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Chapter 1

Laura swung her BMW into the Civic Auditorium’s parking lot and cut the engine. Reaching for her red leather purse, she scanned the bulk mail flyer that lay on her dashboard.

 

Asheville Speaker’s Forum, October 14th

11 AM in the Civic Center’s Rector Auditorium

Dr. Ralph Jenkins: Other Lives, Other Loves

Sponsored by Greater Asheville Alpha Club

Reception Preceding the Presentation

 

When she saw Emily Forley pull in next to her, Laura shoved the flyer back onto her dashboard, locked her car, and got out to join her friend.

“I don’t know why I let you talk me into going to this Speaker’s Forum this morning, Emily,” Laura said as the two strolled into the Auditorium. “It better not last long, though. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at one.”

“Laura Ellen Bouvoire, you’re always in a rush. You need to slow down.”

“How?” Laura wrinkled her brow. “I should be spending this morning getting ready for the night class of Dr. Anderson’s I promised to take over.”

“I didn’t know you’d committed to do that. I was asked, but I declined.”

“Dr. Hardwick twisted my arm. Anyway, I didn’t think it would hurt to be in the good graces of the English Department Chair when I’m up for tenure. When I accepted, Dr. Hardwick was pleased. Besides, I’ll be paid for it as overload.”

Inside the lobby, Emily looked around. “I think we got here too late to help our Alpha Club serve the punch. Looks like the refreshment tables have already been cleared.”

“Then why don’t I just skip the talk? Would you mind? I’m really not interested in hearing about past lives.”

“Oh, come on. It won’t hurt you.” Emily motioned Laura toward a row of empty seats. “Friend of mine heard this same speaker last month in Knoxville. She said he talks a lot about art. That’s what I’m here for.”

Sitting near the front of the auditorium, Laura drummed her fingers on the chair arm as the speaker read a poem. With her mind mulling over her doctor’s appointment, she found it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying.

“...If you will look now at the program, you can read the poem for yourself.” The speaker paused while programs rustled. “There is no doubt Dylan Leone Gordon intended these lines of ‘Sudden Life’ to convey his belief that he would reunite with his beloved in another life.”

Yawning, Laura glanced at the program.

 

You will be mine again, my all,

Though at what time I yet do not know;

So when death’s black veil does finally fall

Think not that we part; ‘tis not so.

Our souls, eternally joined, shall search o’er the earth

Until united again they find joy in new birth.

 

Laura leaned toward Emily and whispered, “I’ve taught a couple of Gordon’s poems in my British Lit classes, but I’ve never read this one.”

“Me neither,” Emily murmured. “Never heard of it, but the Victorian poets are not my field. Just be quiet and listen.”

Laura fidgeted in her seat as the speaker read the poem aloud.

“We will now examine a painting of Gordon’s. Many people are not aware that Gordon was a well-known artist. In fact, in the nineteenth century, he led the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Could we have the lights dimmed, please?” The speaker moved to the side of the stage and continued talking.

“I don’t know anything about art, Emily,” she whispered. “I’m going to leave now while this auditorium is darkened.”

“Suit yourself, Laura.”

As Laura gathered her purse and prepared to leave, a slide appeared on a large screen. Her eyes were drawn to the face of a woman looking out at her. She dropped back into the seat.

She stared at the painting. And stared. And stared again. Red-gold hair, its color a cross between wild honey and fresh molasses, massed about the woman’s shoulders, straight and full. Luminous eyes seemed to peer out at her, questioning. Like a delicate rose, the body rested against an arching chaise. Illumined by an almost celestial light, the face in the painting was oddly familiar, the hair the same color as Laura’s, but longer. Then she noticed the brooch on a simple black ribbon around the woman’s neck. At the center of the brooch was a large purplish stone edged in what looked like seed pearls.

Laura sat perfectly still.

She felt something prickling at her. Like porcupine quills.

She looked again at the woman’s portrait. Another slide appeared on an adjacent screen. The same face blazed out at her. The same brooch. An amethyst? She stopped, frozen in her puzzlement, totally oblivious to the speaker’s words. Laura thought an almost mystical aura emanated from the paintings. Her fingers rubbed at her scalp.

She turned back to the first painting, mesmerized, her eyes transfixed on the brooch at the woman’s throat. Something about it stirred a strange sensation.

