A collaboration involving Professor Hiddleston and Professor Evans- The two are rivals at a posh New England university and have no idea they both have taken interest in the lovely Thalia Bareo. She’s a grad student with interests in language and history; a sassy full-figured Puerto Rican girl from Chicago. Story updates are posted on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Word count: 6000 IT’S LONG BUT IT WAS NECESSARY- SORRY!
Warnings: : Language, Adult Situations, stepfamilies, food porn, drinking, NSFW, fingering, exhibitionism, angst, real life discussions
Summary: Thalia enjoys some time out alone with her stepmother, glad she didn’t have to choose between her suitors for Valentine’s Day, but missing them.
Click here for intro to Educating Thalia
Tired from the long day of classes, the drive into the city, and a few errands, Thalia hides her yawn as she sits at the table. The two women pour over the menu. The older blonde, polished and sophisticated, taps the table with her perfectly manicured nails. Looking over the top of her reading glasses, she asks the young woman what she plans to order.
“Mmm… I can’t decide,” Thalia admits. “It all looks so good, my mouth is watering just reading the descriptions.” She happily sighs. “I think the fish with a baked potato and the house salad? And their garlic bread is to die for!”
“Thalia, that’s a lot of food? You really shouldn’t be eating all those carbs. I mean, you look great, but…” begins the older woman.
Thalia takes a deep breath, steeling herself as she carefully places the menu on the table. She’s used to her stepmother acting this way, and she knows if they can get through the first hour without killing one another, they’ll end up having a great visit together.
Shaking her head slightly, she purrs. “Stacey. I’m never gonna be stick thin, like you. I know my limitations and if I decide to indulge there’s always the gym tomorrow. Besides. I can’t eat too much tonight. Everyone knows tomorrow is half-price chocolate day!” Smiling sweetly, she pats the woman’s hand. “Thanks for always worrying about me, but I know my shape. Big and round. And I’m learning to own it, and appreciate it. I’m actually really healthy right now, Moms.”
The woman takes the younger woman’s hand and squeezes it. “You do look great. Really happy…”
She pauses their conversation as the waiter takes their order, appearing to be miffed they didn’t order the dinner special. Thalia looks to her right and left and it’s an endless sea of couples with the steak dinner in front of them.
Picking up the conversation where it left off, her stepmother takes a sip of her wine before asking, “Would this have anything to do with the gentleman visitor at Christmas?”
Smiling when the waiter returns with the bread basket, Thalia takes a piece of the bread and smiles up at her mom secretly. “Maybe, yea, a little.” Pursing her lips together, she isn’t sure how much to give away. “He’s… He’s really amazing. So sweet and caring, and he…” She stops and shakes her head, realizing she’s talking about both men and almost hating how this sentence ends in her mind. Cuz it’s fuckin’ true of them both, and for the thousandth time, she can’t believe she let this happen… Tearing off a piece of the bread, the warm cheese stretches between the two parts and she dips it in the olive oil before popping it in her mouth, chewing carefully.
“Thalia, spit it out. What are you not telling me?” The woman prods.
“Fuck, Stacey. It’s kind of a mess, but it’s also really wonderful. And I think…” She props her elbow on the table and rubs her fingertips across her brow with exasperation. “I think he loves me.” She shakes her head and laughs. Both of them do, and she knows it, and it’s just a fucked up mess she’s created. “We haven’t said it yet, but I think he loves me. And not ‘in spite of’ my size, but partly because of it.” Trying hard to control the grin on her face, she just can’t stop herself. It is Valentine’s Day afterall… “He’s really just… something else, ya know?”
Stacey stares in disbelief for a moment and then releases a happy squeal. “Oh, my God, honey! That’s so wonderful! Do you love him back? Is he cute? Is he still in school? Holy shit, I didn’t think you’d spill the goods before the food arrived,” she chuckles. “It usually takes a pry-bar to get you to open up. He must really be under your skin.”
Taking a drink of her wine, she tilts her head slightly to the side while dozens of images race through her mind of both Chris and Tom. Her smile reaches all the way to her eyes and she feels she’s positively glowing in the candlelight. Candles on the table. Romance. Damn. She leans forward and blows it out, the smell of smoke filling the air. “In the best ways possible,” she hints.
