Authors: Patricia McLinn
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
He was hard to miss.
Carolyn pushed open the door, and there he sat, his jeans-clad legs stretched out, practically filling the reception area.
During her past five months in Europe, she’d often thought about Ashton University—about paths bordered with daffodils in the spring and chrysanthemums in the fall, sailboats skimming the lake, stately stone buildings, her colleagues, her friends.
Never once did she think about encountering someone like this sitting in the university president’s outer office. The Ashton U. sweatshirt, the jeans faded to a dusty blue, and the white athletic shoes befitted a student. But only the most casual student would wear that outfit to the president’s office. And this, Carolyn Trent told herself, was no student.
Mid-thirties, she’d say from the sharp angles and planes of his face. Even in the shadows of the far corner where he sat, his features added up to self-assurance. Surprise mingled in his expression with something she couldn’t identify. But it most definitely wasn’t self-consciousness. If he was at all aware of the incongruity of his attire against this backdrop of burgundy leather furniture and walnut paneling, he gave no sign of it.
He didn’t fit. And that jarred her. Here at Ashton everything was supposed to be the way it always had been—orderly and steady. Here, she’d told herself, she’d shake this discontent that kept scratching at her, unsettling her just when everything was going so well.
“She’ll be back in a minute,” said a distinctive voice, a mixture of gravel and drawl, like a slow rumble of rocks. “The secretary,” the man added with a slow nod to the empty desk. “She said she’d be right back.”
Carolyn felt an unaccustomed flush sweep her face. She’d been staring. And he knew it. “Thank you.”
“Have an appointment?”
She shook her head. If the room had been empty, or if Marsha had been alone out here, Carolyn would have gone straight in to surprise Stewart. But not with an audience. Not that the informality would have bothered this man.
“Shouldn’t be long. He’s not too tied up this afternoon,” he offered optimistically, nodding toward the double doors to the inner office. “That’s what the secretary said.”
Carolyn sank straight-backed into a wing chair. What would it be like to be as unconcerned about the proprieties as he seemed to be? She gave another small shake of her head, this time at herself. Whatever it was like, it wouldn’t be appropriate for an Ashton University professor of English literature.
“Carolyn! Welcome back,” an older female voice exclaimed. Stewart Barron’s secretary was in the doorway with a folder in one hand, mail in the other, and a wide smile.
“Hello, Marsha. It’s good to be home.”
“How was the seminar? How was England? And Paris? Oh, how I envy you.” She sighed, not waiting for answers. “You must have had a wonderful time. All the cafes, the shops...”
Just the word
and Carolyn saw Marsha conjuring up romantic fantasies. But it hadn’t been like that. She’d spent half her time at the Louvre and half at the Musée d’Orsay, soaking in line and color after months devoted to the written word.
“The seminar was excellent—very worthwhile. But now I’m eager to find out what I’ll be doing and to get started.”
She was more than a little curious. In retrospect, Stewart’s dodging the topic during the two-and-a-half-hour drive back from the airport late last night struck her as odd.
“Of course you are. I’ll go in and let him know you’re here,” said Marsha, hurriedly setting the mail on her desk.
Carolyn watched the older woman disappear into Stewart’s office with growing uneasiness. She’d known Marsha Hortler for more than seventeen years, ever since Stewart and Elizabeth had assumed guardianship of Carolyn and brought her back to Ashton at the age of eleven. But Marsha almost seemed to be avoiding her.
Or maybe Marsha wanted to avoid the subject of her assignment this semester. She frowned. Missing the first six weeks meant she couldn’t have her usual class load, but why this mystery?
Her gaze slid to the tall stranger, then immediately jerked away. He was studying her openly. Perhaps she deserved that after the way she’d stared. But that didn’t mean she’d just sit there. She turned back to him and smiled, pleasant but distant, the small smile so effective at keeping her male students at arm’s length.
He grinned, a genuinely amused, lopsided grin that showed a slash of white teeth. Shifting in her chair, she automatically pulled the hem of her cognac wool skirt over her knees. The grin deepened in apparent appreciation of the shape that showed between her just-lowered skirt and matching pumps.
What was the matter with her? What did a little staring from a stranger matter?
Of course. Marsha would never discuss faculty matters in front of a stranger. That must be the explanation for her manner. But then why had Stewart acted so oddly last night?
“He’ll see you now, Carolyn. Come in,” Marsha said, emerging from the double doors to Stewart’s office.
“Carolyn! Come in. Come in, my dear!” With his pinstripe suit fitted precisely to his tall, rangy form and distinguished by white wings at the temples of his dark hair, Stewart Barron presented the perfect picture of a university president.
“Hello, Stewart.” She returned his hug with vigor, but watched him closely as he resumed his seat behind the mahogany desk. “How are you feeling today?”
“Me?” He waved aside the irrelevancy. “The question is, how are you? You’re the one who’s returned from adventuring, seeing the wide world. And—” his voice deepened to an ominous note “—the one who wasn’t supposed to report to work for another five days. Haven’t you heard of jet lag? You should be collapsed in bed somewhere.”
“I’m not the type for the vapors,” she answered with mock indignation. “There’s no cause for me to take to my bed.”
At least he didn’t look as lost or alone as he had last spring. Carolyn sat back in her chair. He’d insisted she go to the seminar; still, she’d worried about leaving him alone less than a year after Elizabeth’s death.
Well, not alone, precisely. Everyone at Ashton cared about him. And Elizabeth’s cousin Helene, who’d helped nurse her over the final months, stayed on to help with his social obligations. But Helene was so different from Stewart, and Carolyn worried he’d miss talking to someone who could share his concerns about Ashton.