The speaker’s voice sounded distant and garbled in her ears.

Drawing in a ragged breath, she shifted on the seat, her hands moving erratically. Her program dropped to the floor.

When the lights came back up, Laura stood, her legs rubbery. “I’m going now, Emily. I’ll see you on campus tomorrow.”

“Are you feeling bad, Laura? Your face is white as a sheet.”

Laura blinked her eyes in rapid succession. “N-no,” she stammered as she slid past her friend and into the aisle.

Swinging her BMW out of the Civic Center parking lot, Laura pulled into the stream of cars on Haywood and turned on the radio. Provoked at the clogged lanes of traffic, she prepared to make the awkward turn onto Hiawassee Street. Dr. Greene’s office was a good six blocks from here. She didn’t even have time to get lunch. As the traffic inched along, her palms felt cold and clammy on the steering wheel. What a strange talk that Jenkins guy gave, she reflected. Bunch of nonsense. Silly and weird. In a creepy way. And those two paintings... With jittery fingers, she turned up the radio’s volume when she recognized the song, “Sentimental Journey,” wafting through the speakers.

Nearing the Professional Arts Building where her doctor’s office was located, Laura shook back her hair and lowered the windows. A gust of wind whipped through her car, lifting the bulk mail flyer from its perch on her dashboard. She watched it fly out the right front window, float for a moment in the breeze, then fall in its descent to a puddle of water on the road’s shoulder. Overhead, she saw shadowy forms move among the gathering clouds, forms that looked like spider webs under the dropping canopy.

* * * *

“Laura Bouvoire,” called a pert receptionist above the swish of magazine pages in the waiting room.

Still shaken over her odd reaction to the Gordon paintings, Laura rose and stepped toward the sliding glass pane, eyeing the small sign to its right.

Associates for Women’s Health Infertility Clinic

“Dr. Greene will see you in his office now. First door beyond examining room 6. On the left.”

Laura strode briskly into Greene’s office. Seating herself across from his massive desk, she summoned a smile.

“Your lab reports from the tests last week look good, Laura. I must tell you, however, that as a forty-three year-old single woman seeking in-vitro fertilization, you are somewhat farther down the waiting list than, say a twenty or thirty year-old married woman would be.”

She clasped a hand to her mouth. “I am concerned about the wait,” she offered. “I just want to get pregnant and have a baby before it’s too late. I’m not getting any younger.”

Dr. Greene stroked his chin and frowned. “You realize, don’t you, that we might have to try the fertilized egg implants two or three times?”

“Yes, I’ve read all the literature you gave me at my initial visit here.” Laura chewed the corner of her lip. “Does the cost accommodate the repeat attempts of implantation?”

“We have different payment plans. They range from ten thousand to fifteen thousand dollars depending upon the number of IVF attempts. Our costs here in Asheville, however, are considerably less than in many other parts of the country.”

Suppressing a gasp, she sputtered, “Will that include the medication to make my ovaries produce more eggs?”

“Yes, it does. And the two weeks of Lupron before that. But your health insurance does not cover this procedure.”

Laura’s shoulders sagged.

“Have you considered how difficult raising a child as a single parent can be?”

“Oh yes, Dr. Greene. I’ve thought that through many times, but I know I can do it.”

“And you’re going to continue to teach at Cherokee College?”

“Yes, definitely. I’m up for tenure this next spring.” I have to work, she wanted to shout, but Greene didn’t need to know that. It might jeopardize her chances with his Clinic’s accepting her for the embryo implants. “And when I'm granted tenure, I’ll be in a more secure position, financially. As a single parent.”

Dr. Greene peered at her over his rimless glasses. “Babies require a lot of time, you know. Women over forty often don’t have the same amount of endurance, physically or emotionally, to cope with the demands of an infant or a toddler.”

“You’ve told me I’m as physically fit as a thirty-year-old.”

“That’s true. I’m just exploring all the options, Laura. The evaluation committee that makes the ultimate decision on accepting any woman as an IVF candidate looks at the total picture. Their criteria, especially in cases like yours when the IVF involves an anonymous sperm donor, are as strict as those governing adoption.” He paused, then leveled his gaze on her. “You’ve indicated your parents are deceased, but do you have any other family in town who could help out with the babysitting while you teach?”