Their salads arrive and Thalia picks off the tomatoes, laying them to the side. The woman across from her raised her since she was nine and she adores her with all her heart, but she can’t bring herself to fully open up with all her sordid secrets. Hell, she tries not to think about it herself. Sometimes, she’s afraid if she opens up to someone, things are bound to topple over and smack her in the face. As if this is all some magical fairytale and as soon as she breathes a word about it, the bubble will burst. She doesn’t want to be judged – least of all in her own head, and she has a pretty good idea she’ll start doing that automatically if she shares the details of her secret little love triangle.
She tries her best to answer the questions without actually confessing anything. Scoffing, she replies quickly. “Yes, he is still in school,” grinning at her own little joke. “Devilishly handsome. Glasses.” She tilts her head back, eyes closed and euphoric, and shakes her whole body happily. God, she’s such a nerd. “He’s got the most adorable accent and he gets so excited about learning new things, he’s like a puppy sometimes, bouncing all over the place.” In her mind she wonders again how two men so different can actually be so much alike…
“Thalia María Bareo! You are in love with him!” Stacey drops her fork and bounces with glee. “I never thought I’d see the day, but you are head over heels for this guy. Oh, man! This is amazing, honey! I’m so happy.”
Oh, fuck. She’s right. Her step-mother is always right. When the hell did that happen?
She quickly downs the rest of her wine and signals the waiter. “Scotch on the rocks, please.”
She fends off a few more of Stacey’s questions, answering as obliquely as possible. She doesn’t want to give her stepmother any details she can nail down. Their conversation dies off as the food arrives. Thalia turns her focus to her mother and asks the required questions about family and adopts an air of interest as Stacey talks about the convention she is attending in the city. Her thoughts begin to drift to ‘kill me now, I’d never survive the business world’ when her phone begins to buzz, hopping all over the table. ‘God Save the Queen’ chimes and Stacey looks confused as to the choice of song.
Wiping her mouth on her napkin, she lays it next to her plate. “Stacey? Can I?” She indicates she wants to check her phone and her stepmother frantically waves her approval, mouthing the words ‘is that him?’
“It’s a text. He can’t hear you.” She shakes her head at the woman’s flightiness. Thalia unlocks the screen to see a selfie of Tom, presumably laying on his bed, wearing the shirt she gave him and the book she found in an old shop lying on his chest. The message reads I miss you, darling. Have fun with your mother. Can we meet for tea and toast in the Commons in the morning?
She runs her fingers over her lips nervously, thinking of the timing and knowing she has to attend a history department meeting at eleven with Chris to take notes about the upcoming exhibit. Who is she kidding? She’s juggled them both this long… Of course, Tom! Can’t wait to see you SIR.
Good girl. I can’t wait either. I have something I wish to ask you.
Thalia’s heart jumps into her throat. At least with Chris, she can see where his thinking goes. He sometimes misses the domestic life, and tries to replicate his favorite parts of it with her…
But Tom? She has no idea where his mind wanders off to sometimes. It’s like he’s truly foreign to her. Some days it’s so frustrating to be with him because his British demeanor can be cold and seem harsh, when she knows that underneath it all, he’s just a teddy bear that wants to believe in love again, to have someone to love him. Dear God, please don’t let me hurt him… She has no clue what he’s thinking; what he might want to ask. She finds it unnerving.
Finishing her drink, she pushes her plate away, her appetite lost. Stacey reads her emotions accurately, and asks, “Honey, if you’re so crazy about him, why are you here with me and not with him? It’s Valentine’s Day?”
Nodding, she turns her hands and examines her nails, smiling absently to the waiter as he carries away her plate. “It is. It’s Valentine’s Day and that’s exactly why I couldn’t see him today. It’s complicated.”
Over the loud music and the roar of the revelers, Thalia yells at her stepmother. “How the hell did you talk me into this?”
“I’m your ride home! Now shut up and have another shot. Live a little!”
