Ivan Antonov is a bona fide genius, with more patents than any graduate student on campus. Everyone thinks he’s just a brain with no heart, and maybe they’re right. Whenever he opens up, anger spews out. He’s tired of being used for his intellect, tired of fixing everyone else’s problems, and tired of the women’s groups that spew man-hate all over campus. Before he graduates, he’s going to dismantle The Women’s Grid and anything else like it.
His quest inadvertently targets Tia Garcia, the gorgeous psychology intern who lives next door to Ivan. She’s all about helping women become self-sufficient, and she’s agreed to participate in her colleague’s ground-breaking experiment. The experiment pairs her up with Ivan, the brawny neighbor who is difficult to read. He’s sexy as heck, but he insists that her women-only seminars need to include men. If she can’t preserve her program’s integrity, she might lose the post-doctoral job she wants.
There’s a reason why Ivan is determined to defund programs like hers, but he can’t tell her why. If he does, he’ll have to admit that one night, he wasn’t so smart after all. So he buries the truth and works like hell to redeem himself. While he's at it, he'll stop the ruthless group of people who want to tear him down, but what could be more heartless than targeting the only woman who wants to read him right? And what could be more stupid than falling in love with a woman who's smart enough to figure out his darkest secret?
TURN TO HER was a Finalist in the 2018 Colorado Romance Writers Beverly Contest.
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Fat, white snowflakes fell as though Old Man Winter had chopped up the moon and tossed the pieces to earth. A pair of headlights beamed through the snow, accompanied by an awful cough that belonged to an old sedan. The black car was hardly worth a second look, but Tia Garcia couldn’t tear her gaze from the silhouette behind the steering wheel. That man lived next door to her and resembled a burly woodsman, the type who knew how to build campfires and track game in the brisk mountain air.
Days had passed since she’d spotted Mountain Man. Tia leaned closer to the cold window to get a better look. The tip of her nose tingled. So did her throat. A silky ribbon of goose bumps rolled toward her breasts.
Red taillights glowed as his sedan pulled into the empty parking space beside her car. Wouldn’t take long before he walked into the apartment building. He’d say hello if he saw her. He always did.
Her heart did an excited little backflip. She pressed a hand against her chest and felt something fuzzy.
The nasty gray stuff covered her black sweater. Her jeans looked worse, with a big wet glop of fabric softener on her upper thigh, near her crotch. To top things off, the laundry room’s humidity had turned her long hair into rowdy ribbons of frizz.
If she were blonde, she might’ve been able to tell herself this was a good, breezy beach look. But she was a brunette. On her, brown frizz looked like a lonely Friday night spent all alone, washing clothes instead of hanging out at the bar like most of the graduate students on campus.
She grabbed her laundry basket, trotted into the apartment building’s lobby, and headed for the stairs. Behind her, the lobby door opened with a shrill whine. Footsteps thudded on the tile floor. More goose bumps rose on Tia’s skin, but she hurried upstairs without looking over her shoulder to see who was there. By the time she reached the second floor, her arms ached from hauling a big basket full of folded sweaters.
“Why are clean clothes heavier than dirty ones?” she muttered.
“You must not be washing them right.”
Tia laughed and looked down the hall.
Wayne Hoover grinned back at her.
Mr. Buff, Blond, and Blunt was a psychology intern like her, but he leaned against her apartment door as though this drab, gray hallway was as pleasant as his sunny office in the Counseling Center. “Took you long enough to get here. I was beginning to think you got picked up by some guy.”
“Nope. I was just doing laundry, which didn’t go well. I’m covered in lint and fabric softener. I look like a woolly sheep with a bladder problem.” She shoved the laundry basket into Wayne’s arms and stuck her hand into her front pocket. It was empty. She reached into another pocket, and the bulky biofeedback band on her wrist caught the hem of her sweater. She yanked free. “Drat. I can’t find my key.”
“Did you leave it in the laundry room?”
“I hope not.” She tried a back pocket. Sharp metal teeth grazed her knuckle. “Never mind. I got it.” She unlocked the doorknob with a quick twist of her wrist, yanked Wayne into her apartment, and shut the door hard enough to rattle the picture on the wall.
He set the laundry basket on the couch and eyed her. “Uhhh, what’s going on with you?”
“Nothing. I’m flustered, that’s all. I’ll be fine once I grab a cup of tea.” She tucked a frizzy rope of hair behind one ear. “So, how did your seminar go?”
“Great. A lot of athletes attended. They all wanted to know how to use mental imagery to improve their performance. I used some of the exercises you’d suggested, which helped a lot. The football coach was there, too. He loved the whole thing.” Wayne’s mouth stretched into a wide smile. “He asked me to be the sports psychologist for the team.”
“That’s great news. Well done!”
“I want to celebrate. If you’ll go to the bar with me, I’ll buy you a drink.”