“No, but the college has an excellent Day Care Center for its faculty and staff.”

“That's a plus.”

A nurse stepped into the room. “Dr. Greene, sorry to interrupt, but the Emergency Room at St. Joseph is on line three.”

Laura twisted her hands in her lap as he spoke on the phone.

“I have to leave now, Laura. Just let me know your decision when you’ve had time to weigh all the factors,” he said, his expression noncommittal.

“My decision is made. I definitely want the IVF. I just have to work out a couple of financial details.”

“I do know your character references are excellent,” Greene said. “I’ll see what I can do to expedite the committee’s evaluation.”

Her heart was in her throat as she walked through the crowded waiting room full of swollen-bellied women who were obviously much younger than Laura. Avoiding their curious stares, she lifted her chin and fixed a look of determination on her face.

Exiting the building, she noticed the clouds had dissipated and given way to a harsh glare of midday sun. She sighed as she thought of how much she really had her hopes set on being pregnant and having a baby to hold in her arms, a baby she could love and nurture and protect. But coming up with that kind of money was going to present more of a challenge than she had anticipated.

As she drove out of the city and headed north on Highway 25 toward Country Club Road, the one fact she could not deny—that her biological clock was ticking—pressed into her like daggers. Tick, tick, tick…

* * * *

Laura braked at the stop sign beside the college’s pillared entrance and glanced at the overhead banner that had been placed there for Parents’ Weekend.

Cherokee College of North Carolina

Serving the TarHeel State Since 1872

As she eased her car into a slot in the faculty parking lot and cut the engine, she grimaced at the fuel gauge that hovered near empty. She’d been so rushed to get everything together for this class of Dr. Anderson’s she agreed to take over, she’d forgotten to stop for gas. She really did not want an additional class, but Hardwick was desperate for someone to fill in for Anderson after the poor old guy suffered a debilitating stroke last week. So she’d consented. Her extra pay for overload would make at least a small dent toward the IVF expenses.

Pulling her briefcase from the back seat, she locked her car and headed toward the Wright Building. She cleared her throat and strode up the stairs to Room 212, rehearsing in her mind how she would introduce herself.

“...Professor Anderson had to leave the college because of a serious illness. I’m taking over his classes.” Laura surveyed the filled room and continued. “I’ve changed the assignments somewhat as you’ll note on the new syllabus I’ll give you in just a moment.” Looking out at her charges, she studied the faces that gazed at her with puzzlement, with indifference. Summoning her most convincing voice, she added, “If you have any questions about what is expected of you, please feel free to ask.” She let her face soften into a smile.

“How long do these papers we write for you have to be?” a hesitant voice from the center row asked.

“As long as is necessary to adequately develop the topic,” Laura answered.

“Are you going to make us write those position papers in class like Mr. Anderson did?” queried a red-haired girl from the back row. Her banana-sized earrings bobbed with the rapid motion of her jaws cracking gum.

“Sometimes. You'll write one later tonight, as a matter of fact.” She heard groans.

The sound of murmurs filled the classroom as she walked between the rows of seats, handing each occupant a copy of her syllabus. Returning to the front, she stood before her desk.

A freckle-faced girl waved a hand at her. “Do we have to read them litatur books you’ve got listed on here? Our other professor didn’t have that.” Insolence laced her voice.

“Poems and plays, yes.”

“But nobody does that in a composition class,” the girl protested.

Laura ignored her remark and nodded at a tall, gangly young man who stuck his arm in the air.

“I play basketball for this college and I don’t got no time to read.” He shot her a challenging look.

“You might have to make time,” Laura replied. “Now if you can hold the rest of your questions until later, I need to make out a seating chart. So I can match names with faces.” Had Dr. Anderson been this easy on his students? She knew he’d been burned out from teaching for forty years, but not to that extent. Carrying a clipboard, she drew her herself up and walked between the two aisles nearest the window, filling in names as she stopped at each seat.

Returning to her desk, she passed a man seated on the fourth row, his head bent low over a book, his hand busy writing in a spiral ring notebook. He hadn’t been there before. He must have slipped in unnoticed while she was at the back of the room, she reflected as she walked toward his seat and pulled a syllabus from beneath her clipboard.

