Cecelia Gardner followed her mother into her office. They’d already spent most of the last week running back and forth between home and the campus as her mother got ready for the school year. Cecelia was beginning to feel like this might be a cool place to hang out and do her homework if Mom wouldn’t let her stay home alone.
“Cecelia, sit here, hon.” Her mother motioned to the extra chair as she glanced at the man who shared the cramped office. He’d barely looked up when they entered.
“I won’t be long, Carlton, and Cece knows to be quiet. I’m sure she won’t disturb you.”
The man grunted, continuing to peer at the papers on his desk, not seeming to care that she was in the office.
Cecelia sat down, swinging her legs in the too-tall chair. She pulled her favorite book from her backpack and sighed. At least her mother hadn’t told her to do her homework.
“What’s your name?” The man looked over at her, a half-smile on his face.
The man’s black hair was shiny, and his grey eyes squinted at her, reminding her of her best friend’s cat when it stared at her, never blinking.
“I’m Professor Winslow. You must be Amanda’s daughter.” He gave her a quick, sidelong grin. “Your hair is all curls. Do you always keep it in pigtails?”
“My mom said she’d be right back.”
“I’m sure she will be. Is she in a meeting?”
“I think so. Then we’re going home.”
“How old are you?” He straightened in his chair and then leaned closer.
“Nine, going on ten. Next summer I’ll be ten.”
“What grade are you in?” His chair slid in her direction.
She eyed the man briefly. “Fourth.” No more questions, she thought, as she shrank down in the chair and raised the book up to hide her face.
“At the Campus School? I’ve met some of the teachers there. Do you like it?” He placed a hand on the back of her chair. His breath reminded her of cigarettes. Nasty.
“It’s a nice school. And I’m on the soccer team.”
“Good for you. Is this your first year—on the soccer team?”
She shook her head. “No. But I don’t know all the other girls yet.”
“I saw some soccer players on the field the other day. One girl had bright red hair. Is she on your team?”
“That’s Gloria. Her dad is our coach.”
“I see you’re a reader.” He placed his hand over the spine of the book, his fingers, stained yellow, splaying across the words. “What are you reading?”
“It’s my book—Misty of Chincoteague.” She pulled it closer when he slid his big chair closer and continued to stare at her.
“You have very pretty eyes—blue, like the sky. Has anyone ever told you that?” The man’s beard reminded her of sandpaper, like what she’d touched in class when they were studying different textures.
She shook her head and opened the book again, wanting to get back to the story. If only she could move her chair away so he couldn’t touch her book, but there wasn’t enough room. Something about the way he watched her made her uncomfortable. She wished he would stop talking to her, stop asking her questions.
But the man moved his chair closer so that it bumped hers. She didn’t like that he smelled bad. His big hand with dark hairs on his fingers traced the air just above her knee.
“Your hair smells nice.”
Cecelia pulled down her skirt, tucked her feet under her, and scooted as far away from him as she could, wishing she could leave the room. But she didn’t know where her mother was and she’d been told to stay in the office.
“Where did you get that scar on your leg?”
“I fell down—when I was playing soccer,” she answered, her voice a near-whisper, her heart thudding like a drum in her chest.
The doorknob rattled. The man abruptly repositioned his chair in front of his big computer.
“Yes, I’ll drop it off on my way out.”
Her mother’s voice carried through the door, to Cecelia’s relief. When she opened it, Cecelia smiled at her mother, and looked over at the man in the big chair. He was fiddling with his tie, and the skin under his right eye was twitching.
Cecelia lowered her feet to the floor. “Can we go home now?”
“In a minute, Cece.” Her mother reached for her briefcase as she glanced in the man’s direction. He stared down at his papers and resumed typing.
“Come on, Mom.” Cecelia slid out of the little chair, keeping her mother between herself and the man. She pulled on her mother’s hand, eager to get away from the man’s prying eyes and bad breath.
~ ~ ~
Amanda Gardner fingered her grandmother’s filigree heart on its chain at her throat, her anxiety heightened by Carlton’s unpleasantness. Why couldn’t he be nicer? Today, as she strode out of the English department of Buckley College on her way to the student union, she was nearly jumping out of her skin. So much rested on the coming fall quarter. Like maybe her entire life?
Her grandmother. Now there was a woman who never seemed afraid. I have to be more like her—brave, not so afraid of the unknown. Leaving Iowa and moving west had been an adventure of sorts. No storms in the middle of the Atlantic to worry about, just the one flat tire halfway through Nebraska. I just need to do my job and make friends among the faculty. Except for her officemate, Carlton Winslow, they seemed very nice. When would she feel comfortable, on campus, in Shoreville, Washington, so far from her home in southern Minnesota? Was it simple bad luck she was sharing an office with a man whose mood seemed so dark whenever she was present, who insisted on taking up most of the space in their office?
“Just get out of my hair, Amanda. I’ve got work to do.” He’d turned his back on her and begun moving her files from the second drawer of their shared cabinet to the bottom drawer, as if he owned the top two sections.
But his words to her when she left made her wonder. He’d complimented her on nine-year-old Cecelia’s picture that adorned their shared desk. Actually, it was her daughter he’d complimented. Right before he made clear he considered their shared space his office.
Maybe he’ll loosen up. Be nicer, more accommodating. It’s his first year, too.