A crisp Chardonnay would taste great right now, but she didn’t have the time to go out. “I need to work. My internship hit a snag.”
“What snag? You’re the best counselor we’ve got. The girls flock to you for advice.”
“I’m glad they do. Counseling is going well, but my seminar series for women is bothering some people.”
Wayne’s smile faded. “Yeah, I heard about that. Some guys have a problem with any program that excludes men. A few of them spoke to the Dean of Students. I overheard the discussion when I walked by.”
So the rumors were true. Men were complaining about her program.
This wasn’t good. All she wanted to do was help young women rely on themselves. She had to learn self-sufficiency the hard way when her father left the day before her eighth birthday, which was the worst present ever. Or maybe the best. Thanks to him, she could take care of herself.
She pressed her thumb against the wide silver ring on her index finger, reassured by the familiar smooth surface. “My seminars are designed specifically for women. I need to keep these seminars small and private so participants feel comfortable to talk about their problems, yet I don’t want any man to feel excluded. Somehow, I’ve got to think of a way to make this work.”
A lot was at stake. She’d developed this ‘SelfWell’ program when her internship began last summer. If her program failed, she’d have trouble getting a post-doctoral job.
Psychologists were supposed to help people, not alienate them.
“You’ll figure this out,” Wayne said with a convincing nod. “But don’t work all weekend. You need a break. Want to go skiing? Killington Peak is only an hour away and there’s a ton of snow on the trails. That’s the great thing about March in Vermont. There’s always snow. Hit the trails with me.”
“No, thanks. I don’t ski.” She’d navigated too many slippery slopes in her life. Skidding down a steep mountain on a pair of oversized blades sounded too much like her rocky childhood. “I appreciate your offer, but a quiet weekend at home will do me a lot of good.”
Two firm knocks landed on the door.
Wayne scratched his head. “Are you expecting someone?”
“Nope.” Tia looked through the blurry peephole. All she could see was a large blob. Since most of her friends looked like blurry blobs from this perspective, she opened the door.
Mountain Man stood three feet away, staring at her with vibrant blue eyes the color of Berry Blue gelatin—the flavor she’d used the one time she’d made gelatin shots. Those treats were packed with enough alcohol to deaden your tongue with one lick. Tia’s tongue was nowhere near this man, yet her entire mouth went numb.
He removed a knit cap and pulled a hand through his hair, ruffling thick brown curls. “A few seconds ago, I opened my car door too wide and dinged your passenger side door. I want to pay for the damage.”
“Damage?” Her stomach dropped. She’d owned her SUV for five years and hadn’t put one scratch on the shiny, black paint.
“The dent is small, no bigger than a nickel. A decent auto body shop can do the repair in a half hour, maybe less.” He crushed the knit hat in one big hand. “This is my fault. My responsibility. I’ll fix it.”
“No, I’ll handle this.” She handled everything herself, the only way things got done.
“You will not handle the bill. I will.”
Was he angry? Tia wasn’t sure. His bright gaze gave nothing away and the thick pelt of his short beard cloaked the expressive muscles near his mouth, which was set in a straight, stony line.
An icy tingle trickled down her throat. She couldn’t read this man.
He pulled a phone out of the back pocket of his jeans. “Could I have your number? I’d like to send you a screen shot of my insurance card in case you’d like to file a claim.”
“Good idea.” She rattled off her number.
He typed for a moment, put away his phone, and squared his shoulders. “I’ve lived near you for months, but I’ve never had the chance to introduce myself. I’m Ivan Antonov.”
“I’m Tia Garcia.” The rhyme in her name sounded silly compared to Mountain Man’s name. Ivan Antonov. All of those hard consonants mimicked his voice, rough and deep. That sexy voice could talk an angel into trading her halo for a thong.
“I’d like to fix your car, soon. There’s not much time left before I finish my Masters degree. After the semester ends, I won’t be around. Until then, you can find me in one of the computer engineering labs.” His frosty berry-blue eyes locked on hers. “I’m sorry for denting your car. I’ll pay for everything.”
“Thanks.” She backed away from the threshold, anxious to get away before he noticed the smear of lint on her left boob.
“I’ll touch base with you soon, Tia.” Her name came out of his mouth in a hoarse murmur, softer than anything else he’d said.
“Okay. Bye.” Jeez, did she just squeak? She closed the door and turned toward Wayne, who hadn’t moved from his spot near the couch.
He grimaced. “I can’t believe this.”
“I know, right? This isn’t a great way to start the weekend, but accidents happen.” She shrugged, willing to look at the bright side of the situation. “At least the dent in my car is a small one.”
“Forget about the stupid dent. You’ve got a bigger problem.” Wayne jabbed a finger toward the door. “I saw your neighbor in the Dean’s office a few days ago. He’s the heartless jerk who wants to shut down your seminars.”