Paige Newsom is finally at a place in her life where she’s comfortable. She loves her job as a college professor in Southern California, lives close enough to her mother to visit her regularly, and has three daughters who are flourishing in their own careers. Paige has no plans to upend her life again after her divorce eight years ago, but she’s about to embark on a new adventure: co-teaching a course that includes a three-week international field study.
Paige can think of a dozen reasons why she shouldn’t go, one being a dazzling Australian biologist who will be teaching alongside her. Professor Jack King is charismatic, a world traveler, and more like Indiana Jones than Indiana Jones, all of which unsettles Paige, who prides herself on being immune to any man’s charms. She isn’t looking for love, and it turns out, neither is he. But as the two co-professors lead the rigorous program together, first on campus, then in beautiful Tanzania, their biggest challenge will be working closely together while resisting the undeniable chemistry they feel when they’re with each other.
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It was hot.
And Paige Newsome was angry. No, make that boiling, as she stared steadily at Dr. Zayed Nair, her department chair. She wasn't going to have a tantrum. She wasn't a little girl. At forty-nine, she was strong, disciplined, and professional to the core. But really. Seriously? Dr. Nair wanted her to teach another course now, two weeks before the semester started, a course where she'd team teach with a visiting instructor?
"This is a lot to take in," she said tightly, wishing Dr. Nair would just once, once, turn on his air conditioner when temperatures were in the nineties. His office felt like an oven, and normally she could just leave, but she couldn't just leave now. Dr. Nair claimed he thought better when he was warm, but she felt as if she'd melt. Or explode. "I don't know what to say."
Dr. Nair's hands lifted, gestured broadly. "'Yes' would be nice?"
They both knew that wasn't the answer she wanted to give. They both knew he'd promised not to put her in this position again, but here she was. Paige squared her shoulders, gave her right arm a faint shake, making the bangles on her wrist softly clink. "There's really no one else who can do this?"
She could feel the scratchy weight of her ponytail against her neck and the bold cat-eye glasses she liked to wear slip down her nose. She wasn't glowing, but sweating, and if she'd known this was why Dr. Nair wanted to meet with her, she would have just stayed home. "No grad students who could take it on?"
"It's not appropriate for a grad student. We need someone with experience, someone with an outstanding reputation. You have both."
"I don't mean to be rude, Dr. Nair, but how hard did you try to find a replacement before you decided on me?"
"I put out a call via email to the entire department, there were no takers."
Paige had noticed that as well, but she hoped he'd done more than just send the one email. She hoped he'd actually reached out to individuals directly. "Am I the first one you approached?"
"Esther suggested you."
"And here I thought Esther was my friend," Paige muttered.
Dr. Nair gave her a patient smile. "She is. That's why she suggested you. You'll be teaching with the legendary Professor King."
Paige pictured an elderly man leaning heavily on a cane. "What makes him legendary?"
"He's one of the most respected teaching scientists in the world."
"And he's going to be teaching for Orange?" She couldn't mask her incredulity.
"It's a huge win for us. We've got him for a year, and we want to take advantage of this opportunity. The alumni are thrilled. Dr. Keller is thrilled. Jack King's a fantastic instructor-"
"Jack King?" she interrupted, skin prickling. She'd known a Jack King, thirty odd years ago, and he wasn't an elderly man leaning on a cane. He'd been a PhD candidate, participating in an international forum she'd attended in Paris. He'd also been sex on two legs. She was fairly certain they weren't one and the same, but still. Paige hadn't thought of him in years, and yet it was still so easy to picture him. Tall, broad shoulders, handsome.
A great kisser. Adventurous in bed.
Her cheeks heated at the last.
"He's one of the leading epidemiologists in the world, and he's going to bring the college a lot of publicity. It'll be good for Orange. Alumni are already writing checks."
Paige was still trying to figure out if the legendary Jack King was her Jack King-not that he was hers, that was stretching it. But she needed to know.
Dr. Nair was still talking, hands gesturing broadly. "Private universities depend on donations, and thanks to Professor King, we will see some significant funding for the Veneman College of Science and Technology."
Paige couldn't complain about that. The College of Science and Technology had been overlooked for years. It needed new technology, new laboratories, an upgrade to the building itself. "That's a win, then."
"It is." Dr. Nair gave her a sympathetic look. "So, we're all good? You'll take Esther's course?"
"I still don't know anything about it."
