Mia wasn’t new to the world of lavish banquets.
While never a member of the upper milieu in terms of title, her family’s economic status, combined with her mother’s social ambitions, had ensured her initiation into the circle of the Parisian one-percentile at an early age.
It was always her mother’s hope that Mia would marry a French man of title, thus checking the last box that would ensure the family’s status within the country’s elite. Of course, Mia’s father had savagely ripped those plans to shreds, as well as Mia’s heart and soul in the process, but her mother was persistent, if not anything else.
Her experience notwithstanding, she still felt a flutter of excitement at the thought of entering Oxford’s grand banquet hall on Wyatt’s arm. He’d insisted they meet at the venue, which struck her as odd until she’d stepped out to the candlelit path and found him waiting for her there, a handkerchief of the same golden silk of her dress folded to perfection in his dress jacket and a large jewel box in the hand not folded behind his back.
“Is that a necklace?” Mia asked, touching the simple pendant on her neck.
“No.” Wyatt smiled, opening the box to reveal a delicate golden tiara. “May I?”
Mia willed the sarcastic reply to come but Wyatt’s soft gaze, his hope-filled voice, the thoughtful and beautiful gift with a wink of jest to her affinity for historical romances all dulled her jaded sense of self-preservation away, and she simply nodded.
With a relieved smile, Wyatt plucked the tiara out of the box and placed it on her head with great care not to ruin her hairdo.
“Perfect?” Mia asked with a little twirl, and Wyatt caught her around the waist, pulling her close.
“Third in rank of perfection,” he answered, grazing her cheek with his thumb. “Preceded only by you in a lab coat, though there’s no competition to first place.”
“Which is?” Mia asked, though she suspected she knew the answer.
“Birthday suit,” Wyatt said with his devilish half-grin, and Mia couldn’t stop the bubbling laughter.
“You are too expected.” She straightened his immaculate collar before sliding out of his arms and to his side. “Shall we?”
Wyatt offered his arm and Mia took it, the flutters in her stomach indicating what she deemed an entirely unnecessary yet absolutely undeniable excitement.
Yes, Mia had been to her fair share of banquets and balls in her twenty-eight years, yet walking into the grand hall tonight, she was feeling the exhilaration she’d felt as a child and teen at the prospect of a magical evening.
There was only one reason, one variable that had changed since she had become disillusioned some ten years ago.
“My, my, aren’t you two a sight,” Herbert said with a beaming smile as he approached them with open arms, giving Mia’s arm a brief fatherly squeeze. “Gorgeous.”
“Thank you, Herbert.” Mia bowed her head slightly. It wasn’t customary to hug at these events, no matter how close you were to the person in front of you.
“Professor Finch.” Wyatt took Herbert’s hand with a firm shake.
“Doctor Jenkins, I have been hearing wonderful things about your work at the hub over the past few months.”
“That’s good to know,” Wyatt said with a polite smile, though warmer than what he usually mustered for the chatting.
Herbert seemed to want to say something else, a glint of mischief in his eyes, but someone called his name.
“I must go and charm the higher ranks.” Herbert sighed. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Both Mia and Wyatt nodded. Once Herbert was out of earshot, Wyatt bent down to Mia’s ear and whispered, “From the praises I gather he still hasn’t asked your opinion of me.”
“Your deduction skills are second to none, Doctor Jenkins,” Mia answered with a sly smile. “Come, let’s fulfill our duties.”
Despite his protesting groan, Wyatt dutifully followed Mia to a group of professors not far away from them. By the time they reached the huddle of loudly conversing academics, Wyatt was fully in character.
They spent the next hour or so doing their rounds with the department and university heads, seamlessly completing each other’s sentences in their pitch in favor of their fledgling hub. They were a good team, despite their differences, since they both wanted to ensure the hub’s success.
Mia couldn’t deny working with Wyatt was much more pleasant than working against him.
“If it isn’t our department’s very own power couple,” someone said from behind them. It was a voice Mia recognized well, and she fought to keep the disgust from showing in her face.
“Professor Durant, I hadn’t realized you were back from France already,” Mia said in as neutrally ambient a tone as she could muster towards the wiry man with the receding hairline and toothy grin. Wyatt shot her a questioning glance, which Mia ignored.
“My business there was concluded,” Durant chuckled, winking at her. Mia felt the need to cringe. Durant’s business included a small collection of mistresses, one of them Mia’s mother. Though in the case of Marie Bissonnette, she was the one using Durant to spy on Mia. Durant was fully aware of this fact and didn’t bother with being subtle when blatantly hinting at his voracious encounters with her mother and projecting them onto Mia.
He was a man with little regard for women and even less refinement when speaking of them.
“Doctor Wyatt Jenkins,” Wyatt said, stepping between them and sticking out his hand for a shake. “A pleasure to meet you, Professor Durant.”
“Ah, the man of the hour.” Durant grabbed Wyatt’s hand in both of his and shook it vigorously. “Great job securing the Gendry Fund for the hub, I’ve been trying to persuade them to support one of my research projects for years, tough nut to crack,” Durant said with a conspiratorial smirk. “Though, for all my achievements, I’ve yet to be in close relations with a laureate.”
Wyatt tensed, his fists curling at the sides of his body, and Mia was half hoping he’d punch Durant, but the vile man had too much influence within the halls of Oxford and it would bring an end to the hub. To her relief, Wyatt laughed and thumped Durant’s back, albeit slightly harder than required.
Durant opened his mouth, undoubtedly to spew more offensive nonsense.