Stacey turns back to her friends from the convention and Thalia considers calling a cab back to the hotel. The group of older ladies were enjoying the Anti-Valentine’s Party atmosphere of the night club. Although most of them were married, that didn’t stop them from flirting, accepting drinks or dancing with the scores of good looking men who stopped by their table. The party scene had never been Thalia’s style, but she’d danced and was having fun. However her responsibilities are too great and she’s exhausted from her long hours. Sliding down from the barstool she reaches across the table to her stepmother to tell her she’s going to leave when a strong arm wraps around her waist. A familiar scent fills her nose and a heat radiates through her. She tries to maintain a straight face. Reaching around her, the solid brick wall of a man standing behind her slams another shot of the dark amber liquid down on the table. Rubbing his cock against her curved ass, he growls in her ear, “Another.”
Picking up the tiny glass, she turns to face him. She can’t hide her smile at the handsome face that floats before her, a sure sight for sore eyes in a sea of strangers. Shooting it down quickly she hands it back to him with a wink. In her husky timbre she boldly says over the loud raucous crowd, “Four.”
With his head thrown back in laughter she pushes past him to the dance floor. She can feel his eyes following every move, knowing her high heels add more of a swish to her ass than usual. Realizing he desires her is so stimulating and builds her confidence. Over her shoulder she sees him visibly panting and trying to discretely adjust the already growing bulge in his pants.
Shaking her head she finds a spot in the middle of the crowded dance floor and begins to sway to the music. As one thumping song blends into the next, he shimmies up behind her. His grasp on her is seductive and as she moves the seam of her tight jeans pushes her panties between her aching lips, soaking up her flood. Reaching over her head and behind them, she drapes her arm around his neck, pulling his head down to rest on her shoulder. Turning her head she yells in their close space. “Chris! What the hell are you doing here?”
His hands reach all the way around her and rest on her belly pulling her back to him as they grind to a pulsing Latin beat.
“Stag night,” he yells in her ear. “Some of my single friends thought they’d prey on heartbroken women. Looks like they found some at your table.” He nibbles on her ear and she lets him. The movements are so sensual it’s like fucking in public. As the crowd presses around them, his hands tease down her hips squeezing the tops of her thighs. “Is one of those ladies your stepmom?”
“Shh… Don’t talk. Keep doing that.” She wants to lose herself in the music with him. In public. Like a goddamn real date on Valentine’s Day. It’s like Cupid heard her wishes to be with one of her men; she pushes the thought away that maybe it’s meant to be a ‘sign’ that Chris was the one that appeared?
How could she ever hurt Tom? How could she hurt Chris? Her head pounds in a beating pulse and for one more night, she doesn’t want to have to come up with an answer.
His hands are rough on her body, tugging and pulling to the beat of the music, unknowingly lifting her from her negative thoughts. His thick fingers grasp at her flimsy top and with each grope higher up her hips and sides, he lifts the silky red fabric until he can drag his fingers along the waist of her jeans. Tickling at her belly button, he traces a path to the snap on her jeans.
Feeling her pupils dilate as another rush of wet releases between her legs she turns her face to his. “What are you doing? We can’t…” Her words come out as a rush of air, no real sound to them but the fire returned in his eyes lets her know she heard him.
“Look around, no one’s paying attention. I can finger fuck you right here and no one would know.”
The sea of dancers swells around them and they are hidden in plain sight. She can’t even see the group of Stacey’s friends and she doesn’t recognize a single face. The ache in her body is intense. Looking down she can see her nipples are hard, obviously peaking under the silk shirt, teased from the lace bra brushing against them. “Aw fuck, Chris. We can’t…”
Changing dance positions his other arm comes up over her shoulder and snakes over her breasts, pinching one of her peaks. “Fuck you,” she whispers. “I already ache.”
“Let me make it better,” he offers quietly in return.
She leans back into his body, his cock throbbing and rubbing her ass. If unclothed, he’d fit right into her. No wonder he finds her heeled boots so damn sexy, she thinks. We’re the perfect height.
“Niña, don’t think.” His hands dip lower into her pants, the fabric relaxing and pulling away, allowing him access. “You know if you want me to stop, you just have to tell me. You’re so wet, I’m not even to your sweet pussy yet and I can feel your juices on my hand, our dance moves shifting your clothes, teasing you, spreading the wet. The lace is soaked, baby girl. So damn sexy.”