"You've taught statistics for years. It won't be a problem for you. You'll just be using a different book and syllabus."
Dr. Nair shuffled through papers on his desk before shaking his head. "I don't have the details here. But Jack should be able to fill you in on everything. You'll be meeting him tomorrow. He flies in tonight from Delhi."
"He was speaking at a conference. He does that a lot."
"He won't be too jet-lagged?"
"Jack assured me he'll be fine."
Jack King couldn't be that elderly, then. Not unless he was Superman. "Where will we be meeting?"
"I'll text you the time and place. I'm trying to find something convenient for everyone."
Dr. Nair nodded. "I'm looking forward to meeting Jack. And so are the alumni. We're hosting an event Friday night at President Keller's house. Make sure to save the date. You'll want to be there."
Paige stood, feeling more than a little queasy. "'Want to be there' as in, it's required to be there?"
He smiled, as if she'd made a joke. "Everyone from the College is attending. It's important we put on a good show."
As Paige left Dr. Nair's office, she got a sympathetic look from his secretary, Andi McDermott. "Sorry," Andi mouthed.
Paige nodded grimly, grateful for Andi in a department dominated by men. "Did you know?" she asked, aware that Andi had been an ally ever since Paige joined the Orange faculty.
"I tried to suggest a few others, but Dr. Nair was convinced you were the right one."
"Thank you for having my back."
Paige continued down the hall to her office, a narrow shoebox of a space, but she loved the tall window that let in lots of light and gave her a view of the historic quad, surrounded by two- and three-story white plaster buildings topped by handcrafted red tiles. Located ten minutes from the mission in San Juan Capistrano and twenty minutes from the ocean, Orange University had been founded in 1896 as a university for men but shifted in the early thirties to include women.
Closing her door, she turned on the fan positioned on top of her filing cabinet and stood in front of the whirling blades, trying to cool down. She was hot and sticky and annoyed. As well as slightly panicked.
Someone else should have been tapped to teach the course. Someone else should have stepped up to teach with the legend. This was the second time in less than two years she'd been squeezed into a last-minute assignment. The second time Dr. Nair was in a bind, with no other options. It seemed rather ludicrous that she was the only option he ever had. Or was she the only one he could count on to say yes?
A light knock sounded on her door before it opened. Greg Hsu, an assistant professor in the Biological Science program, stuck his head around the door. "Hey," he said. "Bad time?"
"No," Paige said, adjusting the fan so that it could better circulate the air. "Come in." She gestured for him to take a seat across from her desk. Greg was one of her favorite people in the college. They'd both been hired the same year, although he was twenty years younger and ten times funnier. "You're back," she added.
"Did you have a good summer?"
He dropped into the empty chair and folded his arms behind his head. "I did, but I'm exhausted. I think three kids is plenty. No more."
"I like my three," she agreed, sitting on a corner of her desk. "You guys did that national park road trip, didn't you? How did it go?"
"Eight parks in four weeks. Four thousand, six hundred, twenty-nine miles."
"That's a lot of driving."
"A lot of campgrounds. A lot of crying and fighting. A lot of dump stations. Glad to be home."
"I'd like to see the parks, but I'd do hotels, maybe those big lodges. Not a big fan of camping or cooking over an open fire."
"No open fires anymore, at least during summer."
"So how do you make s'mores?"
"Over a propane grill."
"Not the same."
"Kids didn't mind." Greg leaned forward. "And congrats. I just heard the news."
Her stomach did a flip. She felt like throwing up. "Who told you?"
"A school-wide email went out a moment ago."
Now she really felt like throwing up. "But I just left Dr. Nair's office."
"I think everyone knew it was pretty much a slam dunk. Let's face it, you make us look good. Smart, loyal, devoted to both students and faculty. You have an impeccable reputation."
"I sound like a well-trained Labrador."
He laughed. "And that's why I like you so much. That very dry sense of humor."
"Not so dry. You just happen to get me."
"I do. You're my favorite person in this department." Greg looked hopeful. "When do you meet him?"
"Lucky dog-sorry, no pun intended."
She rolled her eyes. "None taken."
"You know, Jack King is one of the reasons I focused on ecology and epidemiology of infectious diseases."
"So, you know who he is?"
She was dying to ask the questions hovering on the tip of her tongue. How old is Jack King? Is he hot? Is he Australian? Instead she forced the questions back and managed a careless shrug. "Too bad you can't teach the course with him."
