Amelie Ricard kept her head up and shoulders squared, fixing her assistant Ginny with an impressive glower until she backed out of the room. Once alone, she dropped her bravado, slouching in her chair as the familiar bitterness sunk in. This wasn’t the first time she’d been overlooked during her tenure at the university.
When she dropped this morning's bombshell, Ginny had been positively delighted, reveling in Amelie’s misfortune. Her academic rival Dr. Daniel Whelan had been awarded a prestigious research fellowship to study the Tuatha de Danaan in Ireland. He might have his doctorate, but a master’s degree in folklore with a thesis on fairies made her just as qualified for the fellowship. It should have gone to me.
As much as she wanted to wallow in misery, practicality took over. Academia was a male-centric world, and she couldn’t change the status quo from her desk. This afternoon she was scheduled to present at an information session on anthropology. She grinned, despite her sour mood. Perhaps she could recruit more females to her program.
Grabbing her purse, she dashed toward the faculty restroom. The vacant corridor and unusually quiet floor meant the other professors in this wing of the building must be at lunch. She assessed her appearance in the mirror with a critical eye, thinking she looked formidable in a navy-blue jacket and matching skirt. She brushed through her straight blonde hair with military precision, touched up her mascara to accentuate her large, blue eyes, and reapplied her latest indulgence—Revlon “Apricola” lipstick. The overall effect was satisfactory. She wasn’t a supermodel. As an academic, appearances shouldn’t matter, but, as a female, catering to her vanity gave her a much-needed boost of confidence. Especially today.
Pushing all thoughts of Dr. Whelan from her mind, she made her way to the lecture hall. As the first presenter, she didn’t want to be late. She slipped into her chair on the stage, scanning the audience of wide-eyed high school seniors.
The department chair, a short, balding man with wire-rimmed glasses, stood on the dais. Oblivious to his presence, the audience chatted noisily amongst themselves. He slammed a small gavel against the wooden podium, finally gaining their attention.
“Good morning. Welcome to Northwestern University…”
Amelie discreetly felt for her notes concealed in her jacket pocket. She’d practiced her presentation so many times she could probably recite it in her sleep, but she liked to be prepared, ready for anything. Another lesson gleaned from her unpredictable mother. A twinge of guilt tugged at her heartstrings. It had been a while since she’d visited her mother. She would avoid those visits altogether, but a lifetime of obligations to her mother weighed heavily on her.
“Assistant Professor Ms. Amelie Ricard holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in folklore. Ms. Ricard?”
Amelie’s head jerked up when she heard her name, ripping her from her thoughts. She projected an outward calm that contrasted greatly with her inner turmoil and approached the podium. “Thank you for your kind introduction.” She nodded at the chair. “As an assistant professor, I teach classes in cultural anthropology. Anthropology, the study of people, is a very broad subject. This is why many anthropologists concentrate on specific aspects. My field of study is verbal folklore, how culture has been shared through story and song.”
She continued to explain her study into fairies. Seeing only curiosity, not ridicule, on the faces of her audience boosted her confidence. She covered her planned material quickly, adding that she’d be available for questions after the information session. To her unexpected pleasure, animated applause followed her presentation. She hoped the other presenters, speaking on health and the environment, received the same warm reception.
By the end of the session, the audience had grown restless in the warm room. She couldn’t blame them. Like them, she was eager to stretch her legs and partake of the refreshments. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she’d skipped lunch. She left the stage, heading straight for the buffet of finger foods. The offerings were typical cocktail party fare with a wide selection of meats and cheeses. The university had gone all out, making the spread look quite presentable. The only thing missing was the cocktails. Since the event included high school seniors, she suspected the waiters circulating with drinks only had non-alcoholic punch.
Her taut muscles quivered as the adrenaline started to wear off. Now that her presentation was over, there was nothing to distract her from the disappointing news she’d received earlier. Socializing with strangers was the last thing she wanted to do right now. She needed a drink. Not that she made a habit of imbibing. Small talk wasn’t her forte. She was more comfortable speaking to a lecture hall of three hundred than an actual one-on-one conversation.
At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, she turned around. “Yes?”
The smooth baritone belonged to a dark-haired, handsome young man with a neatly trimmed crew cut. The seductive promise in his flashing black eyes negated his conservative ensemble of a blue pullover and corduroy pants. He held her captive in his stormy gaze, bringing her hand to his lips and brushing a kiss against her skin.
Oh, my God. She gulped as an electric-like current moved through her body.
“I enjoyed your presentation.” His low voice was intimate, like they were the only two people in the crowded foyer outside the lecture hall.
She leaned in closer, drawn to his magnetic presence. “Thank you. Are you with the high school tours?” She caught a light whiff of his spicy aftershave, resisting the instinct to breathe him in.
He shot her a curious look. “High school tours? No.”
If he’s not with the tours, then why is he here?
“The name’s Niall Warde, by the way.”