The dancers move and swirl around them, new pairings dividing off and others joining in. Chris is her constant, pulling her to the edge with just his hands and his voice. Her heart pounds in her chest. Her head drops back against his shoulder and he bites her neck as he dips into her well, stroking the lace through her lips. “Shit,” she moans. Other party-goers jostle against them and his arm is bumped causing him to push deeper. Not expecting the force, her ass pushes back against him and a gasp escapes her lips. He keeps up the pretense of their dance as she melts in his arms.
Pulsating to the beat, Chris holds her tight and fucks her well. “Thalia? Do you want me to stop?” With a barely noticeable turn of her head, she breathes heavily against his skin. “No. No. I need this. I need you.”
His hands are magic and she can’t say no. His long fingers quickly make work of her as he whispers in her ear, encouraging her to let go, to relax. “Come, come all over my hand and I’ll know it the whole drive home.” His breath is hot and damp, and the smell of beer as he puffs against her skin seems to add to her own intoxication. The music builds to a crescendo as she comes at his request, spilling over him and the dew seeping down her pants leg.
Removing his hand slowly, he wipes himself clean on the inside of her jeans, tugging her shirt back into place. Keeping up their pretense of a dance, Chris holds her tightly so her limp form doesn’t collapse. “Beautiful, so fucking beautiful. Your mind, your body, your spirit, Thalia.”
Coming back to earth she can see Stacey’s blonde head bobbing up and down over the top of the other dancers, searching for her. Chris spins her quickly, her back to her mother and claims her with a kiss. “Let me take you home,” he begs.
Tucking her hair back she tries to clear her mind. “No. We said ‘no Valentine’s Day’. This is pure coincidence; you got lucky I was here. I’m staying with her at the hotel and I’ll see you at lunch tomorrow.” She pushes away from his massive chest, ignoring the pounding pain in her head. “I gotta go.”
“Been a long time since I had a girl run off ‘cause her mother was looking for her,” he teases.
Thalia tugs at his shirt collar, catching a glimpse of his tattoo, one of her favorite quotes. “Cradle robber,” she jokes, trying to make light of the situation. What kind of magic spell did he just weave? Bastard.
Yanking her close for a moment longer, he shakes his head in total disagreement. “You’re all woman, and you’re mine.”
“Just remember, that makes YOU MINE too, so don’t you be flirting with any of these desperate old hags”
Fleetingly, he touches his fingertips to her lips and she smells the proof of her ownership. Pivoting on her heels to walk away, he smacks her on the ass.
When she reaches her table and gathers her coat, she looks around for him and realizes he’s gone.
The women decide it’s only three blocks back to the hotel so the walk in the cold would be easier than finding a cab. Thalia mentions Uber and most of them look at her like she’s speaking an alien tongue, so she just falls back in the group.
The air is cold against her wet jeans and she fears the smell will be detected in the winter breeze. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” she whispers aloud, rubbing her knuckle across her lips like she does when deep in thought.
Stacey steps in next to her and links arms. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get out of my meetings today. I can’t wait to see your new tattoo. Glad you decided to go ahead and do it, for Amy’s memory.“ The blonde side steps some broken glass on the sidewalk. “That was a fun night, baby girl! I always wanna go out like that, but your father wants to sit at home. I’m glad you came with us!” She takes the end of Thalia’s pink scarf and wraps it tighter around her neck. Thalia blanches at the use of her family’s nickname for her, having been so long since she’d actually heard family use it. She palms her hand over her mouth and her stomach twists.
Baby girl. Aw, fuck. What have I done? Stacey continues to prattle on, but Thalia hears none of it. All she can think about is how she’s broken her own rule. Where did all her determination go? She was the one who didn’t want either of them as part of her day, just to be fair to them both. She had wanted to prove to herself she could have fun without them. She shouldn’t have given in so easily, to Chris- letting him claim her like that, out in the open. But damn, the man is irresistible… She’s betrayed herself, dammit. And to top it all off she let him manipulate her thoughts and he fingered her in a goddamn public place where anyone could have seen them. She feels sick about all the consequences if anyone from campus saw them.
