Professor Belkin wants someone who's going to attract attention," the girl said, referring to the head of the English department. "Attendance is down in the department and he's taking it personally. He seems to think a more attractive assistant head will help boost the numbers."
"A dynamic curriculum and strong teaching reputation aren't enough?"
They both knew it was a rhetorical question. Where Delaney might hide a mystery novel behind her textbook, Belkin was the kind of guy who hid a Hustler magazine behind his. The man was all about looks, the hotter, the better.
And even though the position was awarded by a hiring committee, he headed it. Which meant he had a lot of influence.
"I heard Belkin tell the dean he wanted someone with a lot of charisma and looks, who could not only handle the academic side of the job, but the PR angle he's planning to push," Mindy said to the top of her desk. She obviously couldn't meet her friend's eyes.
Delaney clenched her jaw to keep from screaming in frustration. Temper never helped, but imagining how good it would feel to throw her ratty bag across the room sure did.
Mindy took a deep breath and shot her a long, considering look, probably to make sure Delaney wasn't going to pitch a fit. Reassured, she tapped the magazine on the desk in front of her.
"Maybe if you'd consider a makeover " she suggested hesitantly, not for the first time. Delaney was already shaking her head before the blonde continued. "You know, something to change the visual so maybe people will give you the attention you deserve?"
Delaney sighed. Spoken like a true girly girl. Mindy never left the house without lipstick, how could she be considered unbiased? Delaney figured it was because she'd grown up motherless that she'd never been inducted into the girly club.
"Why bother? I am who I am. Will mascara and a push-up bra make me someone else?" The thought made her cringe. Makeup, fancy clothes, they baffled her.
"No, but they'll get you noticed." Mindy waved the magazine in her hand. Risqué. Delaney rolled her eyes. What a title. She looked at the tagline, "You're only as confident as you look." Right.
"Who needs that kind of attention?" Delaney groused. She tugged at the frayed hem of her tweed jacket and frowned. "What about that whole 'inner beauty being more important than outer beauty' thing?"
"It's a feel-good myth, like Santa Claus," Mindy deadpanned.
"You've got looks under all that tweed. You've definitely got brains, and you're a nice person," Mindy mused. "You just need to learn to make the most of it all. Take my advice, read this magazine. It'll have you on the road to satisfaction. Better yet, I'll bet you even get laid."
Delaney snorted again.
"Unlike some people, I don't think sex is a cure-all." Well, she was alarmingly addicted to a certain author's books. But that had nothing to do with real life. Their only purpose was titillation. They had the reality level of SpongeBob SquarePants and even less emotional depth.
"How would you know? When was the last time you had sex?"
When Delaney opened her mouth to retort, Mindy shook her head. "With someone else actually in the room with you."
Damn. She clamped her lips closed.
"What good is another department-store makeup fiasco?" she asked instead. She'd tried that once in her teens and discovered being invisible was much preferable to being mocked.
"No, you need something much bigger." Mindy leaned over to push the magazine into her hands.
Delaney glanced at the cover, then at the dog-eared page. Risqué? "A makeover contest? You're kidding, right?"
"Not at all. It's a killer deal. Complete makeover. Hair, makeup, completely new wardrobe. Not some cheesy thing, either, it's custom created just for you. They even teach the winners how to maintain her new look."
"Why on earth would I want to do this?"
"It's your shot. You win, you'll see what a difference it makes."
Delaney tossed the magazine back on the desk with a roll of her eyes. "What's the point? I hardly think something as shallow as eye shadow and hairspray will cure my problems."
Mindy pulled a face, then shrugged. Delaney felt bad for hurting the other woman's feelings. Before she could apologize, Mindy slipped the magazine into her drawer. The alarm on her desk squawked a reminder.
"He's leaving in ten minutes. If you want to see him, you'd better go in now," Mindy reminded her.
Frowning, Delaney nodded her thanks, scooped up the tote and squared her shoulders.