“I must tell you about my newest research, Professor Durant,” Mia said with a girly enthusiasm she knew would capture Durant’s attention and distract him from asking Wyatt about his father. She emphasized her French accent, knowing Durant had an almost perverse attraction to the drawl. “I’ve been exploring the effect of midlife transformation of socioeconomic status on the appearance of genetically related diseases in children of those who changed their class. The results have been astounding.”
“Interesting, what is your take on this subject matter, Doctor Jenkins?” Professor Durant hadn’t bothered to shift his interest away from Wyatt, and although she held Durant’s opinion in extremely low esteem, Mia still deflated at the easy dismissal.
It wasn’t Wyatt’s fault. Some pompous professors were, and always would be, prone to dismissing her based on gender alone, Durant more than anyone. But having it happen so bluntly in front of Wyatt made the experience all the more bitter. However mad Mia was at his appointment in her stead, Wyatt was a good scientist whose professional opinion she held in high regard.
Despite the stabbing feeling, Mia kept her spine straight and plastered on a saccharine smile as she turned to look at Wyatt as if the next words out of his mouth were gospel, only to find his gaze fixed intently on her in a way that made her knees weak and her stomach quiver.
“I think I could recite Doctor Bissonnette’s research log and subsequent results word to word just because you’ll find it easier to accept when said in baritone rather than mezzo, but I’d rather spend that time dancing with the most brilliant and beautiful person in the room.” With that, Wyatt handed his lowball to Durant and offered Mia his arm.
“Why, yes, I’d love to dance, Doctor Jenkins.” Mia wove her arm through Wyatt’s, letting him lead her to the dancefloor and pull her close, their bodies in an intimate press as they swayed to the music.
“You really do look ravishing tonight,” Wyatt said with a smile, thumb moving over the small of Mia’s back. Even through the thin layer of silk, his touch was titillating, igniting a swirl of desire in Mia that she no longer had the will to fight.
“Thank you.” Mia was lost in the warmth of Wyatt’s gaze and in the perfect rhythm to which they moved together. “And thank you for not showing me up.”
“Why would I ever do that?”
His words seemed sincere, but Mia was too easily swayed by him to trust her own instincts. “Don’t play games with me, Wyatt, not about this.”
“I would never.” He seemed offended that she’d think otherwise. “I don’t play games with people’s lives and careers, and I don’t play this stupid gender game, I grew up surrounded by women, all of them wildly smarter and more talented than me, my sisters included, I’m the last person in the world to mansplain an intelligent woman like you, especially not for the sake of advancing my own career.”
“Tell me about how your sisters surpass you,” Mia said in a teasing voice, though she was curious. She’d been avoiding in-depth talks about Wyatt’s family, about anything that wasn’t hub or bed related, but little leaks out of the boundaries she had set were bound to happen considering the amount of time she and Wyatt spent together.
“Well, Kylie is currently teaching history of science, technology, and medicine during the Imperial era at Harvard. She’s also a bestselling historical romance author, and yes, I’ve seen you read her books.” Mia opened her mouth but Wyatt tutted her into silence. “No, I will not tell you her pen name.”
“Tease.” Mia pouted. “Though I bet I can convince you.”
She slid her hand over Wyatt’s chest and under his dress coat with a sly smile, and Wyatt shook his head, flashing a sinful grin.
“Not likely, though I admit someone using me to get close to my sister is a novelty.” There was an undertone of bitterness to his words, but the seductive smile was firmly back in place before Mia could dwell. “She did help me choose your gift.”
Mia’s hand left Wyatt’s shoulder to touch the tiara with a small smile.
“That’s one sister,” Mia said, figuring she wouldn’t get the coveted information from Wyatt here on the dancefloor. “And the other?”
“Iris, she’s almost twenty-two and just completed her masters in neurobiology, the only one to follow dad’s professional footsteps, though her focus is vastly different.” Wyatt’s eyes twinkled when he talked about his siblings, Mia was almost envious at the affection radiating from him. “There’s also Reed, he’s twenty, probably has a higher IQ than all the people in this room combined.”
Mia snorted, quickly covering her mouth with her hand when people turned to look at her curiously.
“I’m serious, that kid is a whole different level of smart,” Wyatt said with an amused smile, twirling Mia and pulling her back to his chest. “What about you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mia’s brow creased and Wyatt broke into a wide grin. “T’es rien qu’un petit connard.”
He pulled her even closer, grin spreading wider. “God, it turns me on when you hate on me in French.”
“You like it when I call you an asshole?” Mia felt the heat rise through her entire body at the knowledge of what was coming next. “I have a few more choice words since it seems to turn you on so much.”
Wyatt’s russet eyes darkened, his palm sliding low down her back, coming to rest at the edge of appropriate.
“I liked asshole.” His voice dropped to that low rumble that never failed to set Mia’s insides on fire. “It reminds me that it’s been a while since I had my cock deep in that tight ass of yours.”
“Yes, over a week, how tragic.” Mia rolled her eyes, making a show of trying to disentangle from Wyatt’s embrace just to get a rise out of him.
Wyatt easily kept her firmly in his arms, eyes gleaming with a dangerous fire and lips quirking in a half-smirk.
“Now you’re just being cheeky,” he said. “Are you in the mood for some punishment tonight, Prickly Pear?”
Mia was in the mood for self-punishment. After all, she’d broken her cardinal rule and asked Wyatt about his personal life. The crumbs of information had only proved to stoke her appetite but her plans to get Wyatt out of the way so she could finally claim her spot in the hub hadn’t changed.
Mia needed to remember the plan and force herself back on course.