“Hey, I lost ya.” Stacey takes her room key out of her purse to gain access to the hotel lobby at the late hour. “You okay?”
The women wait for the buzz of the door to let them in. They all say their goodnights and head off in their individual directions, some staying by the warm fireplace to warm up and chat longer.
Thalia can feel the fakeness to her smile. “Fine. Really. I think the evening just caught up to me and I’m dead on my feet. I need some aspirin and to lie down.”
“Can do that, honey.” Stacey replies leading them to wait with the group at the bank of elevators. She leans in conspiratorially. “Damn, I know you’re in love and all, but that man you were dancing with? Hell, he was hot sex on a stick! Yummy!”
“Stacey!” ‘In love.’ Her stomach lurches at Stacey’s words. Fuck. She is. With both of them, and her wanton public behavior tonight is such an insult to Tom and the privacy of their relationship… Jesus, what the hell am I doing?
“What? Just because I’ve been married to your father for sixteen years doesn’t mean I can’t look and appreciate the male form. And believe me, he had a nice one.” Stacey bumps her shoulder and giggles.
Girl stuff. Thalia was never good at that. Pulling herself together, she focuses on the now with her stepmother. She giggles too and plays along. “Yes, he did. Solid too.”
“A man built like that? He’s just right for a girl like you. He could throw you around like a ragdoll,” Stacey smiles, her eyes bright from her slight inebriation.
“Oh my God. Hello? Boundaries. You’re still my mother, ya know.” Thalia laughs for real and shakes her head at the absurdity. She wonders if Stacey will remember this conversation in the morning as she kicks off her heels in the elevator car.
“You need a man,” Stacey warrants, bending over to rub the ball of her foot. “If men like that in clubs drool all over you, pick one. And hell, I’ll stop worrying about you and food and your weight. I’ve never had a man look at me like that before, honey. Like he couldn’t wait to see you under all those clothes…” Other women from the club chime in their hummed agreement. The blonde tumbles a bit when the elevator stops at their floor. Righting herself she finishes with her audience. “If you can get a man like that one, take him and ride him to the altar and don’t let him go.”
Echoes of “hell yeahs” reach through the doors as they close and the silence to Thalia is deafening as they are alone and quiet for the first time all night.
Her demeanor changes and she sighs bitterly, really hoping her stepmother doesn’t remember her anger in the morning, just her words. “Dammit, Stacey, slow down. Thank you for finally giving me permission to eat whatever the hell I want, that’s so kind of you… But grasp your head around this one now: marriage isn’t in my cards. At least not for a while… I did not spend all this time and money on an education to give it up for a man and raise his babies. I’m not ‘riding’ anyone anywhere right now, or for a long time for that matter.”
Her headache is growing worse by the minute and she just wants to get to the room and wash the club off her, the smell of smoke out of her hair. She’s angry and she knows exactly why and Stacey just happened to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“Girl, you’re all grown up,” Stacey says as she slides the plastic card into the lock. “You don’t need me to tell you what to do. And I’m so proud of all the things you do… I just don’t want you to be lonely. Find a good man, not a boy, and know the difference. Someone who lets you be you and makes you want to be… well, more.”
Stepping into the room, Stacey moves to her bed and flops down face first kicking her feet up in the air. Thalia closes the door and leans against it, banging her head back and closing her eyes. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
Pushing away from the door the quote from Chris’s tat swirls in her brain. When you lose touch with your inner stillness you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.
Tugging her fingers through her hair, she wonders if she even knows how to be herself without them anymore. It’s like being with them has opened a Pandora’s box, and now she doesn’t know how to close it again. All the new experiences, the self-discoveries. Even though it ties her brain into knots sometimes to deal with the secrecy and onslaught of a dozen different emotions, she wants this, needs this like air.
God, how far gone is she? Will there ever be a point that is too far?
When Thalia arrives to the student Commons for her meeting with Tom, she’s ten minutes late and gritting her teeth. She knows how much he values punctuality, but this morning, nothing much has gone her way, traffic was bad leaving the city, and she probably looks as frazzled as her mind is.