She strode through the heavy doors, lifted her chin and took a deep breath. She'd originally intended to hint around that she'd appreciate his backing on her application. Now she'd have to be more direct. For once, she had to stand up for herself.
Of course, it would help if her father actually looked at her. Delaney cleared her throat, but he still didn't glance up from the papers he was signing.
"I need your help," Delaney stated quietly.
He lifted a finger, gesturing for her to wait. Preferably in silence.
She clutched the strap of her bag so hard the canvas hurt her fingers. She wished she had the nerve to throw it across the room, but years of lectures on why losing control never paid off flashed through her head. Temper, temper. Maybe if she recited that often enough, she'd stop imagining how good it might be to let loose and let him know exactly how she felt. But, as with most things nonacademic, imagining was the only way she'd experience the pleasure. Her mother had always been able to soothe away her temper, but once she'd gone, Delaney was on her own. Once, only once, she'd let her temper fly with her father. She'd been ten. He'd sent her away to boarding school as a result.
She glared at the top of his balding head. Tufts of red hair stuck out like chicken fluff. Didn't it just figure that along with his brilliant mind, she'd inherited the man's long, lanky body and god-awful hair? Where he came across as scholarly and authoritative, Delaney just looked like a carrot-topped Olive Oyl. Except given her miserable luck with men, instead of fighting over her, Popeye and Bluto would probably run off with each other.
"What kind of help?" Randolph Conner, Dean of Rosewood College and Delaney's only living relative, asked in a distracted tone when he finally glanced at her.
"Support," she informed him. "You know I applied for the assistant's position. Apparently Professor Belkin is changing the job requirements."
"He's merely expanding the job description," Dean Conner as he preferred everyone, including his only daughter, to address himsaid. He still didn't bother looking at her, so Delaney didn't bother hiding her angry expression. "Professor Belkin, as head of the English department, feels we need a strong, dynamic person in the position."
Frustration surged through her. For all the faculty noticed her father includedshe really was invisible. Delaney thrust out her chin and did the unthinkableshe questioned his motives.
"Is it because she's so attractive?" she asked.
"Wha ?" Dean Conner shot her a frown, his brows drawn together like a pair of bright red caterpillars. Finally, a reaction. "Who? Professor Tate? How does her appearance factor into anything? Who cares about all that physical fluff?"
And he meant it. A single parent, Randolph Conner had raised Delaney to value intelligence. Intellect, he deemed, was much more meaningful than something as fleeting and nebulous as society's current definition of beauty.
Of course, since most of the rest of society hadn't been raised with the same standard, that left Delaney at a slight disadvantage. She ground her teeth in frustration. And now it looked like brains weren't enough, either.
"Professor Tate is the woman who was just here, right?" Delaney took a deep breath and, despite the clenching in her gut, confronted him. "My qualifications, to say nothing of my seniority, are stronger."
Her father sighed, his deep, put-upon sigh that let her know she was wasting his valuable time. He used the same sigh when she'd wanted to learn how to ride a bike, had asked permission to go to school activities or wanted to get a pet. That sigh was so effective she still couldn't ride a bike and had the social skills of a pimply-faced twelve-year-old girl who'd been deprived of the love of a puppy.
"Delaney, you're missing the point. We need fresh blood in the English department. New ideas and a strong program."
She just stared. He obviously wasn't going to back her proposal. But she needed to hear it from him.
"Will you support my application?" she asked, her throat tight.
"As I said, we need fresh blood. Bright, energetic people who will bring excitement to the program. You're one of our most brilliant professors, Delaney. A strong benefit to the department." He fiddled with some papers on his desk, then met her eyes. He had that irritated "it's for your own good" look on his face. Her stomach did a somersault. "As a matter of fact, at Professor Belkin's recommendation, this next semester we're going to experiment with taking some of the classes to the Internet. We'd like you to handle them."