“I wasn’t referring to having the vapors, and you’ll note I didn’t say
“Stewart.” She clicked her tongue in feigned disapproval. “Someday you’re going to say something like that in front of the wrong person, and they’re going to think you’re trying to encourage me into a hedonistic life.”
“I am.” He slid his dark-framed glasses back onto his nose. “Maybe that would balance the twenty-eight years of seriousness you’ve lived so far. Dedicated teachers don’t always have to be serious, Carolyn. I wish I could convince you of that. Your parents knew it.” He looked over the top of his glasses at her.
He always did that when he wanted to make a particular point, Carolyn thought—as if he believed he could see her reaction more clearly without the magnification of the lenses. Strangely enough, she believed he could.
She stood up and moved to the full-length window that looked out on the Meadow, an open grassy area framed by maples gathering color for a final, vibrant burst of Wisconsin autumn. Students strolled along paths that connected the Administration Building, the classroom buildings and the chapel. One young couple was stretched out on the grass, the girl’s head resting on the boy’s chest, and both stared up at puffs of white drifting across the blue.
The scene had formed part of her life for so many years, but today she seemed out of sync. She felt like someone trying to jump on a merry-go-round already in motion.
Maybe it came from missing the start of the school year.
No. She shouldn’t try to excuse it that way. In England she’d tried to put it down to longing for Ashton—plain old homesickness. But the feeling had poked at her even before the trip. Part of grieving for Elizabeth, she’d thought at first. Now she wasn’t so sure.
Whatever the cause, working hard would leave less time to fret about it. Barely conscious of her own sigh, Carolyn turned back and put the question directly, “What do you have planned for me, Stewart?”
“Since you’re so eager, the first thing is Homecoming this weekend.”
He ignored her half groan as she sank back into the chair. The informal tea Thursday afternoon, the parade and rally Friday, the Saturday football game, the evening’s dinner-dance, and Sunday’s farewell brunch made Homecoming a command performance for faculty members.
“You enjoy it. Admit it—even the football game,” he said.
Sheepishly she acknowledged a fondness for the hoopla. She was concerned that people would look askance at a professor who liked fight songs, cheers, tackles and touchdowns. “But I’ve already missed so much of this semester. I want to get started.”
Stewart removed his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose before replacing them. “You know it’s difficult with the semester already so advanced...”
She crossed her knees and waited for him to go on. He didn’t. “We discussed that before I went,” she reminded him. “We agreed the seminar would be worthwhile because of the opportunity.”
“Of course,” he acknowledged. “And since you’re one of the few from this country ever invited, I know several publications eager to have articles from you. That’s good exposure.”
I’ll need to write several. And the organizers asked me to contribute an essay for a collection they’re publishing, but now—”
Now she wanted to teach. She missed it. The prestige of the seminar, the essay, the articles—all those were things any professor should value. They helped advance her standing in the academic world. How many people had told her how proud her parents would have been? Those words were always a reassurance: she was on the right track. These people, who’d been her parents’ colleagues and now were hers, certainly valued her accomplishments. Lately, though, she’d found the accomplishments less satisfying than she’d expected.
“I’ll write in my spare time. Until I get my own classes next semester, I thought I’d guest-lecture for the English literature courses.” She leaned forward. “And if the graduate students—”
“That would be difficult, Carolyn. All the syllabuses are set, and you know how some of the professors get if anything interferes. Maybe next semester—”
“Next semester? I don’t want to wait—” Catching herself, she sat back with a conscious effort to stifle her disappointment. She couldn’t expect to be respected as a professional if she acted like a child. Knowing someone as long as she’d known Stewart, though, sometimes she expressed herself too emotionally. “What would I do the rest of this semester?”
As the words left her mouth, she wished she could snatch them back. She’d stepped into a trap. She wasn’t sure what kind, but his bland expression didn’t fool her. If he were a chess player, she’d say he’d just lined up the checkmate he’d been plotting.
“This is an unusual situation. Your department head wasn’t sure how to handle it, so he’s let me make arrangements. We can’t let you sit around, can we? It might be bad for morale.”
She sat up straighter. This was getting worse and worse.
Now he was cajoling. “What do you have in mind, Stewart?”
“There’s a group of students I want you to work with, Carolyn. A special group.”
Oh, Lord, please, not house-mother, she pleaded to herself.
“About ten or eleven,” Steward continued. “It won’t be as impressive on your resume as the seminar, but you don’t need any help there. And it would be interdepartmental—not only English.”
Carolyn relaxed. Ten or eleven. That might not be so bad. And working across departmental lines might be interesting. Perhaps a short break to try something a little different wouldn’t hurt. It might provide an antidote for this restlessness.
Stewart Barron’s glasses dropped down his nose just enough for him to peer at her. “I’ve assigned you as academic adviser to the men’s basketball team.”
Her first inclination to chuckle faded at the look on his face. He was serious. “The basketball team!”
“It’s something Coach Draper and I have decided—”
“The basketball team!” Something a little different, yes. But this was outlandish. “I’m a professor. I teach. English. Literature. I don’t want to assist some ridiculous game!”
“You like the football
“That’s because the board isn’t trying to ‘upgrade’ football. So far the Ashton
players are still students—”
players are students—”
The single word stopped her.
“They’re students,” he repeated, “at Ashton University. As such, they deserve the best education we can deliver. I know your opinion of the board’s decision to return to top-division competition in basketball.”