He’s sitting at the far corner, a little secluded, alternately fumbling with his glasses and rubbing his lips. Surreptitiously straightening her clothes and hair and wondering for the umpteenth time what he wants to talk about, Thalia walks over.
Her heart gives a guilty little lurch when she sees that he’s ordered her favorite morning treat – coffee and a blueberry bagel with cream cheese.
He looks up and his jaw tightens as he’s watching her approach.
Shit. She’s not sure she can handle a pissed-off Tom this morning, with the mix of emotions churning away in her gut and the almost sleepless night making her grumpy.
She stops in front of the table, wondering what to say. He taps his watch and lifts an eyebrow, giving her that stern look that’s infuriating and sexy at the same time.
“You’re uncharacteristically late, Ms. Bareo.”
Ugh. No use making excuses. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, sir.”
His expression softens ever so slightly at the last word and he motions for her to have a seat.
Thalia tosses her bag in an empty seat and sits down, crossing her legs. Tom is wearing one of his hundred nearly identical sweaters today, and the soft burgundy fabric stretches invitingly over his muscles as he folds his arms.
With a swallow, Thalia shifts in her seat. She needs coffee to survive this.
To keep up the pretense, Tom goes through a few project-related things first while they work their way slowly through their breakfast. She keeps having flashbacks of Chris pressed against her on the dance floor, and of the conversation she had with her stepmother.
Why did this have to happen to her? All those years without a real man to catch her attention, and now she has two who couldn’t be more different but mean the world to her.
With a start, she realizes Tom has been waiting for an answer from her. Blushing, she takes a last fortifying sip of coffee.
“I’m sorry,” she apologizes again.
He looks at her with narrowed eyes, but all of a sudden, his glare gives way to concern. Leaning forward, he lowers his tone. “Are you alright, darling? You look a bit out of it, to be frank.”
There it is again, the caring, kind side to him that not many people get to see, although he’s always politeness personified. She nods. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just a bit of a rough night.”
“I hope your stepmother didn’t give you any trouble?”
“No, nothing like that. She and her friends dragged me into a club and we got in late. So I’m a bit hung over, to be honest. I feel as if I’m over forty and they’re the party-hungry teenagers or something. They were all laughing and ready to go this morning like it was nothing!”
Tom laughs his characteristic ehehe, but sobers up quickly. Now that the somewhat stern look is gone, she can see that he seems nervous beneath his mask. He keeps adjusting his glasses and pushing the rest of his food around on his plate.
Changing the subject, he asks, “Did you and your stepmother get your tattoos?”
Thalia caresses over the tender spot on her breast carefully. “Yea, I did. Hurts like hell too. But when the redness goes away, it’ll be beautiful. Stacey claimed she couldn’t get out of her meetings, but I think she punked out at the last minute.”
Tom smiles warmly, but his fidgeting hands bely his usual confidence.
Why is he nervous when she’s the one who should be feeling like that? It only makes her even more anxious.
“Didn’t you want to talk to me about something?” she offers quietly, hoping to alleviate his anxiety.
He swallows hard and starts playing with his empty teacup, long fingers handling the delicate porcelain with utmost care. God, what those fingers can do. They’re just as lethal when they’re gentle as when they grab her hard enough to leave bruises. She wonders, if given the chance, would he have done the same at the club – driven her crazy with his nimble fingers, leave her panting and wanting more?
Probably so, and his words would have been filthier.
And she’d have loved every goddamn minute of it too.
Who the hell am I becoming?
She closes her eyes briefly and forces herself to focus.
When he speaks, his words are so low she has to lean forward to hear him.
“Would you be my sort-of date at the Alumni Gala next month?”
The napkin she’s been twisting slides from her fingers to the table.
Tom runs a hand back through his hair. “Bloody hell, that came out all wrong. I’m sorry.”
He takes a breath and continues in a surer tone. “You know that my project is going to be honored, and I want you there by my side because you’ve played such an important role in it. Without your research, this wouldn’t have been possible.”