He raised his head and spoke softly. “Thanks. Sorry I wasn’t here earlier.” He took the paper from her hand.

She stared at his face and did a double take. He looked strangely familiar. Like someone she might have known at some time. She drew in a sharp breath. “I...I’m Ms. Bouvoire,” she began as a floating sensation washed over her. “I’ve taken over for your former professor who is ill.”

“I’m sorry to hear Dr. Anderson’s sick. Will he be back?”

“No.” She watched as his eyes seemed to scrutinize her. Her skirt felt suddenly too tight, her hair too mussed. She gestured toward her clipboard. “What is your name? I...I need it for the seating chart.” She gripped her pencil.

“Dante L. Giovanni.”

Laura recorded the name then scooted away. She looked back at him, feeling her face flush when she realized his gaze followed her. Walking behind her desk, she fumbled with her seating chart. When she stood before the full class, she made a concerted effort to avoid looking at the man who called himself Dante. Puzzled at the curious tightness in her chest, she plunged into her lecture. When she did steal a glance in his direction, she noticed he appeared to be totally absorbed in what she said.

During the class break, Laura fielded more questions from a swarm of students clustered around her desk. Most of their concerns had to do with how hard she would grade. Oh well, she reasoned, this is, after all, an often-dreaded required course. Thirsty, she walked downstairs to the lounge and poured coffee into a Styrofoam cup. On her way back to her classroom, she saw the man named Dante standing near the end of the hall studying a bulletin board. She took stock of him as she sipped her coffee. He was tall and broad-shouldered and with his heavy crow-black hair and chiseled features could have come straight from the cover of a romance novel, but for this dizzying notion she knew him from somewhere.

He turned toward her, then abruptly faced the other direction.

She pretended to read a second semester course schedule tacked to the opposite end of the bulletin board. When she looked over at him, she saw he was gazing intently at her. A flicker of recognition crossed his face and she was sure he was about to make the connection that she could not. She thought she noticed an almost angry look about him as a muscle knotted in his jaw above the open-collared tan shirt he wore. Once or twice, he started to speak, but quickly turned his head aside.

Then he faced her.

She just stood there like a post.

Laura realized she was staring at Dante. He looked like a young Apollo. Sculpted. Graceful. Virile. Commanding. She noticed the powerful tension in his stance.

She forced herself to turn away from him. Her breath erratic, she headed back to her classroom, holding on to the railing to keep from staggering up the stairs.

Hearing his footsteps behind her near the entrance to her classroom, she mulled over how she could tactfully ask him if they’d met before.

She took her place behind her desk, puzzled at her reaction to this student. She watched Dante seat himself, nod at her, then glance about the room as if trying to judge its occupants.

Laura busied her hands arranging paper clips and pencils on her desk, replaying in her mind how he’d closed the distance between the door and his seat. Except for the faintest trace of a limp in his gait, he moved with a grace uncommon to one with such a long stride.

She saw the room had filled. As she explained the short writing assignment her students were to complete in the remaining time, she was conscious his eyes searched hers. There was something unsettling about the intensity of those deep-set mahogany eyes, and she found it difficult to focus on any of the other students.

Startled at her unnerving response to this man, she struggled to maintain her train of thought.

While her students wrote, Laura walked up and down the aisles checking their progress. Each time she passed Dante, she was struck with the eerie certainty that she had seen him before. Maybe on one of her summer vacations at Provincetown? Or on the Maine seashore? Seems like there’d been a man Dante resembled who was in charge of a whale-watching cruise she’d taken there two years ago.

Ninety minutes later she dismissed the class. After the room emptied, he continued to write, his face skewed in concentration. She found her gaze drifting to his hair, black like the inky black of a starless night. When finally he stood, she fingered the edge of her sweater as he approached her desk. With each step he took toward her, a sound like waves crashing against a shoreline filled her ears.

Shaking it off, she took the essay he handed her and placed it on top of the stack. “What does the initial L. in your name stand for?”

“Lorenzo.”

“Dante Lorenzo Giovanni...” She listened as her voice held on to the melodious sounds, drawing them slowly across her tongue, letting them linger in the air.

Worrying her lower lip, Laura looked down. That was stupid, asking him that, she chastised herself. Why did she care what his initial stood for?