"I don't teach math, you do."
"Math is part of what you do."
"Yes, but this is an interdisciplinary course between the science and math departments. You represent math. Dr. King represents science. I'm not needed." Greg's watch buzzed, and he glanced down. "It's the babysitter. Wife's working. I better take this. But I'll see you Friday night at President Keller's?"
"See you there." Paige forced a smile, but the moment the door closed, she wanted to scream. There were thirteen math instructors. Thirteen who could have taught the course. And as much as she appreciated Greg's vote of confidence, surely there was someone else on the faculty with a more stellar reputation?
Until two hours ago Paige had been looking forward to the start of the Fall semester. This summer had been unusually quiet, and she was excited about classes resuming. It hadn't been a typical summer. Summer was usually when she saw her girls, but this summer her daughters were busy with their own lives-working, traveling, auditioning-and instead of traveling to see them, Paige made frequent trips to Paso Robles to see her mom, as well as picking up tutoring jobs when she could. Paige wasn't good at relaxing. Life was just easier when one was busy.
But life wouldn't be easier if she was team teaching with a man, much less one she'd slept with thirty years ago. It was just one night, a crazy, hormone-fueled hookup that shouldn't have ever happened. She blamed Paris and the moonlight. Thank goodness she hadn't gotten pregnant. She'd gone on to earn multiple degrees and have a real life-
Her phone rang, interrupting the thought.
Paige reached across her desk, checking the number. It was Nichole, her middle daughter, a chemical engineer working in Chicago. Paige popped in her earbuds and took the call. "This is a nice surprise," she said, sitting down in her chair. Of her girls, Nichole was the most independent, and the one who reached out the least. "How are you?"
"Not so good," Nichole said flatly. "Andreas and I broke up."
"Oh, Nichole, no."
"We've been fighting a lot lately. I just got to the point I couldn't take it anymore. It didn't make sense to stay together if we weren't going to be happy."
"You broke up with him?"
"I didn't know what else to do."
Paige could tell Nichole was fighting tears, and she bit her lip, thinking of something wise or useful to say. "Are you regretting your decision?" she asked carefully, trying to feel her way. Nichole didn't like opening up, and she didn't like opinions, either.
"I miss him. I miss how we were, before everything was a hassle."
"When did things change?"
"A couple months ago, after I got the promotion."
Paige shook her head, finding it hard to keep up. "You got a promotion?"
"I was made manager of my department."
"You didn't tell me. That's wonderful, Nichole. Did the promotion come with a bump in salary?"
"A significant bump, and a lot more responsibility." Nichole's voice thickened with emotion. "That's why Andreas has been upset. He'd been up for the promotion, too. He thought he deserved it. I think he was sure he'd get it."
Oh dear. That explained a lot. But Paige wouldn't say that, not aloud, not now. "I'm sure he was also proud of you. There aren't many women working for your company, and certainly not many in management."
"He said he was happy for me, but ever since, he's been . . . just antagonistic. He picks fights over everything. It's like he resents me now."
"But Andreas doesn't report to you, does he?"
"No. We work similar jobs but answer to different directors."
"He hoped to come to your department, then?"
"I guess." Nichole drew a slow, shuddering breath. "Now we don't even talk. He's moved out-"
"You were living together?"
"For the past year, yeah."
"You never told me."
"I told you I got a roommate."
"Yes, but you never said Andreas was your roommate."
"Well, he isn't now, is he?"
Paige understood Nichole was hurt, and sensitive, and she let her daughter's frustration go. "This is rough," she said. "I'm really sorry you're having to go through this. Is there anything I can do?"
"I could come out for a weekend. I could come maybe next weekend?"
"No, that's okay. I'm fine. I just thought you should know."
Paige opened the calendar on her phone to check her schedule. "I'd love to see you, even for a quick visit. Twenty-four hours-"
"It's okay, Mom. I appreciate the offer, but I'd rather be alone."
Paige smashed the sting, refusing to let herself feel hurt. Nichole was struggling. Paige wouldn't make it about herself. "Call me anytime."
"Okay. Love you, Mom."
"Love you, too, sweetheart." Paige hung up the phone and sat for a moment, processing the call. It took her another moment to realize she wasn't alone. The university president, Dr. Keller, filled her doorway.
She rose from behind her desk. "Come in, Dr. Keller. I hope I didn't keep you waiting."
"Not at all. Am I interrupting?"