His blue eyes seek out hers, everything about his expression earnest and appealing. She can feel her pulse racing at the thought of accompanying him to the gala. He’ll probably wear a three-piece suit or tux and look way too handsome. But…
“Won’t I stick out like a sore thumb?” she questions, worrying her lip. “All the staff and dignitaries and VIP guests, and then plain, old, plump me.”
He narrows his eyes again, reaching out to her but stopping himself at the last moment and taking a gulp from his water glass instead.
“Nonsense, Thalia. It won’t be the first time in history that a grad student has attended the gala for some very valid reason.” Looking around the Commons, it’s still rather quiet the morning after the holiday, and she sees now she isn’t the only dragging, hung over person on campus.
His voice drops and her gaze is drawn to his lovely angled face again. “Darling, there’s no way you could ever be ‘plain.’ You’re such a beautiful, charming creature. Everyone will fall at your feet and want to listen to your musical voice.”
Blushing, she tries to read him and understand his uncertainty. His gaze softens. “It’s perfectly alright for me to invite you. Nobody will think twice about it…and I’m pretty sure the sight of you in a gorgeous gown will make rational thought impossible for anyone, especially me, anyway.”
A flirtatious spark darkens his eyes, and she feels her resolve melt away.
“Please accept my invitation, oh fair and gracious lady,” Tom adds with a theatrical expression that has her suppress a giggle. “Have mercy on this poor lad who doesn’t want to face the crowd alone. I haven’t got the faintest idea how Americans handle such events.”
Feeling more herself now, she raises a brow at him. “So, you only want me there to save yourself the embarrassment of putting your foot in your British mouth?” she challenges.
Something in his expression shifts from one moment to the other. It’s an art he’s mastered, and it never fails to throw her off balance.
“Oh, I have a whole list of ideas how you could keep this British mouth of mine busy,” he half-growls in a low, deep voice that sends delicious shivers down her spine.
“Tom,” she hisses, “not here.”
She’s had enough with public displays of… lust this week.
A smirk curls his thin lips before he pretends to busy himself with a bite of now cold toast.
“Seriously, though,” he goes on, sending her a pleading puppy-dog look. “I’d love to have you by my side and sing your praises, maybe even steal a few hidden touches. You don’t necessarily have to stick to my side, though I’d love that. And it will look really good for you, academically speaking, that you’ve been invited and received some recognition.”
Thalia leans back in her chair and sighs. “You’re right, of course. As usual.”
He smiles. “So you’ll be my date?”
“I’ll be your guest,” she says, stressing the last word and automatically smiling back.
“Marvelous. Don’t worry too much about it, you’ll fit right in.”
“I doubt that,” she mutters more to herself than to him. Her eyes widen when she realizes something. “Oh my god, I don’t have anything to wear! What sort of gown do you think is expected?”
Tom runs an appreciative gaze over what little of her body is visible, and she feels it like a caress that warms her from the inside.
“I’m sure there are photos or something from previous events to get an idea. Just pick whatever catches your eye, you’re going to look more stunning than all the women there put together, no matter what you wear.”
Blushing furiously, she wants to say something, but Tom holds up a finger.
“And by the way, I’m paying for the dress. No, don’t even think of protesting. You’re doing me a huge favor and honor by accompanying me, and a gown for a gala dinner isn’t going to cost a couple of bucks. I insist.”
“But, but…” she splutters, only to be cut off again when he adds in a low, warning tone, “Are you going to be a good girl and do as I say, or do I need to pick out a dress for you myself?”
Well hell, that doesn’t leave her with much of a choice.
“Damn you, Professor, you aren’t playing fair,” she complains, crossing her arms.
“Stop pouting like this or I’ll have to drag you into the next best room and kiss the pout right off your lips.”
The sexy threat makes her breath hitch.
Damn, he knows just how to push her buttons.
The look in Tom’s eyes is full of promises.
“Glad we’ve got that settled then. Choose something to show off your lovely legs.” He gestures to the meal. “Any more coffee or tea?”
Thalia huffs and shakes her head. Ever the gentleman, Tom rises when she does. He bends to retrieve his leather briefcase and uses the move to whisper into her ear.
“I can’t wait to see you bedazzle the crowd, my precious orchid. You’re going to make all the other wallflowers wither away.”
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