Under her breath, she repeated the lilting sound of his name as she watched him move toward the door. When she reached for her briefcase, she noticed him turn and walk back to her desk. He opened his mouth, then closed it.

She looked back down and scooped the stack of student papers into her briefcase. “Can I help you with anything?” Feigning nonchalance, she raised her head and saw his forehead furrow above heavy brows, thick and black and knife-edge straight. She stood, turned and grabbed an eraser from its perch beside the blackboard, and clasped it in her right fist. His proximity was making her heart thud.

He shuffled his books into his left hand, laid the stack on her desk. “About being late,” he began, “it’s sometimes a problem for me.” He shifted his weight, as though he were watching for her reaction.

“What kind of problem?” Her fingers tightened about the eraser.

“It’s hard for me to get here by six o’clock when this class starts.” His hand hovered, motionless, by her desk. “I don’t get off work till five-thirty and then I try to grab a bite to eat before I drive here,” she heard him saying. “Dr. Anderson explained to us about the English department’s attendance policy in these once-a-week night classes. He said two tardies equals an absence and after two absences, there’s automatic failure. He never checked roll, though.” He shifted again. “I gather from what you stated earlier tonight that persistent tardiness can jeopardize a grade. I can’t leave work early—”

“I think we can work things out,” she interrupted, her left hand fidgeting with the clasp on her briefcase, her right hand still clutching the eraser. Why had she told him that? She’d never before let students get away with coming in late. Tough luck if they couldn’t manage to get to class on time. Anyone teaching freshman English courses knew better than to accept verbal excuses from students. Departmental policy was departmental policy. Anderson was tenured since year one anyway and he didn’t have to worry about upholding policy.

Observing his apparent unease, she summoned a smile. “Just be sure to tell me, during class or after, why you’ve been late.” She hoped her words assured him.

His face relaxed.

She glanced down at the worn black shoes protruding from beneath his dark slacks then back up at his eyes. “Do you work here in Asheville?”

An amused expression crossed his face. “Yeah. At Bennet’s Computer Sales and Service.”

Loosening her grip on the eraser, she leaned against her desk and twisted the lock on her briefcase.

“I repair computers. And office machines. Sometimes I have to stay late to finish up a job.” He gave her an appraising look. “I have to put in a lot of overtime. To pay tuition.”

The eraser slipped from her hand to the floor. She watched his profile sharpen as he bent to pick it up, glancing quizzically at her.

“Thank you,” she managed to get out as he placed the eraser in her hand.

At the feathery touch of his fingers on her palm, Laura felt her cheeks grow warm.

“Appreciate your consideration. I’ll try not to be late any more than I absolutely have to.”

When he reached for his books, Laura noticed the title on the spine of one paperback buried between the class text and a tattered dictionary. “Are you taking a literature class?” she asked, leaning back against the wall. She knew this course was a pre-requisite to any Cherokee College lit classes.

“No, not this semester. Why?”

“I saw that copy of Billy Budd there with your other books. It’s required reading in American Lit here.”

“Oh, that.” He beamed. “Naw, I’m just reading it for my own enjoyment.”

“What got you interested in Melville?” Gesturing toward the thin paperback, she smiled as his steady gaze scorched through her.

“Interested in who?”

“Melville. Herman Melville—the author of that book.”

“Wasn’t the author. Just the fact the story’s set onboard a ship. On the open seas.”

“Do you like sea stories?” Something vague and misty snaked through the back of her mind as she studied his reaction.

“Yeah, I do. My grandfather spent his whole life on a river barge. On the Mississippi. He used to tell me about—I know that’s pretty far removed from the open sea, but...” His face colored as if he realized he’d said too much.

“Did you study this book in high school or somewhere?” she queried, trying to contain her enthusiasm. Billy Budd was no easy book to read.

“Nope. Never heard of it till a week ago when I saw it at my parish’s rummage sale.”

“Would you like to discuss it sometime?” she asked tentatively. “After you’ve finished it?”

“Well, yeah. I’d like that. It’s a pretty deep story.”

She remembered the grumbling from the other students tonight when she’d told the class they would be doing a lot of reading. Litatur, the young girl called it. “You just let me know when you’ve finished it.”

Looking around the room, he turned back toward her. Then he suddenly seemed to draw into himself. He switched his books to his other arm and moved toward the door.