Amanda crossed the campus, nodding to a group of students and their parents as they passed. Up ahead she saw one of the instructors she’d met at the dean’s new faculty gathering. He was talking with another man, tall, with sandy hair. When they entered the science building, she saw them in profile. That journalism guy, the tall one—he’d passed out questionnaires for everyone to fill out. Questions she hadn’t answered yet, she realized with a guilty jolt. Marcus Dunbar. He had blue eyes—just like Dylan’s.
Stop that! she berated herself. The last thing she needed was to compare men to Cecelia’s father.
Even fully dressed, the man had a body any woman would drool over. His neatly pressed slacks fit him perfectly. His spotless, white golf shirt emphasized his tan and well-developed pecs. She decided he must lift weights to build those muscles, or run in his off hours—something other than pushing a pencil or pounding a laptop.
Except she hadn’t taken this job to ogle men. Her first teaching appointment was critical, the key to establishing herself in her chosen field, providing for her daughter and paying off her student loans. She’d accepted the job at Buckley College—so far from home, her mother kept reminding her—to work, not look for a man. Although that’s exactly what her mother kept pushing her to do.
Amanda entered the student union and looked around. Spotting two of the other English faculty members, Scott and Jim, she headed for their table.
“Glad you made it, Amanda. Coffee or tea?” Scott moved his briefcase off her seat. “Where’s your officemate? We invited him, too. But he’s not exactly the friendly sort, is he?”
Amanda shrugged. “He was filing when I left.” But he’d acted more put out than busy when she’d reminded him of the invitation.
Jim grinned as he rubbed the top of his balding head. “What was with the full-name bull when he introduced himself at the faculty meeting? Did you see how his cheek kept twitching when he answered Greg’s questions? He needs to chill. Wanna bet he demands that his students call him ‘Professor’ even though technically he’s not entitled?”
Scott reached for the sugar canister. “How much work does he have to do with classes almost a month away? I’m surprised Greg hired Winslow. His dissertation isn’t even finished.”
“You know Greg didn’t have much choice—after Harvey died,” Jim said. “Poor guy. One week sick and the next week gone. Greg had to fill the position so we wouldn’t be short-handed.”
Amanda’s glance bounced from one to the other of her colleagues. “That’s terrible. I don’t believe I met Harvey when I interviewed.”
“You’d have liked him. But I think we’ve got a winner in you, Amanda,” Jim’s expression was friendly, admiring. “Those magazine articles you submitted when you interviewed? Nice style, breezy but factual. Kind of halfway between literary and journalistic. I think the students are going to like working with you. Maybe you’ll snag some of the better journalism students for our department.”
“Thanks,” she replied, encouraged by Jim’s praise. “I’d like to think we’ll attract motivated students.”
Scott nodded. “I doubt Leonard will be happy about that. I was talking with Marc Dunbar the other day. He said the old man is bent on building the journalism department so they’ll have more majors than we do.”
“Let him try. Amanda’s got a figure the male students will like. That’s a bonus for us, don’t you think?” Jim sat back in his chair, then glanced at her before looking over at Scott. “Sorry, Amanda. Not very PC, am I? Hope you’re not offended.”
She shrugged. “No harm done.”
“Jimbo, we’re supposed to be thinking in terms of academics, like how Amanda here has already charmed JJ into working with her.” Scott raised his glass in her direction. “You asked for pointers at our faculty meeting, something we’d expect from a newbie. I’m not so sure about Winslow. He probably needs more help than you do, but he didn’t ask. And I wasn’t impressed with him—too casually dressed, not very forthcoming with what he’s doing, that sort of thing.”
Scott turned back to her, his gaze dropping to her left hand for a fraction of a second, as if checking for a ring.
“Tell us more about yourself, Amanda. You were pretty quiet in the meeting. Didn’t Beatrice say you have a daughter? But you’re not married, right?” Scott asked.
Amanda creased her brow, then opened her mouth to speak.
“Come on,” Scott interrupted. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m happily married—just like Jim here. I was just thinking of some of the other faculty—the single ones.”
“Anyone in particular come to mind?” She recovered enough to give him a brief smile.
“For sure not Winslow. Talk about a cold fish with a big ego. He’s not married—that I know for sure.”
The three of them continued to chat while finishing their coffee. Amanda returned to her office. Carlton had insisted on taking nearly all of the bookshelf space. She debated asking the secretary if the bookshelf in the conference room was available for her books. The oversized desk—“big enough for two,” Beatrice, the department secretary, had said when it was moved into the office—took up nearly all the free space, leaving little room for the extra chair she expected students to use during office hours, or maybe herself if Carl occupied the larger chair. He had already centered his monster desktop computer facing the larger chair. An equally bulky printer sat closer to the window out of which she could see part of the mountain range in the distance. She sighed. If he was going to use the office daily—in order to finish his dissertation—it was going to be a long year. But this was not the time to ask for special favors, not at the beginning of the term. I’ll just have to see how we can work things out.
She collected her papers, nodded in Carl’s direction when he glanced briefly at her, and headed out the door of the department, rubbing the head of the Shakespeare sculpture as she left, a sculpture the chairman had acquired on a long-ago European trip. It held a place of honor at the entrance to the department. Everyone rubbed Will’s head for good luck, according to Beatrice. Let’s hope I don’t need it.