Ella sat in the den ignoring the noise pounding through the house. She hated her roommate’s parties.
“How are you ever going to meet anyone holed up in that room?” Karen had asked with exasperation when she tried to sneak away. As if Ella had anything in common with a bunch of art students.
Now, the music level doubled as the door popped open and a sandy-haired man with Nordic features walked in and shut the door behind him. His head tipped back when he noticed her. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was in here.”
“Can I help you find something?” she asked, determined to be polite.
“I was actually looking for someplace quiet to sit for a minute. The noise is giving me a headache.” He walked over to examine the 1000-piece puzzle of Niagara Falls she’d been working on in her spare time. “Do you mind if I join you?”
Yes, but she’d never say it. He probably wouldn’t listen anyway. The good-looking ones never did. “Why don’t you leave if the party is too much?”
He sent her an amused glance, his cool blue eyes assessing her rumpled state. “I came with my brother. I’m visiting for the weekend, but I think he has a thing for one of the girls here.” He picked up a blue piece and held it to several different spots on the puzzle before discarding it. “I’m Jeff Nehring, by the way.”
“Ella Sandborn. Karen’s roommate.” She grabbed the piece and put it back in the blue pile. “Couldn’t you take a cab?” she asked.
Jeff chuckled. “Trying to get rid of me, huh?”
Her face heated, and the butterflies in her stomach took flight with a vengeance. “Sorry. I—” Am a hopeless case.
“Wait a minute. Ella Sandborn? Didn’t you coauthor that paper on a new aluminum welding process that was in JMST last month?”
She stared at him in astonishment. “You read that?”
His face lit up and he leaned in. “Yeah. My team at Tech is working on something similar with an aluminum alloy for aerospace applications. Your process floored us.” He smiled. “Do you want to go for some coffee? I’d love to hear more about your research.”
Ella took mental inventory of her appearance. Faded jeans, a threadbare Stanford T-shirt, hair in a pony tail, no makeup. Her usual. She shrugged. It was just coffee, right?
They threaded through the clusters of fashionably dressed twenty-somethings, donned their winter gear—she’d never get used to the New England cold—and exited the brownstone, turning onto the well-lit street.
She normally sucked at making conversation, but Jeff was easy to talk to. He was one of the few men she’d met outside of school who shared her passion and wasn’t intimidated by her brains. Before she knew it they’d been at the café for hours.
Around midnight, the baristas kicked them out into the cold and they turned toward her home. She dragged her feet as they neared the brownstone. Surely the spell would end with the party.
“Is it hard being a pretty woman in a male-dominated field?” Jeff asked, pausing at the bottom of the stairs to her building.
Or maybe the spell would end now. Her chest tightened and her eyes ached with the pathetic need to cry. She should have known he was too good to be true. How could she have been so stupid?
“You know what’s hard?” she asked. “Having a roommate who thinks you’re such a loser that she has to manufacture your perfect date for you. Good job, Jeff. You were defect-free, right up until that ‘pretty’ comment. I hope Karen’s paying you well.”
Shock etched his handsome features. “What—”
“Good luck with your research,” Ella bit out before she marched up the stairs.
“Hey!” Jeff ran up behind her and grabbed her arm. “Wait.”
She spun to face him, dislodging his hand. Why couldn’t he just let it go? She was embarrassed enough.
“You don’t believe I find you attractive?”
“No.” Why would he? No one else seemed to.
“Then you’re not as smart as I thought you were.” He frowned. “Or maybe you just need more data.” He leaned in and kissed her. A soft, tantalizing whisper of a kiss.
Her body flared to life, and her lips tingled long after he pulled back. “Oh.” She licked her lips and met his earnest gaze. Maybe, just maybe… “I’m seeing a trend, but I need more points for comparison.”
He laughed and obliged. And all she could think was that Karen had been wrong. Ella had met someone holed up in that room.