Something imperceptible stabbed at Laura. She rubbed her arms and tried to ignore the shiver skittering down her spine.

Midway, he stopped, then returned to her side.

“I don’t think I did too well on this position paper tonight. I have a real problem writing anyway, but the pressure of doing it in a limited time makes it worse. Kept changing my mind on the issue and that slowed me way down.”

“That’s not unusual,” she answered. “Like Forester said, ‘How do I know what I feel until I see what I say?’ You just have to keep getting your ideas down until you see which direction you’re going to take. After that—”

The red-haired girl with the banana-sized earrings who had been cracking her gum earlier during class burst into the room, interrupting Laura’s explanation.

“Ms. Bouvoire, did you see a purse back there? Oh, never mind, here it is under the seat.” The girl grabbed her purse and ran out the door.

When Laura looked back around, the man was gone. Annoyed at the girl’s timing, she ran her hand slowly over the paper he’d given her, pondering her disarming reaction to him. She wished she could will him back into the room. She wanted to reassure him. He sounded so earnest and she wanted to talk more to him about what he’d read. A student who reads unassigned classics? That, she thought, is a twist. On the other hand, he could be just a skilled brown nose. But that timeless Rhett Butler appeal about him, enough to knock any woman off her feet, was no ploy.

Jerking up her stuffed briefcase, she glanced at the clock high on a wall near the door. It was nearly nine-forty. By the time she got home, it would be close to eleven.

Laura raced out of the room, passed in the corridor a door marked Off Limits, and traipsed down the stairwell.

Outside on the walk she breathed in the night air, autumn crisp and bracing like an astringent tonic. She looked up at the sky and tilted her head back, taking in another deep breath. Please, God, let the evaluation committee at that Infertility Clinic approve me as a candidate for in-vitro fertilization. I want a baby and I can’t wait too much longer.

Above the glow of the streetlights, she watched the canopy of clouds dip and sway like the slow, balletic, underwater movements of whales.

* * * *

“How’s it going, Big D? Didja knock ’em dead in your class last night?”

Surprised to see his eighteen-year-old apprentice when he came back to his workroom at Bennet’s, Dante shrugged. “Naw, I didn’t knock anyone dead. But what’re you doing here now? I told you I had to be out all afternoon on deliveries.”

“I just thought I’d try to help you put some of these machines back together.”

“I’m beat right now, Scott. I gotta relax a minute before I get started. I came back here last night after my class let out. Stayed and worked pretty late catching up. Slept back there on that cot instead of driving the twenty miles back to my trailer.” Dante reached into his pocket and extracted two quarters, walked to a vending machine near the door, slid in the quarters, retrieved the soda, and carried it toward a torn vinyl chair. Plopping down on the hard seat, he exhaled deeply, popped the lid from the can and took a long swallow.

Scott swaggered across the room, his thumbs hooked over his belt. “Lemme help, anyway. I ain’t tired. Slept late and cut my classes this morning at the vocational school. Shot a few games of pool after lunch.” He reached for a screwdriver and headed toward a disassembled printer. “I still don’t see why you wanna hack that college stuff.”

Dante frowned and laid his head back on the chair, wondering if he could really cope with the four college classes on top of his fifty-hour workweek. Gripping the cold can in his hand, he leveled his eyes on Scott. “Well, someday you may decide to go to college.” He took another swallow. “When I was a teenager I thought, like you do, it’d be a waste of time.” Dante’s voice caught in his throat as a memory of something unpleasant tore at the edge of his mind. “My life was pretty messed up back then. I couldn’t have afforded college anyway, even if I’d had the grades to get in.” He looked up at the ceiling. “I’m thirty years old, Scott, and saddled with a mountain of bills and debts from my mother’s illness and funeral expenses. If I don’t get a college degree and land a better paying job, I’ll be grubbing to pay bills till the day I die. That’s why I started college this fall. I’m working myself to death to get out of this rut.”

“Okay, man.” Scott hitched up his jeans and pulled out the toner cartridge. “You make good money here, don’t you?”

Dante’s face turned somber at Scott’s remark. “No more than the average Joe Blow. If I hadn’t wasted time fooling around when I was your age, I’d be a lot better off today.”

“So what kindda job you aiming to get when you get through college?”

“I want to be a mechanical engineer.”

Scott whistled. “I bet they make cow piles of money.”

Dante rose, trudged to a corner of the room, and turned on a small fan. “It’s always stuffy up here on this second floor,” he muttered. He undid the top two buttons on his shirt and stood before the fan, letting the air cool his face and neck. After a moment he returned his attention to Scott. “We had a new teacher in my English class last night. She seems like she’ll be a lot better than the other old guy was. He got sick.”

“You mean you got a woman prof now?”

“Yep. And boy she’s a looker, too.” He narrowed his lips, remembering the unsettling feeling that’d gripped him when he first saw her last night in that classroom. What was behind the gut-wrenching sensation that came over him when he saw her watching him during the class break? Fear? Anger? “Yeah, she’s a real looker, except she seems like she don’t eat much,” he continued. “Kinda fragile looking.” He shook his head and drank more of the soda. “But sultry, too.”

“If she’s good looking, that oughtta make English more interesting.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” He swept his eyes about the cramped workroom, finished off the soda, then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I didn’t want to have to take a writing course, but it’s a requirement. I never could write worth crap.” His brows drew together as he tapped the empty can with his finger. “This Bouvoire woman seems really concerned about helping her students.”

He smashed the can in his hand and tossed it into a wastebasket. “She also said she’ll require a lot of reading.” He felt a smile surge over his face as he stared out the narrow window at the swarming streets below. “Problem is, she don’t let class out early. It’s hard keeping up with all this work and studying and going to class at night.”

“You must think it’s gonna be worth it to drive yourself this hard.”

“Yep. Nothing’s gonna stop me.” Dante heaved a sigh and drew his fingers through his hair. “Here, let me show you how to do that. This machine’s gotta be finished by six so I’ll have time to drop it by the photography studio before they close.” He moved to the disassembled computer lying scattered beside the printer on the worktable. “I gotta be at the St. Gerard Home at seven to take a little boy out bowling.”

“What’s the St. Gerard Home?”

“A shelter home for abused kids that’s run by my Catholic Church. St. Gerard was the patron saint of children.”

The two worked in silence, Scott listening to a rap song that blasted out of the headphones he placed on his ears. As the Pepsi's caffeine coursed through Dante’s body, his energy returned. His hands moved over the computer parts in rote motions, his fingers flying, deft, assured, his thoughts whirling over his new English prof. Words rolled off her tongue like popcorn out of a machine. Come to think of it, she was kindda arrogant acting. Especially at the start of her lecture. He had to admit, though, not as snooty as some of his college profs. He slipped in a motherboard, stopped, rubbed his temples. He was in his element here, he reminded himself. Knew what he was doing. Wish he felt that confident about all this college stuff. His forehead creased.

He guided Scott’s fingers through a delicate maneuver to replace a CD Rom. Funny how he felt when he’d seen that Bouvoire woman. It was like he’d known her somewhere. Must be that hair of hers. Had a hunch he’d seen it before. Golden reddish. No two people could possibly have hair that color. It reminded him of rich dark honey. The kind of silky hair that made a man want to run his fingers through it. But why that vague, unsettling sense of anger or whatever it was he’d experienced when he’d thought she looked familiar? Not anger at her, but at himself, for some reason. Odd. It felt like…regret.

Dante tagged the computer Finished, poked Scott on the shoulder. “That about wraps it up. Thanks for your help.”

“See ya later, then, Big D.” Scott sauntered toward the door. “You want me to carry this thing outside to the delivery van?”

“Naw, you go on. I’ll get it. I’m just gonna deliver it in my car so’s I can get on over and pick up that little boy.” He knew he needed to be doing research for a physics paper tonight, but he couldn’t let Sammy down. Sammy was counting on him.

He lifted the machine and followed as Scott bolted down the steps. Going out the back door, Dante placed the computer into the trunk of his Pinto. He pulled out his keys and locked up the building, grimacing as he heard the roar of a muffler and the squeal of tires as Scott gunned his car out of the lot behind Bennet’s.

A scene tiptoed across his mind’s eye, startling Dante. The Bouvoire woman. Water lapping at her bare feet.

He shrugged and got into his Pinto.

 

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Excerpted Material 2004 by Marsha Briscoe, All Rights Reserved


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